Venice, An Interior – Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

The magnificent Grand Canal. The majestic palaces lining the waterfront, glinting in the sun. The iconic St. Mark’s Square. The picturesque gondolas gently swaying on the swell of the canal waters. The ethereal, mystical natural light that emanates from within, with its power to hypnotize. These hallmarks define the very essence of Venice, ‘the’ city I had been to exactly a decade ago, and which I hope to revisit someday.

Venice is a picture postcard city, a magnet for tourists all over the world who descend on it in hordes every year. It’s a place that has enthralled and transfixed many a traveller. It certainly occupied a special place in the heart of the Spanish author Javier Marías who between December 1984 and October 1989 flew to Venice fourteen times.

At barely 55 pages, Venice, An Interior is the author’s own fascinating perspective on what makes this city so unique. He begins with an interesting piece on the people of Venice…

Let us begin with what you don’t see, perhaps the only thing that isn’t on show, whose existence seems improbable and, to the visitor, almost impossible. People who live in Venice!

Mirroring the trend in major cities around the world, a lot of the city’s inhabitants have migrated to the suburbs – in this case to the working class district of Mestre, a few miles away from the main city. There are a few who are rooted in the city though. But they are not easy to spot in the typical tourist sites because they hardly go out much. Indeed, Marías notes…

Their indifference and lack of curiosity about anything other than themselves and their ancestors has no equivalent in even the most inward-turning of villages in the northern hemisphere.

Venetians are aware that their space is shrinking fast, and while travellers will not spot them on café terraces enjoying a drink like the rest of them, they might be seen at well-known spots such as Café Florian at ungodly hours where they can enjoy moments of quiet because the tourists are fast asleep. They also tend to congregate in places that seem unalluring to the average traveller.

Another enticing idea that Marías puts forth is how Venice is an unchanging city, or as he likes to call it – seeing it from the point of view of eternity. The essence of Venice has hardly changed, not just in two hundred and fifty years but in almost five hundred. He claims that Venice is the only city in the world whose past you do not have to glimpse or intuit or guess at because it’s there before you. In other words, its past appearance is also its present appearance. In turns this means that its future is also right there on display. Marias’ impressions are anchored on his sojourn in the city in the 1980s, and based on my recollections of Venice in 2011 (more than twenty years later), much of what he has written struck a chord.

Thus, Venice’s past can’t really be set against an identical, known future…but instead against its threat of disappearance. These threats take the shape of the aqua alta in the winter that floods the city and increases the chances of Venice sinking into the sea. Or the proliferation of algae at the bottom of the lagoon, which attracts dense clouds of mosquitoes.

Venice also provokes two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it is a very harmonious city. Its persona – the canals, the luminous open space, the misty corners with or without the water – are inherently unique to Venice and cannot be glimpsed anywhere else in the world. And yet, paradoxically, few cities seem more spread out and more fragmented giving the impression of utter isolation.

Marías points out to Venice’s “endless imaginary fragmentation.” For instance, Venice has six districts…each emanates similar vibes characteristic of the entire city, but at the same time each of them has its own distinctive flavor that makes it quite different from the others. So much so that Venetians living in one area of any district may have no idea of what’s happening in another area in that very district let alone elsewhere. In other words, a fragment or a slice of a larger Venice can be seen in most corners of the city, and yet those corners are also unique in their own way.

To cite another example, travellers might wander along the Grand Canal, only to make a detour towards an inner part of the city. They might come across a church and feel themselves transported to another world, to another place in their mind, when in reality they are only a couple of steps away from a very well-known landmark.

This idea of an imaginary space is beautifully conveyed by Marías …

To say that Venice is an interior is a possible summation of everything I have said so far. It means that that it is self-sufficient, that it has no need of anything outside itself…the narrow becomes wide, the near becomes far, the limited becomes infinite, the identical becomes distinct, the timeless becomes transient.

Venice is also a city of contradictions. The buildings on the canal denote beauty and glamour, but look further down, and the canal depths appear murky…the rot and decay of the lower parts of the buildings as the water laps against them, is amply visible.

But there is no doubt that Venice is a strange and enchanting place – its labyrinth of blind alleys (the sense of getting lost in them is immensely pleasurable), its pearly green canals and its imaginary spaces are a source of wonder and awe for any traveller. Given that international travel is well-nigh impossible right now, it felt wonderful to get lost in this gorgeous account of an equally gorgeous city. This slim volume definitely turned out to be a lovely palate cleanser in between some intense reads.

A Month of Reading – January 2021

Here’s what I read in January – a mix of translated literature, early 20th century lit and a fascinating memoir. It was a superb reading month, and I thought all the books were terrific. Indeed, a great start to 2021. It was also one of those rare months where I wrote reviews on every book I read.

So, without much ado, here are the books. For the detailed reviews, you can click on the links.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

This is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. This is an important book that needs to be read despite the brutal subject matter.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek.

All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

A poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a deeply moving novel that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. I loved this one.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

That’s it for January.  I have started this month with L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Plus, February is dedicated to #ReadIndies hosted by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I have some books I plan to read published by indies such as Archipelago Books, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Charco Press to name a few.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  

Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.

In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.

An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?

“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”

The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.

This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.

I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…

We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.

Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.

Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.

What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.

So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.

González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

A Month of Reading – November 2020

November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.

But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. 

CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING by Julia Strachey

Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine

This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.

THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)

Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.  

THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer

A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.

As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.

The Best of the Blues – Fitzcarraldo Editions

One of my favourite UK based independent publisher is Fitzcarraldo Editions, which specializes in publishing contemporary literature, a combination of translated lit and those with English as the original language. What distinguishes them are the covers – plain and simple, and yet stylish and striking. These covers come in two colours – Blue (for fiction), and White (for non-fiction, typically essay collections). I have read only the ‘Blues’ so far, and these are some of them that I have loved and would recommend.  

Of course, this list will evolve and change, as I keep reading more of their books, and also begin delving into the ‘Whites.’

POND by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond is an intriguing book, an absorbing and lyrical work, and can be interpreted as either a short story collection or a novel with chapters of varying length, all with the same protagonist. Some of these chapters are just one page, others run into twenty pages. Essentially, the book dwells on the thoughts of a woman living by herself in a rented cottage on the west coast of Ireland as she ponders over the pleasures and pitfalls of a life in solitude.  Bennett has flair for making poetic observations about mundane, everyday life, and at the same time also creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. This was the first book that I read from the Fitzcarraldo catalogue, and since then I have always kept an eye on their new releases, which are always interesting and well worth exploring.

THE DOLL’S ALPHABET by Camilla Grudova

The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories, each fantastical, and weird but in a good way. Here’s how the first story ‘Unstitching’ opens:

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

Another strong story ‘Agata’s Machine’, is a tale of two eleven year olds – the narrator and Agata, who is a genius excelling in maths and science. One day, Agata shows a sewing machine in her attic to the narrator, and for days on end both the girls are mesmerized by it.  This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling. There is also a whiff of feminism in some of the stories, and an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

TELL THEM OF BATTLES, ELEPHANTS & KINGS by Mathias Enard (Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell)

I love Mathias Enard and pretty much plan to read everything he’s written. I was mesmerized by Compass, and the only reason why I have not included that book here is because I read the Open Letter edition.

But his shorter and latest work, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is also excellent. At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence. One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople. There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.

But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art. It is a short book and a great entry point into Enard’s work, if one is daunted by his bigger books.  

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes)

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. Set in the decrepit village of La Matosa in rural Mexico, the book begins when a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal, immediately identified as that of the Witch. The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

The murder of the Witch then forms the foundation upon which the bulk of the novel rests. We are presented with four main narratives which circle around and closer to her murder, providing more details as the novel progresses. But other the gruesome killing itself, Melchor highlights a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty, casual violence, and sexual abuse ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future.

Despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless.

THE OTHER NAME (SEPTOLOGY I-II) by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

I have been waxing eloquent about The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, one of my favourite books this year, and one which I will highlight again here. The Other Name 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.

As I write this, I have been reading another latest Fitzcarraldo Edition – The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, a novella that is less than 100 pages, and as fascinating as I expected. Maybe, it will join the list the next time I compile one.