Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns

My Barbara Comyns journey began with The Vet’s Daughter, a strange, off-kilter, brilliant book and I have not looked back after that. Since then I have read and loved The Juniper Tree and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (both reissued by NYRB Classics), but I’ll admit that seeking the rest of the Comyns catalogue has been an uphill task because many of them are out of print. Luckily, she has seen something of a revival in recent times with both Turnpike Books and Daunt Books reissuing some of her titles. I hope that trend continues. Meanwhile, Mr Fox was reissued last year by Turnpike, and as ever it was another excellent Comyns novel.

In terms of tone and style, Barbara Comyns’ Mr Fox is in many ways similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, one of my favourite books in 2020. Both books feature an inexperienced, young woman struggling to break away from the shackles of a bleak existence that makes for fascinating and absorbing reading.

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny.

She lives in an apartment in a building whose lease was handed down to her by her mother. Caroline sublets rooms in the building to an assortment of tenants to maintain a steady flow of income that can support them both. But with the spectre of war looming large, an increasingly uncertain environment compels these tenants to vacate the premises of their own accord.

From thereon, Caroline’s problems only heighten. Government officials and debt collectors come knocking at her door. Having nowhere to go and no one to turn to, in a fit of fright and desperation, Caroline approaches Mr Fox to escape from her predicament.

Mr Fox offers her and Jenny a refuge in his home with the agreement that she take charge of the cooking and other domestic duties. Left with no choice, Caroline accepts his offer, and although they don’t share a bed, Caroline keeps up her end of the bargain as far as housekeeping is concerned.

Mr Fox, meanwhile, keeps the monetary tap flowing by engaging in a slew of dubious projects and black market activities. Characteristic of the men of his ilk, Mr Fox is always dabbling in what he perceives are grand schemes with big payoffs, and yet when it comes to doling out money, he remains a miser. Personality-wise, Mr Fox oscillates between moments of generosity and kindness on one hand and flashes of anger and moody behaviour on the other. This begins to take its toll on Caroline and Jenny.

When air raids erupt in London with rising velocity, Mr Fox takes up a job in a factory located on the outskirts, a place called Straws, and the three of them relocate there, away from the dangerous environs in London.

In Straws, Caroline’s unhappiness only deepens. The house and the neighbourhood are dingy, shabby and dismal, and the dreariness of their existence eats into her spirit. Caroline begins to feel sad and homesick, although she has no place she can truly call her home.

Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.

These are the bare bones of the story and without dwelling too much on the plot, the rest of the novel charts how Caroline and Jenny grapple with their shaky circumstances and navigate a world that is in continuous flux given the dominance of war. Sometimes the two barely manage on their own, sometimes they are compelled to rely on Mr Fox.

One of the most unique features of Mr Fox is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life.

Some of the underlying themes covered in the novel are abject poverty, homelessness, and a woman with no prospects having to depend on the generosity of a man. War is as ever palpable, and is vividly captured by Comyns, particularly the air-raids, blackouts, food rationing, profiteering, and an overall sense of fear, dread and uncertainty.

There was Tantivy (their dog) sitting with his ears back looking perplexed and men were strewn about in tin hats, all blowing away and shouting, “Take cover!” I couldn’t take cover so I started to run, and as I ran I heard aeroplanes; the sky seemed to be full of them, but I dared not look and the wailing sirens were still going. “Take cover! Take cover!” they shouted and I ran so fast my shoes fell off; but I couldn’t stop and the pavements were scorching my bare feet. A woman was opening some garage doors and people seemed to think it was a safe place because they were going in, but they wouldn’t let me because of Tantivy, and I had to go on running even faster on my burning feet, and I thought I could hear machine-guns, or perhaps it was aeroplanes backfiring.

Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun was released with much fanfare recently, and I have duly procured a copy. Meanwhile, having loved the Booker winner The Remains of the Day, I felt like reading an earlier novel of his and picked up An Artist of the Floating World, which I agree, is another hit from his oeuvre.

An Artist of the Floating World is an unusual, wonderfully accomplished novel of a man looking back on his life and wondering if it was all worth it. It also takes a look at Japan’s widening generation gap and how individuals aiding efforts during World War II are shunned by subsequent generations who are more liberal and value progress, peace and prosperity.

The book opens with our protagonist Masuji Ono telling us about how he came into the possession of his current house at a bargain before the war – a sprawling mansion where he now resides with his younger daughter Noriko. While it’s a beautiful structure, it could not escape the ravages of war and certain sections of the abode have been damaged. The impact of war has insinuated itself in Masuji’s personal life as well, his wife of many years is now dead. He is left with his two daughters, now adults – the elder Setsuko is married with a son called Ichiro. The younger daughter Noriko stays with him in their mansion.

From the outset we are made aware of something unsavoury in Masuji’s past without the details. But there’s a growing sense that this past has made him a social pariah in the aftermath of the war because people are vary of associating themselves with him. It is certainly presented as a possible explanation for why Noriko remains unmarried. Noriko was all set to marry into the Miyake family, but all of a sudden that family pulled out without any explanation, and speculation is rife that it could possibly be attributed to Masuji’s prior misdeeds.

Masuji, meanwhile, is a talented artist who enjoyed his fair share of renown for the art he produced in his heydays, before the war changed things. A profession looked down upon his father, Masuji is determined to pursue art anyway and begins to work in a commercial Japanese firm, which is much more interested in the speed at which paintings are churned out rather than quality. His subsequent decision to train under the legendary Seiji Moriyama, however, takes Masuji’s painting skills to the next level. Moriyama is a teacher specializing in aesthetics depicting Japan’s sensual world of nightlife and courtesans in his paintings. And his fellow students are encouraged to experience the ‘floating world’ – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink.

Masuji reminisces about his wonderful days in the pleasure district, the convivial atmosphere of those times, an environment which also served as a perfect backdrop to train his own protégés, notably the talented Kuroda.

But then at the height of his career, unwilling to devote his art solely to the celebration of physical beauty, Masuji makes a life changing decision of putting his work in the service of the imperialist movement that leads Japan into the Second World War.

“Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light.  It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world.  My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.”

Masuji is forced to confront the fact that his war efforts do not carry any weight in the present. Some of his contemporaries, in a similar position, have chosen to atone for their sins by claiming their own lives. The younger generation’s attitude towards Masuji is revealed to us through his interactions with his son-in-law Suichi (Setsuko’s husband), a man who thinks that Japan’s participation in the war was sheer waste, and who believes in implementing the American ideals of democracy.

For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions.

This brings us to the nuances of Masuji’s character itself. Set between October 1948 and November 1949, the narrative is in the first person, it is Masuji who is telling us his story. In a meandering style laced with anecdotes, a mature Masuji takes a trip down memory lane that offers him both escape and redemption – his years as a student training for his craft, his formative years as an artist, his growing talent up until the war, to his present family life, and how he is beset by guilt, as he grapples with the consequences of his past actions. Masuji also dwells on his relationship with his disciples, particularly Kuroda – how that dynamic transforms from one of mutual admiration and respect to a point where Kuroda severs all ties with Masuji.

To the reader, the details of Masuji’s disgrace are only provided towards the end, so for the most part we are left wondering as to the exact nature of his downfall. Was Masuji involved in committing graver war crimes? Or were his actions, on closer inspection, not so bad and worth forgiving now? 

For his part, Masuji acknowledges his mistakes and is ready to assume full responsibility for them. In an extraordinary set-piece, which involves a formal meeting of him and Noriko with her prospective match – Taro and his parents – Masuji vocally apologizes for his role pre-war. To the reader, Masuji is a layered and complex creation evoking both sympathy for his present fate as well as some degree of unease and dread for his past dealings.

Ishiguro’s writing as ever is elegant, understated and restrained. There is a quietness and precision to his prose that is strangely alluring and pulls the reader into Masuji’s orbit. In many ways, Masuji is an unreliable narrator, for he alludes to how various conversations in his recollections may not have happened exactly the way he has put them forth, but which he justifies by saying that given the circumstances it could not have been much different.

An Artist of the Floating World, then, is also a depiction of Japan’s political landscape, how it transitioned from Imperialism to democracy and how a man having witnessed both the worlds is forced to alter his perceptions and viewpoints. At the very best, we can’t really change the past, but even if we venture to make amends for our wrongs, it can be construed as a step, however miniscule, towards progress.

An Untouched House – Willem Frederik Hermans (tr. David Colmer)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books lately, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. It only made sense to read more of their books for #ReadIndies month and An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans fit the bill perfectly. This is my second book by Hermans, I was previously quite impressed by Beyond Sleep. Hermans does have a flair for farce as was evident in both these books.

An Untouched House is a spare, taut war thriller sprinkled with doses of absurd comedy that considerably heightens its narrative power.

The novella is set during the waning months of the Second World War, where the intermittent fighting between the Nazis and the Soviets is still going strong.

Our unnamed narrator is a Dutchman who hasn’t seen his homeland for the past four years. Having escaped the German camps quite a few times, our narrator is now a part of a group of partisan soldiers led by the Soviets.

These partisans come from an assortment of countries – the group comprises Spaniards, Bulgarians, Romanians et al. The only common thread that binds them together is their fight against the Germans. Otherwise, these partisans are as different as chalk and cheese. Language being a big barrier, most of them do not understand each other and often orders given are misunderstood.

Our unnamed narrator is confronted with a similar predicament. Not understanding the orders of his sergeant, our narrator forges ahead and finds himself in an abandoned spa resort town. The exact location of this town is not revealed to the reader, and it doesn’t really matter. Moving on further, he comes across a massive house that appears empty.

I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.

For our weary and disgruntled narrator, worn down by years of continuous fighting punctuated with periods of imprisonment, the cleanliness and warmth of the house is a miracle. Its cocoon-like environment is in stark contrast to the war outside and the noise, death and destruction it implies.

Some doctors explain love at first sight as arising not from what you see but from what you smell. Humans are so sure they can’t trust others that things that are said or shown never convince. Smell – the weakest over a distance, able to be suppressed by perfume but never defeated – cannot dissemble because it is constantly being produced. Stench is everywhere, unavoidable. Only stench tells the truth.

For the first time in many years, our narrator is offered a glimpse of a world before the war, and he is now zealous about seeking refuge here.

He discards his dirty soldier clothes and immerses himself in the luxuriousness of a bath and clean towels, while all around him the war rages on with its barrage of bombs and fires.

When the Germans re-capture the spa town, they install themselves in the house, when our narrator introduces himself as the owner of the house. Having donned on the clothes of the actual owner, the Germans have no way of ascertaining our narrator’s true identity and the side he is fighting for.

And yet, our narrator knows his position is precarious. First things first, he needs to thoroughly explore and familiarise himself with the house to douse any suspicions.

A library full of books on fish and a locked room – features beyond the grasp of our narrator, only deepens the aura of mystery surrounding the house.

All the books were about fish. That meant the owner was a fish fancier! I knew something, but I didn’t want to know anything, not his name, not what he looked like, nothing! He had never existed, that was the truth! He had been the intruder, not me. He would be dead at the end of the war; I would stay here forever.

And then the real owner of the house turns up…

An Untouched House, then, is a study of the horrific impact of war and the primal response that it induces – survival. Despite the rampant confusion, our narrator’s faculties of observation continue to work with icy precision, and that the house where he takes shelter becomes the story’s second main character.

For the narrator, the empty house is akin to an oasis in a desert and he is ready to go to any lengths to preserve this, including adapting to any role that will ensure his survival. The novella also succeeds in imparting a core message – the folly, chaos and pointlessness of war. The notion that war is a highly organised affair seems inherently bizarre as this novella progresses, especially since murder and mayhem takes centrestage.

At less than 100 pages, An Untouched House pulses and throbs with dramatic tension. In a writing style that is forensic yet mesmerizing, Hermans, in his unique way, confronts us with the idea of the violent absurdity of war and its terrible consequences for those unwittingly involved.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

More Was Lost is 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. It is also a fascinating look at history, particularly the dramatic upheavals in the Central and Eastern European region, and the profound and life altering impact it had on the people living there.

At the tender age of nineteen, Eleanor Stone comes from a privileged family – her father is a Naval officer and a cultural attaché, while her mother is a novelist. While on holiday with her mother in Europe, she meets Zsiga Perényi, a poor Hungarian baron in his late thirties, at a diplomatic dinner. They fall in love, marry in Venice, and set up home in the Perényi estate in rural Ruthenia.

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he (Zsiga) said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could.”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s mother is initially hesitant about the match given the cultural differences, and the Perényi’s impoverishment, but Eleanor knows what she wants and is firm in her decision.

The Perényis do not have a steady flow of income, but they are blessed with a sprawling estate in Ruthenia, complete with land, forest and a vineyard. Eleanor and Zsiga realize that managing this estate is the only way for them to build a life together and keep the money flowing. And that is exactly what they do.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything.

In the first half of the memoir, Eleanor gives us a detailed view of how she goes about adjusting to her new circumstances, and it makes for riveting reading.  Communication is the biggest hurdle, so she begins to study Hungarian. She learns to navigate the various intricacies of running the household – growing and organizing food supplies, and having discussions with the cook regarding daily meals. She takes an interest in the interiors, decorating the house with beautiful fabrics and furniture.

Since Zsiga has his hands full supervising the farm, vineyard and forest, Eleanor takes it upon herself to manage the park, orchard and vegetable cellar among other things. She also adjusts to the Hungarian system of paying by barter instead of cash. Then there is all the socializing to do – paying various house calls, and in turn entertaining guests at their home.

In the midst of all this, we are given a fascinating insight on the broader political landscape at the time, and the shifting, nebulous boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe. The Perényi’s estate is situated in rural Ruthenia, a region which belonged to Hungary before the First World War but was doled out to Czechoslovakia in the territorial distribution that followed. This is a wound that continues to irk the Hungarians – they are obsessed about reclaiming most, if not all, of the regions that were taken away from them.

Thus, the Perényis are Hungarians, but live under Czech rule. Given that the Czechs are excellent administrators as compared to the laidback, inefficient Hungarians, Zsiga and Eleanor have no problems adapting to the Czech way of doing things. But since the Hungarians don’t look upon the Czechs too kindly, the Perényis’ dilemma is not lost on Eleanor.

As Hitler begins to frighteningly advance across Europe by capturing territories and the prospect of war looms large, Zsiga and Eleanor are confronted with unthinkable possibility of losing their estate and home. Eleanor expertly conveys the complex political environment at the time, most notably what she calls the ‘schizophrenia of Hungarian politics.’ Czechoslovakia enters the war against Germany, but Hungary allies itself with Hitler because he promises the Hungarians that they can conquer their lost territories. So, despite Zsiga and Eleanor’s respect and admiration for the Czechs, they worry about being considered ‘foreign subjects’ if Ruthenia is not returned to Hungary. They increasingly realize that Hitler dissolving Czechoslovakia is the only way for the Perényis to cling to their estate, and this dilemma torments them greatly because none of the scenarios are ideal.

Clearly, the fast-changing dynamics in Europe will severely test the mettle of the Perényis when it comes to defending their home and their marriage. Will they emerge triumphant?

I loved everything about this memoir. What was immediately remarkable to me was Eleanor 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 – would have been extremely challenging, but she does it with aplomb. I was impressed by her steadfast commitment to making her new life work.

More Was Lost, then, is a memoir expansive in scope and incredibly intimate at the same time, as it brilliantly captures the complex minefield of European politics through the lens of one family’s experiences. Perenyi’s prose is lovely, suffused with grace, charm and wit. She is candid, straightforward with an eye for detail, and the first half of the memoir is peppered with a plethora of anecdotes that makes for delicious reading, while the last section is especially poignant.

She excels at evoking mood and atmosphere through lush descriptions of the indoors and the outdoors – the sumptuous interiors of grand homes, the snow laden vistas, the stark contrast in the Czech and Hungarian countryside, and overall beauty of Europe with its glamour, languor and gaiety.

The park was perhaps twenty acres, bounded on three sides by the dead branch of a river. “You’ll come for the duck-shooting,” he (Cousin Laci) told me. “There are hundreds of birds down there.” There were poplars along the banks, and their branches were filled with crows, cawing into the spring wind. From the end of the park we saw the house with the pillars and the back terrace. I thought as I so often had before how much these country places in Hungary fitted the descriptions of old Russia in Turgenev or Chekhov.

It’s a narrative tinged with nostalgia, humour, sadness, a window to a lost and vanished world, a remembrance of the halcyon days of Europe when it thrived in all its glory, a touching tale of how much was gained and how much more was lost.

The later period of the photographs, the letters, and the small familiar objects was near enough to touch. These were the last remnants of that Eden-like existence in the country, occupied with the transportation of lapdogs, walks in the garden to pick strawberries in the summer, expeditions with the children, the governesses, and the tutors to a cave on the mountain, picnics, family dinners and whist games, all the activities of that delicious and vanished world.

A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

A Month in the Country had been getting so many rave reviews over the years, that I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it. It is as fabulous as everyone said it was.

A Month in the Country 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.

Our narrator is Tom Birkin, who is now in his 70s, telling us the story of that particular period in his youth, a time that holds a special place in his heart. 

Rewind to the summer of 1920 and Birkin who had been a soldier in the First World War, arrives in the idyllic village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire on a mission. Birkin is a shattered man, having suffered from shell shock, which physically manifests in the form of a twitch when he is stressed. With a past he would like to forget, and a future that is uncertain, Birkin is looking for some solace in the present by plunging headlong into a project requiring a skill he possesses.

The village church has been left a legacy on the condition that a suspected medieval wall painting above the chancel arch should be expertly restored. Birkin has been commissioned to complete this task – to clean away the elements that have obliterated the painting over the ages.  The mural is around 500 years old and appears to depict a typical scene of Judgement where the virtuous enter the gates of heaven and the sinners are condemned to the fires of hell.

Birkin is happy to stay in the church belfry since he has no money to pay for formal lodgings. As Birkin begins to settle down in his new, bucolic surroundings, he and the reader are introduced to a slew of characters. The vicar, a taciturn man named Keach, is against the idea of restoring the painting, but really has no say in the matter, since the terms and conditions have already been set in stone by the benefactress, the late Mrs Hebron. Birkin, meanwhile, strikes a friendship with the archeologist Charles Moon, also a fellow soldier. Having suffered similar hellish experiences of war and tragedy in love, Birkin and Moon are in a way cut from the same cloth and understand each other. Moon has been commissioned to locate the burial site of Mrs Hebron’s ancient ancestor.

We are introduced to the Ellerbacks – the stationmaster and his family including his young, teenaged daughter Kathy – at whose residence, Birkin is regularly invited for Sunday dinners. And last but not the least, is Alice Keach, the vicar’s wife and a stunningly beautiful woman. Birkin finds himself attracted to her and often contemplates on her marriage with Keach, of what could possibly have brought about a union between the two.

To reveal anything more would be to spoil the plot, so I will touch upon some essential themes that give the novella such a rich flavor.

At its core, A Month in the Country is about finding peace, contentment and a sense of purpose through the healing power of art. The restoration of the wall painting can be interpreted as a metaphor for Birkin looking to restore his sense of self.

You know how it is when a tricky job is going well because you’re doing things the way they should be done, when you’re working in rhythm and feel a reassuring confidence that everything’s unraveling naturally and all will be right in the end. That’s about it: I knew what I was doing – it’s really what being professional means.

The novella also explores the notion of what constitutes hell. There is the depiction of biblical hell in the mural, but what about hell on earth? After all, Birkin, traumatized, has experienced his own version of hell on the battlefields. Birkin, meanwhile, displays a flair for his craft, as he assiduously works on the mural, slowly but surely revealing its true splendor. It dawns on him that what he has uncovered is a masterpiece by a painter unknown to the world.

Who was he! I couldn’t even name him. People don’t seem to understand those far-off folk. They simply weren’t us. Our idea of personal fame was alien to them. This man of mine, for instance, knew nothing of earlier artists, so why should he suppose anyone would want to know anything of him? So it wouldn’t occur to him to sign his work.

Awash with the blazing heat of summer, Oxgodby also represents a microcosm of the idyllic village life, a place where time stands still, where the pace is slow, and life is simple. All of this provides a therapeutic tonic to Birkin, a soothing balm for his bruised soul, as he begins to cherish the place and make new friends.

Day after day that August, the weather stayed hot and dry. These days we call it real holiday weather but, then, only the well-to-do in those parts went far afield and even a week at Scarborough was remarkable. Folk stayed at home and took their pleasure from an agricultural show, a travelling fair, a Sunday-school outing or, if they had social pretensions, a tennis party with cucumber sandwiches…

…And this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content.

But there is so much more going on. Certainly, the reader can feel a whiff of romance in the air – Will Birkin’s attraction to Alice Keach transform into something more than just a longing? An aura of mystery surrounds the wall painting – a man with a crescent on his forehead is depicted falling into the flames of hell. Who is this man and why was his image obscured immediately after the painting was completed all those years ago?

We are also compelled to ask ourselves – Can we truly preserve the past and what are its repercussions on the future? Moreover, the book frequently alludes to the ephemeral nature of time, how those flashes of joy if not snatched could be lost forever.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

Seen through sepia-tinted lens, Carr’s prose is sublime whether he is describing the lazy, languid summers, the vibrancy of the painting as it comes alive, the longing for those heady, tranquil days of the past, or while capturing instances of piercing sadness.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Teeming with a tinge of nostalgia, an evocative art mystery and a scent of romance, A Month in the Country is a delicious confection meant to be savoured. I adored this novella.