City Folk and Country Folk: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk was a pleasant, unexpected surprise. Published in 1863, this gentle satire, play-like in its presentation, is a far cry from the usual 19th century Russian novel. The story takes place in 1862, a year after the Emancipation of the serfs. A note in the novel explains “the ensuing reforms required the landowners and peasants to agree which lands the former would make available for purchase to the latter. Until this arrangement was finalized, peasants were considered ‘temporarily obligated’; and continued to pay their landowners (in money or in kind) whatever they had been paying as serfs.” 

The plot is simple: Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a man in his 40s who has ruined his health with his hard living, wants to holiday abroad and “take the waters” for his rheumatism, but short of funds. he decides instead, and especially in light of reforms, to spend the summer at his country estate, Beryozovka. When he arrives, he finds the place a wreck. Taking a walk, he stumbles across the well-ordered, much smaller, Sneki estate which belongs to Nastasya Ivanovna, a fifty-five-year old widow, “mistress of fifty souls,” who lives with her 17-year-old daughter, Olenka. Erast, who has pleasant childhood memories of Sneki, decides to ask if he can spend the summer there.

He was of modest height, stooped, and had a sunken chest; his long face had sunken cheeks and thin lips; he had thick sideburns and very sparse hair on his forehead, as well as bony hands with almost transparent skin, and eyes that were a bit dull, although they appeared to be very large due to the thin skin of the eyelids and pale forehead. Nastasya Ivanovna was not aware that many find a certain beauty in this sort of semi-decrepitude, as the loss of freshness in a man attends the formation of what is called une physionomie. She failed to realize how highly valued and how highly Ovcharov himself valued it. Ovcharov believed that he had une physionomie de penseur and would not have exchanged it for any other. 

Erast, the owner of 500 souls, is socially, much higher class than Nastasya Ivanovna, and his request to stay at Sneki, is socially awkward for the widow. She does not have a spare bedroom, as she already has a surprise guest in the form of her second cousin, a fossilized spinster, the pious, well-respected but nosy and nasty, Anna Ilinishna Bobova.

city folk and country folk

Erast asks to stay in the newly constructed bathhouse, and while the widow accepts him as a guest, he insists on paying especially for the whey he demands daily for his health. An awkward dance of politeness then takes place between the widow and Erast, but finally a deal is struck. The widow is incredibly stressed by this but Erast is happy. The novel then follows the events of the summer:

new currents of education had blown through in a gust, that same education that is wafting from every corner of our native land; second, her home had been the site of a struggle between old and new ideas, and Nastasya Ivanovna had taken part in this struggle and, without realizing it, had even achieved a victory; and third, to her own amazement and the envy of the ladies of the neighboring small estates, she had come within a hair’s breadth of developing into an enlightened woman herself. 

While the novel’s initial premise is Erast’s insistence of becoming a guest at Sneki and the widow’s subsequent dilemma (is she a host or a hotel keeper?), the novel spins on class, and this is where the city vs country fits in. The country widow is lower in the class system than Erast, and yet his home is in such a state of disrepair, he cannot stay there. Instead he relies on the widow who runs a well-ordered estate (even if Erast looks down on the decor). There are two other Muscovites who look down their noses at the widow and yet view her as a resource for whatever they need: Anna and Katerina Petrovna. While in reality Katerina is impoverished, her social position places her above the widow and the widow’s daughter, Olenka.

When Katerina who has become a matchmaker, decides, for convenience, to make  a match between her impoverished lover, Semyon, a man she calls “mon protegé” and Olenka, she expects everything to go smoothly. The novel’s humour is definitely directed towards the three Muscovites who descend upon Sneki. These three represent the respectable pillars of Moscow society with Erast as the intellectual, Anna almost an institution of religious respectability, and Katerina, the matron who arranges marriages but can’t keep her own house in order. Katerina is a neglectful mother whose children are so ill-fed, they get food from the peasants, and son George can be found singing vaudeville songs. The ‘pious’ Anna is in reality, spiteful, manipulative and cunning. There’s plenty to find amusing in Erast, a man who thinks rather highly of himself, and while he’s a perfect example of the neglectful owner of a country estate, he amuses himself  with writing poems, sketches, reviews and rants about the state of the country:

It is time, however, that we-those of rank, the decrepit aristocrats-realized that we won’t be around much longer. Very soon, we will die off. I’ll put it bluntly: there is no need for the upper crust to go on. 

City Folk and Country Folk is a 19th century Russian novel of manners. If you’ve read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novels , then you are used to complex, multi-plot novels with many characters who wrestle with massive moral dilemmas. City Folk and Country Folk is completely different. The novel, which is gently comic, has very few characters, and feels like a play. Characters enter and exit in very specific scene sets.

The author, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, is one of three sisters who were Russian writers. Sofia died at age 41 of abdominal tuberculosis

Review copy

Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

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A Justified Bitch: H. G. McKinnis

The crime novel, A Justified Bitch from H.G. McKinnis is set in Las Vegas. It’s not a cozy, and it’s not dark and gory. Instead, it’s a look at mental illness and how two very different sisters are swept up into a murder case.

a Justified Bitch

Helen Taylor, a widow, who makes a marginal living at a local swap meet, lives in a quiet Las Vegas neighbourhood. Helen has mental health issues which started after the climbing accident that killed her husband, Bobby. Now Helen lives alone in squalid conditions, and she shares her hoarder home with innumerable cats. Helen still ‘talks’ to Bobby, and in spite of her unkempt, dirty appearance, Helen manages, barely, to function. Helen’s life comes crashing to a halt when her prostitute neighbour, Bebe, is murdered right next door.

The police think that Helen holds the clue to the identity of the murderer, but can’t get a sensible word out of her.

She wished she could remember what happened, but as usual, when she absolutely needed to recall something, it hid away inside the cracks and fissures of her brain.

Helen’s functioning sister, Pat, arrives from Arizona to help Helen, and what was supposed to be a short few days stay, turns into something else. Pat is horrified by Helen’s condition and so with the help of her teenage son, Jordan and Helen’s son Marc (who has lived with his Aunt Pat for years), they clean out Helen’s house while Helen stays at a mental health facility. But when Helen goes AWOL, another body turns up….

I liked the Vegas setting, and the ambiance of Helen’s neighbourhood where the dress code was “worn and tatty.”

The Las Vegas heat shimmered off the patched asphalt, giving an opaque and eerie quality to the air. Sitting on her porch, Helen stared into the afternoon sky, rocking and humming quietly. The corner lot gave her an exceptional view of the neighborhood. Through the wire-enclosed backyards, she had an unobstructed view of the cluttered expanse all the way to the next corner. In the opposite direction, long-abandoned treasures lay baking in the sun: old cars. worn-out furniture, and less-well-defined objects–maybe toys, maybe tools–all of them showing signs of exposure to the harsh desert environment. 

Across the street, beyond a car tagged with an orange tow-away sticker, she tried to decipher the hieroglyphics of the new graffiti spray-painted across the front of the Sanchez house. No message there. 

While I was initially annoyed by the whole Helen-talking-to-her-dead-husband thing, I warmed to Pat and the dilemma she faced when she came to Vegas. Helen was not going to be an easy, quick fix, and the author nailed Pat’s situation, and the difficult choices she had to make.  Yes, it’s a murder mystery, but it’s clouded and complicated by mental illness. The title seems a misnomer, but it is attention grabbing.

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A Short Life of Pushkin: Robert Chandler

I like a good biography, but selecting a book, sometimes from dozens written on an individual, can be a challenge. I want it to be the right one. What if the biography skips over chunks of a life? Then I end up reading another book and reading cross-over material.

Then there’s the completist biography. I’ve eyed, for example, the three volume set on Kafka by Reiner Stach. I’m tempted. Sorely tempted, but do I want to read around 1800 pages about Kakfa? Yes, he’s a fascinating man, no argument there, but exhaustive biographies can be just … well exhausting, and it’s often easy to lose the details when there are masses of them.

So when I saw translator Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, I was torn. Is this the Cliff Notes version? Did I want short? What if it was too short? What was the author leaving out and why?

A short life of Pushkin

Chandler examines Pushkin’s life and work in just over 160 pages. By trimming the fat, and I’ll get into more of that later, Chandler, left this reader with succinct details and a strong sense of the path that led to Pushkin’s early, tragic death.

Pushkin’s early life is examined in light of significant, shaping events, including the importance of his maternal grandfather, Abram Gannibal, and Pushkin’s  attendance at the “prestigious Imperial Lyceum, where he was “part of the first intake of thirty students.” Not a great deal of time is spent on Pushkin’s childhood, but we are told the essentials. There are times when the author ‘condenses’ behavior, but still leaves in a few significant details. For example we are told that Pushkin had many love affairs, but only the ones that left a mark on Pushkin, and generated creativity, are explored.

Most of us know, even without reading a biography. that Pushkin, an impetuous man from the sounds of his behaviour, fell foul of the Tsar and censorship very quickly. For this he was sent into exile. Many occasions are noted in which “Pushkin was to be saved by his friends. Unlike many children of emotionally distant parents, he had a gift for finding substitute parents who were affectionate and reliable. This may, perhaps, point to an underlying good sense in him that can easily be overlooked.”

He can’t have been too wild, as he was ‘adopted’ by several families, and yet the propensity to shock, outrage and offend was there, but was perhaps teased into prominence by frustration caused by censorship and lack of funds.

Pushkin’s southern exile began badly. During his first weeks in Yakaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) he seems to have tried hard to offend people, going as far as to attend one dinner in transparent muslin trousers and without underwear. The wife of the town’s civil governor led her three young daughters out of the room.

It’s choice details like this that pack a wallop.

There’s also a strong sense running through this lean biography of Pushkin’s self-destructive urges: his gambling, his desire to break free from society, his jealousy regarding his young, beautiful wife, and especially towards the end of his life, the duels he fought.

Significantly, the author mentions how Soviet critics, the “creative imagination” of one man and the vilification of Pushkin’s wife, Natalya have collectively impacted the impressions we have of Pushkin’s life.

Pushkin’s tangled relationships with both Tsar Nicholas I and censorship are charted, and in the dangerous political climate, Pushkin was watched, monitored and censored. Author Robert Chandler takes an interesting stance:

A great deal has been written about Pushkin as victim. The difficulties of his last years, and his eventual death, have been blamed on the Tsar–or more generally-on court intrigued. This view is too simple. The relationship between the Tsar and Pushkin was complex, and it certainly included mutual respect and affection. 

Snippets of a letter written by Pushkin to his wife are included, and this serves as a good foundation for the state of Pushkin’s mind when he challenged d’Anthès (his brother-in-law) to a duel. Another decision by the author is not to delve into the various conspiracy theories of Pushkin’s death. Conspiracy is mentioned (as it should be) but rapidly discarded. And instead the author, stating that “the truth is elusive,” follows the known facts and details of Pushkin’s final duel.

When I approached this biography, I was particularly interested in how the author would handle three topics:  Pushkin’s relationship with the Tsar, the behaviour of Pushkin’s wife, and conspiracy theories about Pushkin’s death. These three areas of interest are all tackled efficiently. I’ve read about the conspiracy theories and frankly, reading a biography that just dealt in the facts, while mentioning the theories, was oddly freeing. By concentrating on the known facts, and only mentioning rumour and conjecture, the author leaves us with plenty to ponder and also much concrete information to hang onto.

Review copy.

 

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Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

Review copy

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Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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For Two Thousand Years: Mihail Sebastian (1934)

Romanian Mihail Sebastian’s novel For Two Thousand Years reads like a memoir at times, and then occasionally like a diary. This is a remarkable, closely autobiographical book that begins and ends in antisemitism from 1923 until the early 30s. Hailed as a seminal novel that charts the rise of fascism, for this reader the novel is shocking in its portrayal of the national acceptance of antisemitism which is captured in raw moments, casual encounters and even from close friends.

For Two Thousand Years

When the book begins, the unnamed narrator is attending university in Bucharest, studying law.  Well … trying to attend, at least, as to attend almost certainly guarantees a beating. The heavily anti-Semitic student body asks for names and then beatings follow.

This morning I went to the class on Roman law. No one said a word to me. I took notes feverishly, in order not to have to lift my eyes from my desk. Halfway through the lecture, a ball of paper falls on the bench, beside me. I don’t look at it, don’t open it. Someone shouts my name loudly from behind. I don’t turn my head. My neighbor to the left watches me carefully, without a word. I can’t endure his gaze and I look up.

“Out!” 

He barks the command. He stands up, making space for me to get by, and waits. I feel a tense silence around me. Nobody breathes. Any gesture from me and this silence will explode. 

No. I slide out of the desk and slip towards the door between the two rows of onlookers. It all happens decorously, ritually. Someone by the door lashes out with his fist, but it is a glancing blow. A late punch, my friend. 

For Two Thousand Years is divided into six sections and follows the narrator’s university career as he switches from law to architecture, and then the book follows the narrator’s career.  Throughout the novel, the narrator, a gentle man, wrestles with questions of what it means to be a Jew. He’s tugged by the two rival camps of Zionism and Marxism which are manifested mainly through friendships with two other young Jewish students. Winkler wants to leave Romania and travel to Palestine while the wild S. T. Haim, in whom being a Jew is subordinated to Marxism, finds Zionism absurd.

The idea of a Palestinian Jewish state, created through an act of national will–what an absurdity! And at the same time, what savagery! Don’t you see the machinations of the English in this whole business, a capitalist venture, which the massacred native Arabs and the Jewish proletariat of the colony will pay for, their very blood exploited in the name of the national idea. Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez Canal, so it’s invented this myth of a ‘Jewish homeland.’ ‘Homeland’ is too nice a word. No doubt some Quaker or Puritan came up with it. But millions of sentimental Jews have taken it at face value.

Contrasting with these two extremes is the marvelous Maurice Buret, a character who appears later in the book, and who, according to the narrator, operates in “the total moral vacuum in which he lives.”  The term “two thousand years,”of Jewish history is debated when the narrator meets an elderly Jewish bookseller on a train who argues for the beauty of Yiddish and the “folklore of the ghetto.” While the narrator argues that Jews naturally assimilate into various cultures and that Yiddish “however beautiful it may be” is a “precarious thing” with which “to bind a culture,” the bookseller has a different opinion:

Have you forgotten that, luckily, there are still anti-Semites. And, thank God, that there are pogroms from time to time? However much you’re assimilated in a hundred years, you’ll be set back ten times as much by a single day’s pogrom. And then the poor ghetto will be ready to take you back in.

The narrator is an astute observer and chronicler of human nature, and his descriptions breathe life into characters, who in the hands of a less nimble writer, would appear as cardboard cut-outs–embodiments of political ideals.

Throughout the novel, as the years pass, we follow the narrator through his friendships, his admiration for an anti-Semitic professor who persuades him to change his field of study, love affairs and even, eventually, work contracts. Through all of this there’s the threat of violence, of revolution, of massacre, a “great historical conflagration,” faint rumblings like the foreshocks of a major seismic event–an event that we readers know will occur. “Death to the Yids” is called in the streets so casually, that no one even pays attention anymore:

At the corner, towards Boulevard Elisabeta, was a group of boys selling newspapers. “Mysteries of Cahul! Death to the Yids.!”

I have no idea why I stopped. I usually walk calmly by, because it’s an old, familiar cry. This time I stopped in surprise, as if I had for the first time understood what these words actually meant. It’s strange. These people are talking about death, and about mine specifically. And I walk casually by them, thinking of other things, only half-hearing.

Yet with such deeply rooted antisemitism defining society for so long, even we are shocked when the narrator is calmly told by a friend, who asserts that he’s not antisemitic, but simply Romanian, that he wants to “eliminate several hundred thousand” Jews. His wish was soon to come true.

Mihail Sebastian’s real name was Iosif Mendel Hechter (1907-1945). He was killed crossing the street on the way to teach a class on Balzac.

Review copy

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

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Low Heights: Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.

Low Heights

When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:

Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.

I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.

That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.

Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.

As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.

It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound. 

Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves.  The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.

In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.

I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Affections: Rodrigo Hasbún

“Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best.”

Rodrigo Hasbún’s novella Affections concerns the real-life Hans Ertl and his family of three daughters. Ertl was a cinematographer who worked for Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose most notorious work is Triumph of the Will. While the author chose the word Affections for the title of his book, the two main people in the story, Hans and his daughter Monika, are driven by strong, overriding passions, and while the novel is based on real events, the plot illustrates how the sins of the father are delivered upon the heads of his children.

Affections

Affections follows the relocation of Hans Ertl, his wife Aurelia and their three daughters in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s 1955, and Hans Ertl, a restless egomanic, photographer/explorer comes and goes into the lives of these women, his neglected chain-smoking wife and the three girls: Monika, Heidi and Trixi who are all quite different from one another. When the book begins, Hans returns only to plan his next departure:

Man’s communion with nature is what really matters,” he went on, his beard longer than ever and as dark as his faintly deranged eyes. “The chance to reach places God himself has forsaken is what matters. No, not forsaken,” he corrected himself at the start of one of his interminable monologues, the ones he always gave when he got back, before the silence grew again, and with it the desire to set off on a new adventure.

Heidi is the first narrator, and she sees how, when their father speaks, Monika and Trixi “hung on his every word, transfixed, Mama too, naturally. We were his clan, the women who waited for him.

And as is usual for women who wait for men … they are inevitably disappointed, but that’s still off in the future. Ertl arrives home only to announce his next trip “in search of Paititi” an Inca city “buried deep in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.” This time he takes Monika, who suffers from panic attacks, and Heidi along for the ride. One of Ertl’s grand schemes is to set the rainforest on fire with the oil they carried with them while he films the carnage:

Very quickly the flames began to give off a dark smoke, and you could hear the animals’ cries. A flock of parrots took flight and several vultures appeared. They circled us from above and dived down into the fire, reemerging with animals clutched in their talons. Chaos reigned.

The story moves ahead in time through multiple narrators (the sisters, Monika’s lover and Monika’s brother-in-law) and while Hans drops off the page after he abandons his family, the story is then picked up by narrators. The episodic narration shows the disintegration of the Ertl family as they disperse and their connections become tenous. Monika becomes the trophy wife in a loveless marriage; it’s an ill-fitting role which serves to deepen her unhappiness and estrangement from her own life.

Monika eventually becomes a guerrilla, and … the rest is history.

At one point, Monika tells herself that “phantom fathers don’t get a say in the fates of their children,” and while there’s no argument there, it can be argued that his abandonment led to other, significant events. For Monika to take such steps, to embark on such a path, she must have been influenced by her father’s connections. I’m thinking of the documentary Hitler’s Children and its argument that the activities of the parents burdened their children–sometimes so much so that they took drastic action.

Affections is episodic in nature, fragmented; reading the novel can be compared to flipping through a photograph album. I never quite got a handle on the Ertl daughters–except to say they were troubled in various ways, haunted by displacement and their father’s legacy.  They seemed to be lost souls without an anchor.

If you’ve never seen the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, then do yourself a favour and watch it. This deconstruction style film is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen

Jacqui’s review

Review copy

Translated by Sophie Hughes

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Filed under Fiction, Hasbún Rodrigo

Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.

Browse

The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Kurkov Andrey, Non Fiction, Smith Ali

For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi

A mandala, a colourful circular design, represents unity, the idea that life is never-ending. Definitions include the idea that a mandala reinforces one’s relationship to infinity, and can also symbolise a journey through life. Taking these definitions, Antonio Tabucchi’s novel: For Isabel: A Mandala is the narrator’s search for a woman he knew long ago.

For Isabel

Tadeus, a writer over age 50, says he’s travelled to Lisbon to search for Isabel, a woman from his past. While he’s driven by “private obsessions, personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river,”  we never quite know what his relationship was with Isabel–although there’s a clue early on. As he seeks the truth, he instead finds conflicting stories about Isabel. The book presents nine interview-style chapters, called “circles,” as various people give their stories of Isabel, or their version of events. Those who offer Tadeus information include Mónica, a school friend of Isabel,  Isabel’s old nurse, Beatriz Teixeira, a photographer, a female saxophonist, a prison guard named Uncle Tom, and a dying poet called “The Ghost Who Walks.”

Over the course of Tadeus’s journey, he discovers that Isabel, who “came from an old Portuguese family that had nothing to do with Salazarism, a family in decline,” was radicalized in university. Mónica claims that Isabel had a great love affair that “was the ruin of her,” and that she was mixed up in triangular affair with a Spaniard and a Polish writer (possibly the narrator?). While Mónica says that Isabel, who lived an “underground existence,” hiding from the secret police, was pregnant and subsequently died, Isabel’s old nanny thinks she is still alive. ..

In this esoteric mystery, while the big question seems to be: will Tadeus find Isabel, other questions emerge. Narrative strands offer multiple versions of Isabel and her life. What is the truth? The narrator sets out on a journey to find Isabel, but in the end, while the journey, which becomes increasingly surreal, involves travel, it’s essentially a spiritual journey towards a central truth.

Tadeus’s search for Isabel is complicated by the fact that she became a communist and was hunted by the secret police. Was she “disappeared” while incarcerated? Now the political times have changed, but Tadeus still has to find and question former subversives who are suspicious of his motives. In the “fifth circle,” for example, Tadeus questions a photographer named Tiago who asks Tadeus what he hopes to achieve in trying to discover what happened to Isabel:

I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center,

To what end? he asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

The photographer doesn’t answer directly, but instead shuffles around some photos. Then he has an enigmatic reply:

Do the photographs of a lifetime represent time divided among several people or one person divided into different times?

It takes a while to ‘break into’ this thoughtful, dreamlike novel, but I found myself being submerged by its elusive mystery. The conclusion is stunning, brilliant and well worth the read.

Translated by Elizabeth Harris

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Tabucchi Antonio