Cassandra at the Wedding

January 30, 2015

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One hope I have this year is to read more women writers than last, so when I was recommended Dorothy Baker’s final novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Jacqui over at Jacquiwine, it seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with a writer I had never encountered before. It’s perhaps not entirely unsurprising that Baker was a new name to me – her four novels appeared sporadically between 1938 and 1962, with the first and last rescued from oblivion by the New York Review of Books in 2012.

Her second novel, Trio, was adapted by Baker and her husband into a play shortly after publication, a fact I found interesting considering Cassandra at the Wedding’s dramatic structure. Although split into three parts (the first and third from Cassandra’s point of view, the second from that of her sister Judith), part one’s division into three chapters gives the novel the feel of a five-act play. This is intensified by its largely single setting, and the way in which Cassandra’s arrival triggers the introduction of the other characters (her father, grandmother, and sister) with further characters appearing in later acts (Judith’s fiancé, Jack, and Cassandra’s therapist, Vera). Like many American plays of the 40s and 50s, it places a family together to reveal the tensions and secrets beneath the surface. Although the wedding is the ostensible reason for Cassandra’s arrival, it is Cassandra, and her relationship with her twin sister Judith, that is the focus of the play – with Baker arranging for the marriage itself to be downplayed, almost an aside.

Cassandra arrives not for the wedding but in the belief that Judith – “the dazed, hood-winked, marriage-prone bride” – will not go through with it. Everything originates in their close relationship growing up, a relationship that Cassandra does not expect to end. Baker uses as piano they bought together to symbolise their symbiotic ties:

“It was unmistakably a Boesendorfer, meant for us, and we became its co-owners right away. Without conferring. Without the slightest need to.”

For Cassandra, their permanent separation would be akin to sawing the piano in half. It is on the day that the piano is delivered that Cassandra remembers Judith saying, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?”

“It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way?”

Baker cleverly presents the novel’s first half from Casandra’s point of view, giving the reader an initial sympathy that is difficult to shake entirely even as we slowly discover that she is both damaged and manipulative. After spending the first night drinking and talking to her sister (Jack is off-stage at the moment, his collection from the airport a task both Judith and Cassandra plan to undertake), she convinces herself that Judith shares her feelings:

“…maybe after we’re together again someplace, wherever we decide to be – Tenerife, possibly, for a while – I might go on to something new, try a balanced diet, get a tan, swim a lot, run up and down the beach, write from six until ten in the morning…”

The list echoes everything she is not doing – she hardly eats, has becomes sunburned on the journey (a nice touch, the burning representing her frenzied mental state), finds she can no longer hold her breath for long (the sisters were swimmers), and refuses to write, anxious she could not live up to her dead mother who was a writer. Everything is put off until she has Judith, and it is little wonder that she attempts suicide when she discovers Judith intends to go ahead with the wedding. (Death has been in the air since the start: when she says, “The bridge looks good again”, in the first few pages she is not referring to the view).

Only with Cassandra incapacitated do we finally get to hear Judith’s voice, and Jack, bringer of common sense, finally makes an appearance. In comparison with the other characters Jack seems dull and dependable, providing a direct contrast to Cassandra. The emergency phone booth Cassandra used to call ahead when she was on her way home is dismissed by Jack: “This isn’t an emergency.” When Judith comments, with reference to Cassandra, “All I wanted to do was die,” he is angered by the hyperbole:

“Quit talking about wanting to die…Dying is a big thing.”

It is, of course, Jack who saves Cassandra, rather than her therapist, Vera, whose desperate drive to her side echoes Cassandra’s own sudden decision to head home a day early to be with Judith. We finish again with the bridge, in a scene which could be regarded as optimistic or fore-shadowing something much darker – perhaps a prophecy we do not understand.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a wonderful book – thanks again to Jacqui for suggesting it.

Lost Books – Poor Tom

January 21, 2015


Edwin Muir is best known as a poet and, perhaps, as the translator, along with his wife Willa, of Kafka into English. He also wrote, however, in a number of other genres: an autobiography; a travel book, Scottish Journey, which remains in print to this day; and three novels. The last of these was Poor Tom, published in 1932. It contains a strong autobiographical element, though nothing to compare with what Muir himself suffered when he, like the brothers Tom and Mansie, came to Glasgow when his father lost his farm on Orkney: Muir’s father, two brothers, and mother died within the space of a few years.

Though death is, unsurprisingly, a central theme of Poor Tom, it begins with that other great staple of literature, sex. Rarely, in fact, have I read a novel so concerned with sex (certainly in the first half) that is, at the same time, entirely without the act itself. Both Tom and Mansie retain a rather Puritan attitude towards sex –indeed Scotland is more than once referred to as a Puritan country – and this attitude is at the root of the issue which divides them when the novel opens and Tom spies Mansie with a woman, Helen, he recently courted, only to be rejected for over-stepping the boundaries of propriety:

“…he hadn’t dared to touch her or to kiss her for weeks and weeks…Better if the thing had always stayed at that stage. For her kisses drove a fellow frantic and she didn’t seem to know it…No wonder he had got violent that night that night in Maxwell Park; he was beyond himself, couldn’t help it.”

A foggy vagueness descends whenever any sexual activity beyond kissing is discussed, but it is unlikely that the violence amounted to much more than groping, a clumsiness that perhaps originates in Tom’s inability to understand how to connect his desire with action:

“Tom, in other words, simply could not imagine himself lying in bed with the stylishly dressed girls whom he walked out – at least while he was walking them out; or rather he could not imagine the process which would lead to that consummation.”

It is important to remember that such attitudes towards sex were held sincerely – though television adaptations and contemporary novelists often like to suggest otherwise. Tom’s desire for Helen makes him feel that he has “desecrated their love”. Mansie also uses religious language to describe his experience of sex: unexpectedly finding a girl willing to sleep with him (we assume – the act itself happens within an ellipsis) he observes:

“Yet, sitting now in the lighted tram, she looked so proud and unapproachable that what had happened that evening seemed a blasphemous impossibility.”

This ends the relationship; the next time they meet she looks right through him. This attitude towards sex exacerbates Tom’s anger towards Mansie and Helen: he sees Mansie as having betrayed him, and Helen as having revealed herself not to be the respectable young woman she pretended to.

The themes of sex and death are united by that most Scottish of emotions, guilt. After seeing Mansie and Helen together, Tom falls out not only with his brother, but with life, something which manifests itself in excessive drinking, and a tumble from a tram car. Though he initially seems to recover from the resultant blow to the head, his condition slowly begins to deteriorate. His failing health brings the brothers together again, but Mansie blames himself for Tom’s condition:

“If it hadn’t been for my going with that girl this might never have happened! I wish to God I’d never set eyes on her.”

Poor Tom has moments of wonderful writing, for example the description of Helen’s ineffectual attempts to conceal her desire: “she cannot keep the waves of passion from flowing over [her face], from rippling under that smooth mask like the muscles under the hide of some lovely animal.” Muir’s extended personification of Death towards the end, originating from Christ’s sight of the Roman soldiers approaching Gethsemane, and ending with Death as a nightly companion who “lies down quietly beside him and takes him in his arms” is worth reading on its own.

However, Muir’s narrative voice overpowers the characters, with his thoughts dominating whether ascribed to Tom or Mansie. Perhaps for this reason, the female characters – the mother, Helen, and a sister, Jean – rarely come to life. It remains interesting as a social document – not only for its examination of sexual attitudes, but also the political scene, with socialism competing with religion for Mansie’s heart – and for anyone interested in Muir’s poetry (there is a powerful scene with a horse, an animal which appears throughout Muir’s poetry). Only those with a very hard heart, though, will not be moved by its conclusion.

The Calligraphy of Dreams

January 14, 2015

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Victoria Mir runs from her house in obvious distress, pauses for a moment, and then lies on the road, her head ostentatiously across the tramlines. Her suicidal impulse seems less serious when we discover that the tram no longer runs along this particular street, but the emotional trauma that has led her here is undeniable, an early indication of the fine line between comedy and tragedy that this novel will journey along. One observer among the curious crowd which gathers to witness Mir’s behaviour is fifteen year old Ringo, the protagonist of Juan Marse’s The Calligraphy of Dreams. In the disconnect between Mir’s desperate actions and their less than desperate repercussions, Ringo senses something:

“Possibly this is the very first time that the boy intuits, in however vague and fleeting a manner, that what is invented can carry more weight and truthfulness than what is real, more life of its own, be more meaningful, and consequently have more chance of triumphing over oblivion.”

The reasons for Mir’s actions remain the novel’s central mystery; Ringo’s interpretation of them a signpost on his journey to manhood in a coming-of-age novel which contains echoes of Marse’s own life. (In both cases they are adopted after their mother dies).

Another obvious similarity is that they are dreamers with a powerful imagination. A teacher comments on his “rich interior life” and we find him regaling his friends with stories of cowboys and Indians. Imagination comes first (“I can have a beach wherever I want one”) and he doesn’t like it when reality, in the form of needing a sea to have a beach, intrudes:

“Ringo feels as though reality has burst into his world like a shockwave after an explosion…and has torn something form his hands.”

Later, when he loses a finger at the jeweller’s where he works, it his dreaming that is to blame;

“…he was caught daydreaming at the electric rolling mill, trying to hum the first notes of a simple tune he could not remember properly, when in a flash the machine swallowed his index finger.”

Ringo’s daydreaming nature is also shown through his innocence. His father is a rat catcher and Ringo is particularly fascinated by the blue rats he mentions: “He often hears him curse and blaspheme against the terrible, disgusting plague of blue rodents infesting the city.” This reference, however, is not to rats but to the Nationalists who have recently won the Spanish Civil War (this is made clear later when one such is referred to as a “blue dummy”). His father’s political activism explains his frequent disappearances, and also why in one scene he has to burn his books, telling his son it is “just in case, because of the flies.”

Ringo’s seemingly harmless nature becomes dangerous when it intersects with Mir’s love life. Ever since her time on the tramlines, she has been awaiting a letter from the man she says she threw out of her house that day. Ringo is aware of this as, after he loses his finger, he spends a lot of time in a nearby bar where the letter is to be delivered. He becomes directly involved when he meets the man one night and promises to deliver the letter for him, only to become so drunk he loses it. His attempts to reconstruct the letter (hence the calligraphy of the title) display the gap between his imagination and reality.

This is only one aspect of the way the novel shows Ringo entering the adult world, a world still shaken by the Civil War, the repercussions of which require an extra layer of secrets to be decoded. Strangely, Marse chooses not to tell the story chronologically, with episodes from Ringo’s childhood interrupting the main plotline. While Marse’s portrayal of Ringo is sympathetic, he also shows him to be detached from the urgency of the post-war period, as if representing a generation who had not fought in the war, but, having seen their parents dreams shattered, were now retreating from reality to write dreams of their own. In Ringo’s experience, we see the disillusionment of a country.

Tomorrow Pamplona

January 9, 2015


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Tomorrow Pamplona by the Dutch author Jan van Mersbergen was the middle title in Peirene Press’ second year, 2011; having now read all three books (the others were Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella and Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig) I would probably go as far as to say it is my favourite collection (I wouldn’t like to comment on whether its theme, Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy, has any bearing on that!). As with most of Peirene’s authors, it was van Mersbergen’s first appearance in English; unfortunately, it remains his only one so far (he has written at least four other novels).

In the novel a young boxer, Danny, gets the opportunity to fight outside Holland with promoter Mr Varon. We don’t need to be told that this represents an important chance for him – the scene where Varon leaves his card after seeing Danny fight is familiar from many boxing films. The fact that Varon is wheelchair-bound and accompanied by a beautiful Thai woman, Ragna, seems intended only to make the moment more picturesque: in fact van Mersbergen is already presenting us with vital components of the plot in a novel where everything seems necessary. This scene, the novel’s origin, is already a memory, as it begins with Danny, weeks later, on the run for reasons unknown. This of course immediately creates suspense – Danny’s reasons for running are not revealed until near the novel’s end – but also gives the narrative urgency, as if the story has already begun and we must catch up with it. This is emphasised by the constant movement, beginning with the opening lines:

“A boxer is running through the city. He heads down a street with tall buildings on either side, darts between parked cars, runs diagonally across a junction, down a bike path, crosses a bridge and follows the curve of the tram tracks.”

Here van Mersbergen uses our expectations against us – why shouldn’t a boxer be running? – as he does when he reveals what is going through Danny’s mind:

“He lands another punch. Again he hears a bell, sharper and louder than before. Stop, someone screams.”

Danny’s real journey begins when he hitches a lift with Robert, who is heading, as he does every year, to Pamplona to run with the bulls. Robert accepts Danny despite his monosyllabic replies to Robert’s questions, and advises him:

“For a man who doesn’t have a specific place in mind, Pamplona is a great destination. Maybe the best destination of all.”

The road trip companions make an interesting contrast, not only because of Robert’s openness and Danny’s taciturnity. Robert is well equipped for the trip; Danny does not even have any cash. He calmly accepts Danny at face value (when he breaks the door of his son’s toy car he says, “These things happen”), Danny seems uncomfortable with himself. Robert describes Pamplona as an “express pilgrimage”, something that allows him to feel at peace with the world; for whatever reason, Danny is permanently on edge. Only when he decides to go with Robert does he “feel a little calmer.”

Much of the novel, therefore, consists of Danny and Robert travelling, a series of one-sided conversations which keep the tension slowly simmering. Their journey is interrupted by Danny’s memories (a device that feels natural as Danny would obviously be replaying these scenes in his mind as they drive), particularly his relationship with Ragna. Many of these scenes also consist of only two characters – in the gym, in a room – heightening the novel’s claustrophobic feel.

The novel heads inexorably towards two climaxes: the bull run and the revelation of what Danny has done: both (I won’t reveal either here) are entirely satisfying. This is not a novel about escape, however – Robert’s journey is predicated on return, a theme indicated by Danny’s encounter with a woman when they stop overnight near a river:

“I met the love of my life in this place…I never saw him again…But I return here every year.”

Tomorrow Pamplona is a breath-taking read – by that I mean that at times it was so tense I found I had forgotten to breath! Peirene’s books are famous for allowing a reading in one sitting; this is certainly one you won’t want to put down until it is finished.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

January 4, 2015

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One of my favourite discoveries of 2014 was Elena Ferrante whose My Brilliant Friend I read after numerous recommendations. The Story of a New Name quickly followed and now, having completed Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume in her series of Neapolitan novels, I am left awaiting volume four later this year like everyone else who has been converted to her talents as a writer. My Brilliant Friend is such an impressive novel that it has been difficult for the subsequent volumes to make a similar impact, particularly as the mirroring between the narrator, Elena, and her childhood friend, Lila has weakened as their lives have taken different paths: ”It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance.”

The first volume ended with Lila in ascendance. Despite her intellectual brilliance she had been unable to continue with her education, seemingly giving Elena the advantage as she goes on to succeed academically with university beckoning. However, Lila instead marries Stefano who owns the local grocery store, allowing her and her family a more prosperous life, and also making Elena feel Lila has grown up in a way she hasn’t. In volume two, roles reverse. Lila’s marriage to Stefano falls apart and she leaves him for Nino (also from the neighbourhood, but, like Elena, clever enough to have escaped to university) with whom she has been having an affair; Nino, however, does not stay with her long. By the end of the second volume, Elena is engaged to a young man from a middle class family, Pietro, who seems destined for a successful academic career like his father, and has published her first, largely autobiographical, novel. At the beginning of volume three, Lila is working in a sausage factory, supporting her young son with the help of Enzo, another childhood friend. Elena is preparing for marriage and considering her second novel.

Whereas the first two volumes were very much about the contrasting fortunes of Elena and Lila, in volume three Ferrante can now show us the two different worlds which intersect through their friendship, and through politics as a radicalised middle class attempt to fight on behalf of the working class. This is seen later in the novel in the relationship between Pasquale, a Communist construction worker and Nadia, the daughter of a university lecturer, once Nino’s girlfriend. Politically the centrepiece of the novel is the sausage factory where Lila works: at a Communist meeting, angered by what she feels is a lack of understanding among the students, she speaks eloquently about conditions in the factory:

“She left in a daze, with the impression of having exposed herself too fully to people who, yes, were good-hearted, but who, even if they understood it in the abstract, in the concrete couldn’t understand a thing.”

The next day the students begin a protest outside the factory; Lila is furious as she now risks losing her job. This section of the novel brilliantly dramatizes the problems of political action, with Lila torn between protecting her livelihood and standing up for what she feels is right. This inner conflict is reflected in violence outside the factory gates between communists and fascists. Elena finds herself peripheral; as an old boyfriend tells her:

“You’ve remained the petit bourgeois you always were.”

She uses her new contacts in the professional world to help Lila, and writes an article for a newspaper about conditions in the factory (like so much of her work, based on something Lila has written), but Pasquale mocks her restrained involvement:

“Excellent. You mean that in all the factories, in all the construction sites, in every corner of Italy and the world, as soon as the owner kicks up a fuss and the workers are in danger, we’ll call Elena Greco: she telephones her friends, the labour authority, her connections in high places, and resolves the situation.”

Lila is such an electric character, so unpredictable, that when she fades form the narrative, the narrative urgency also fades. Elena seems so much tamer in comparison, with a desire to take us through her every feeling (so keen is she at times to tell us everything, it is tempting wonder what she is hiding). When she begins an affair with Nino, whom she has loved since volume one, it feels telegraphed rather than inevitable. This is, however, part of a feminist strand that runs alongside the class politics. Elena may not suffer the class exploitation of Lila, but this does not mean she is free. She tells Lila that when she is married she will take the new birth control pill – she wants children but first she has a book to write, but soon after the wedding she is pregnant. An old friend from the neighbourhood tells her, “He’s marrying me to have a faithful servant, that’s the reason all men get married,” and soon she feels the same:

“I carried the stroller with the baby in it up and down, I did the shopping, came home loaded down with bags, I cleaned the house, I cooked, I thought: I’m becoming ugly and old before my time, like the women of the neighbourhood.”

She may have escaped poverty but she has not escaped the role assigned to women. She struggles with her writing, and also to win Lila’s approval of it:

“I expect the bets from you, I’m too certain that you can do better, I want you to do better, it’s what I want most, because who am I if you aren’t great, who am I?”

We have always been aware that Elena measures herself against Lila, but here we see that Lila also uses Elena to measure herself. As Elena’s marriage falls apart, we might consider whether this is partly an echo of Lila’s marriage; certainly the recklessness involved seems to be in Lila’s spirit. Except, of course, that is the Lila presented to us by Elena, whose actions often appear raw and sudden, as opposed to the lengthily justified actions of the narrator. Signs that Elena’s marriage is just as expedient as Lila’s are evident early in the novel:

“He gave me the certainty that I was escaping the opportunistic malleability of my father and the crudeness of my mother.”

Elena and Lila, and indeed the series itself, can only be judged when the final volume is published, when the “many bad things, and some terrible” are all finally revealed. It is to be hoped the final volume brings the story to the conclusion it deserves.

Life of a Counterfeiter

January 1, 2015

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Much encouraged by Tony at Messengers Booker and Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal, and also to make some contribution January in Japan, my first new author of 2015 is Yasushi Inoue. Inoue didn’t publish his first novel until he was 42, but went on to be astonishingly prolific, writing 50 novels and 150 short stories. The new translations of two of those novels, Bullfight and The Hunting Gun, by Michael Emmerich, is therefore only a fraction of what he wrote, as are the three stories in Life of a Counterfeiter.

In the title story, the narrator, researching a biography of the artist Keigaku, discovers a series of forgeries:

“Every house we visited had, it turned out, a painting – and usually only one – that purported to be Keigaku’s, but was in fact a forgery.”

The forgeries are the work of a friend of Keigaku’s from his youth, Hara Hosen – they perhaps explain why the friendship ended. Slowly the narrator’s interest changes direction, from Keigaku to Hosen. He discovers that in his old age Hosen returned to his home town and set up as a firework maker – losing three fingers of his right hand in an accident, and losing his wife, who leaves him and refuses to return. The narrator follows the trail to the house where Hosen died alone, speaking to those that knew him, as if trying to understand a mystery that he cannot himself express. There is a similar mystery in the second story, ‘Reeds’, though this begins with a childhood memory:

“A man and woman lay a short distance away embracing each other, and I was watching them. The man wasn’t my father and the woman wasn’t my mother; it was a couple I didn’t recognise.”

The memory becomes associated with a distant relation, Mitsu, who stayed with the narrator’s parents when he was a child. He is aware that she is regarded as a “bad person” – in particular because she only married after becoming pregnant – and that her death at 20 is surrounded by rumours. As he grows older, he takes a more sympathetic view of her life, as he does in the final story, ‘Mr Goodall’s Gloves’, of his Grandmother Kano. She is not his true grandmother, but the mistress of his great-grandfather; the gloves relate to a particular moment of where she was humiliated because of her status.

All three stories have false openings where they suggest that they will focus on one subject before veering off in another direction. In ‘Life of a Counterfeiter’ it seems that we will learn the story of Keigaku; in ‘Reeds’ we begin with a newspaper article about a father reclaiming a son he had lost years before; ‘Mr Goodall’s Gloves’ starts with reference to a famous calligrapher. These are more than sleights of hand, as they emphasise that Inoue is not interested in the famous or the unusual but in the marginalised and the ordinary. Hosen lives by copying the work of an artist he feels equal to, but aware they will be much more valuable than his own paintings. He ends his life alone, trying to express his inner life in a particular firework:

“He was obsessed with producing a deep, rich violet colour, like a Chinese bellflower.”

Perhaps the saddest image is that of the blank paper left by Hosen on his death, as if “he was about to do a painting when it happened.”

If anything, Inoue is more sympathetic to his female characters. In ‘Reeds’ he seems to increasingly intuit the difficulties of Mitsu’s life. This wonderful story, however, is also about memory, and it never leaves that realm: even it its final pages Inoue writes,

“However I imagine it, I am still only imagining it.”

But there is an important indication of his feeling for these ordinary characters when he describes her “brief life” as having “an extraordinary breadth.” The same could also be said of Grandmother Kano. The gloves of the title remind her of a reception she was forbidden to enter. Forced to wait outside for the narrator’s grandfather for many hours as she was only his mistress, they are given to her by a foreigner as he leaves:

“The care she lavished on Mr Goodall’s gloves was a token of her gratitude to that generous foreigner, but at the same time perhaps it also marked one of the saddest incidents in her life.”

Here the symbolism is clearer; in the other two stories we are left with a more intuitive understanding. ‘Reeds’ actually ends with the sentence, “But I don’t know what makes me feel that way.” This lack of clarity contributed towards it being my favourite of the three stories, but I enjoyed all of them, and fully intend to move onto the two novels.

In Paradise

December 29, 2014

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Early in Peter Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, the central character, Clements Olin comes to the conclusion that he

“…tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”

Yet this is the territory Matthiessen enters, in a novel that focuses more on how we come to terms with the Holocaust in its aftermath than on recreating it in fiction once again. Olin is a university professor who specialises in Slavic literature, particularly relating to the Third Reich, whose ostensible reason for visiting Auschwitz for a ‘spiritual retreat’ is as research for his study of Tadeusz Borowski, author of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Olin’s doubts are echoed more abrasively by ‘Earwig’, a caustic loudmouth who challenges all around him, a sort of conscience without manners:

“You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?”

Earwig is just one of a varied group of participants – a priest and two Catholic nuns among them – who have come to the retreat for different and often opaque reasons. Olin’s own reasons are more complicated than he at first admits. His grandfather was a Polish Baron from the very area he has now returned to (the first member of his family to do so) who left for America in 1939. Olin hopes to unravel the mystery of his own childhood ties to the nearby village while he is there. In part he wants to understand his father’s suicide, which is linked in his mind to that of Borowski.

The novel, then, is constructed of various strands. The retreat is described in some detail, with its participants voicing their stories and reactions, often interrupted by the crass yet necessary comments of Earwig, without which the novel would lack balance Olin’s own search is recounted as he grows closer to admitting the truth about his origins. Finally, there is a romance of sorts as Olin falls for one of the nuns, Catherine, and must decide how honest to be about his feelings as clearly any reciprocation would end her vocation. There is one moment of epiphany when many of the participants begin dancing during one of the ceremonies:

“Then transcendence fades and the singing dies, until all at once, hands are cast away in a rush of self-consciousness, and the dance subsides into itself like a circle left on the still surface of a pond by some large form only dimly seem as it withdraws below.”

Even this, though, is frowned upon by others.

Paradise is mentioned more than once in the novel. After their first visit to the camp, they are described leaving “like the first sinners fleeing paradise in a medieval painting…they cannot in this moment face the shame they see reflected in the eyes of other human beings.” Strangely, this apparently apt image seems to accidentally pair the camp with paradise – but this will reoccur. A flower garden for the Commandant’s wife is also described as paradise, and Olin later tells of an alternative version of the story of the Crucifixion where, when the thief asks Christ about being with him in paradise, he replies, ‘This is paradise.’ Matthiessen’s intention seems to be to prevent us from isolating the Holocaust as some version of hell, separate from other human experience, as indicated by the poem by Anna Akhmatova which prefaces the novel, including the lines:

“And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined dirty houses.”

In Paradise is not an easy novel – it seems jagged both in its construction and the effect it has on the mind, posing questions without answering them – but also without suggesting there are no answers. This applies not only to doubts about how we comprehend and react to the Holocaust, but to the novel’s characters. What, for example, are we to make of Olin’s feelings for Catherine? Is Earwig the voice of truth or cynicism? It is a difficult novel not in the sense we would normally use that word in literature – difficult to read, difficult to follow – but difficult in that it unsettles. And that is entirely the point.

The Notebook

December 22, 2014

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Whatever or whoever convinced CB Editions to reprint Agota Kristof’s The Notebook earlier this year, that decision was a stroke of genius. Originally published in 1986 and quickly made available in English by Alan Sheridan, it had long fallen out of print in the UK. As Kristof was hardly prolific after this first novel, and died in 2011, it seemed likely that her work would fade from memory here, but instead it would be reasonable to claim that she is the rediscovery of 2014. This is all the more surprising when we take into account the unredeemed bleakness of the novel’s vision.

The novel is set during wartime – which war is not mentioned, it doesn’t matter to the poor and dispossessed of the novel, but Kristof’s birth in 1935 and various other clues make clear that this is the Second World War and we are in Eastern Europe (Kristof was born in Hungary). The novel is narrated in the first person plural by twin boys who are taken by their mother to stay with their grandmother in the countryside where it is safer and there is more food. The grandmother is a figure of unrelenting bitterness; her daughter has not spoken to her in years and only desperation has driven her back for her children’s sake. The grandmother asks her what she has done with the other children:

“Bitches have four or five puppies at a time. You keep one or two and drown the others.”

Despite Grandmother’s harsh treatment, the twins seem to have a built in survival instinct (one of Kristof’s aims seems to be to make us think about what it takes to survive): they sabotage the ladder to the attic so only they can get there and then make holes to spy on the rooms below; when they find a dead soldier in the woods they take his gun and cartridges and hide them. They take this one step further when they begin to train themselves to cope with all that life might throw at them:

“We decide to toughen our bodies to be able to bear pain without crying.
We start by hitting and then punching one another.”

Grotesque as this is, there is a logic to it that comments on the life they must live rather than their desire to be fit for it. Later ‘exercises’ include insulting each other, begging and fasting. They reject self-pity, telling a soldier who has deserted, “Crying is no use, you know. We never cry.”

The twins have each other, but other characters suffer a desperate loneliness that can only be temporarily assuaged through sexual contact in a world where affectation no longer exists. Kristof writes about sex and children through the twins’ objective lens, neither repulsed nor prurient. When the Priest’s housekeeper bathes them she cannot resist touching them and getting them to touch her: “Oh! How nice it is, how nice it is to play with you!” This scene seems positively homely, however, compared to the neighbour’s daughter enticing a dog to penetrate her, or the army officer who rents a room in Grandmother’s house asking the boys to urinate on his face. Shocking as these moments are, they demonstrate a world where appetite is all as the future is too uncertain to even be thought of.

Are the twins, then, amoral? In fact, they often show kindness in the novel, for example when they take food to a neighbour. When they see the housekeeper taunt a passing prisoner (part of the ‘human herd’ being transported through the village) with bread they punish her by placing one of the soldier’s cartridges in the firewood they take to the Priest. When a girl is housed with them for protection and they fear their Grandmother intends to kill her, they protest:

“We promised the old gentleman to look after pour cousin. So nothing must happen to her – either through accident or illness. Nothing.”

The twins may in some ways exist beyond good and evil, but they live by rules, and it is the unrelenting logic of those rules that makes the novel so terrifying. Usually child narrators are used for irony or sentimentality, but here they provide an unnerving clarity. I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s reply when he was asked about his unusual childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It was not unusual, he said, most children in the world experienced much the same.

Lost Books – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.

The Buddha’s Return

December 10, 2014

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In Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf the narrator reads an exact account of an event in his own life written from the point of view of the only other witness, a man he believed dead. Such double lives are everywhere in The Buddha’s Return (translated again by Bryan Karetnyk), with each character having experienced some transformative event much like Wolf’s apparent demise. For the narrator, like Wolf, his journey begins with death: “I died,” the novel opens, with the narrator going on to describe plummeting to his death as the branch to which he finds himself clinging breaks (a literal cliff-hanger).

“Such was my recollection of death, after which I mysteriously continued to survive, if I am to assume I remained myself.”

So powerful is the illusion of his death, that the narrator becomes convinced of the illusory nature of reality afterwards:

“I could now sense the strange illusoriness of my own life everywhere – an illusoriness that was many-layered and inescapable…For me the world consisted of objects and sensations that I recognised – as if I had experienced them all long ago and only now were they coming back to me, like a dream lost in time.”

One of Gazdanov’s purposes is to use the novel itself to make the reader feel likewise, taking the narrator down a dark alley where he is attacked and, in defending himself, kills his assailant. This crime sees him imprisoned, not in France where he resides, but in some unrecognised foreign country – this, too, seems to be an “attack of mental illness.” Strangely, it also foreshadows the novel’s main event, the murder of the narrator’s friend, Pavel Alexandrovich.

Alexandrovich’s two lives form a more coherent whole. The narrator first meets him when he is begging for money, giving him a generous ten francs – a fact that explains Alexandrovich’s desire to befriend him when he inherits his estranged brother’s wealth. More than once, the rich Pavel is not recognised by those who knew the poor Pavel, suggesting that in some way he is not the same man. He is murdered and a golden statue of the Buddha is stolen. The narrator is the prime suspect: the last person to see him alive and the man to which he leaves everything – and, once again, he is imprisoned. If the Buddha can be found, however, his innocence can be proven.

The Buddha, of course, is deliberately chosen as the novel’s McGuffin to suggest the illusory nature of truth in the novel’s philosophical heart while at the same time representing the search for a different kind of truth in the crime fiction narrative. Just as in The Spectre of Alexander Wolf Gazdanov superficially uses the thriller format, here he uses the whodunit, with the investigation of the crime taking second place to the novel’s philosophical investigations.

While imprisoned, the narrator considers other possible suspects: Alexandrovich’s mistress, Lida, and her Tunisian lover, Amar (her time in Tunisia is Lida’s other life). Though clearly incriminating them would be in his interest, he remains doubtful:

“The first hypothesis to enter my head was that Amar was the murderer. But I failed to see why he would do this. There could be no question of jealousy.”

The narrator retains his equanimity while the crime narrative follows through to its conclusion, but the novel’s conclusion turns to an old love affair, a woman he promised to return to “as soon as the clarity of your mind is no longer obscured.” She, too, is now leading a new life, as the narrator also promises to do:

“From the next day onward I began a new life, completely different from the one I had been leading until now.”

The Buddha’s Return is a novel about chance and change, about facing fate without expecting to understand or reason with it. Its main character is neither a hero nor a villain. It’s a more frustrating novel than The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, but, for that very reason, makes Gazdanov a more interesting writer.


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