A Girl’s Story

May 24, 2020

Annie Ernaux has written about the power love and desire have to overwhelm us already in Simple Passion, but in her newest work, A Girl’s Story, published in 2016 and now translated by Alison L. Strayer, she recounts her first experience of this as a girl of seventeen spending her summer as an instructor in a holiday camp. As she points out, her anticipation of love is not unusual:

“Wherever they went, girls packed a supply of disposable sanitary towels and wondered with mingled fear and desire if this would be the summer when they’d sleep with a boy for the first time.”

In this girl’s case, this desire is perhaps particularly intense, exacerbated by a social awkwardness caused partly by her lower class origins, and an education at a Catholic girls’ school which leaves her entirely inexperienced in relationships with the opposite sex:

“I picture her arriving at the camp like a filly that has just fled from the paddock.”

Ernaux generally uses the third person, and ‘the girl’ rather than Annie, to describe her experience. Ernaux has, of course, rejected the idea that she writes autobiography or memoir:

“I reject belonging to a specific genre, be it novel or even autobiography. Autofiction doesn’t suit me either. The I that I use seems to me an impersonal form, barely gendered, sometimes even a word belonging more to “the other” than to “me”: a transpersonal form, in short.”

Here, she feels that the girl she is writing about is not only distant from her, but belongs to a part of her life that she “wanted to forget”. “The entire memory of the camp,” she says towards the end, “has been walled up.” Now she must attempt to recall that period and/as the girl that lived through it:

“I am her ghost. I inhabit her vanished being.”

As she explains the process while examining a photograph of herself taken in a cubicle in a girls’ dormitory:

“I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo. To be there at that very instant, without spilling over into the before or after.”

At the holiday camp a dance with one of the head instructors, H, quickly results in the girl being led back to his room on the assumption that she will sleep with him. She is, in a way, nether wiling nor unwilling:

“I do not know exactly when she inwardly consents to losing her virginity. It is not from resignation: she wants to lose it, collaborates.”

H, however, is unable to penetrate her and she remains a virgin. For H the gaol is simple: sexual satisfaction. For the girl it is more complex: she feels responsible for H’s arousal (“She had no right to abandon this man in the state he was in, raging with desire, all because of her”) and she also feels “there was no turning back, things had to run their course.” Her own desires do not even enter into her thoughts:

“She does not even ask herself if she likes him, or finds him attractive.”

For the girl it is the beginning of a relationship but she does not have the skills to build this relationship. She tells him, for example, that he is the second best good-looking man at the camp, thinking this will be taken as a compliment. She becomes “like a dog who begs to be petted and receives a kick instead.”

“She does not give up but simply waits for him to want her.”

She cannot imagine anyone but H taking her virginity, but at the same time “she is proud to be the object of lust, and quantity seems to her the gauge of her seduction value.” This leads to a series of sexual encounters with other boys which, in turn, influence how others see her at the camp.

Ernaux continues the girl’s story beyond the camp as her exploration of the event suggests that its effects were more sustained than she initially thought. She takes us through her final year at high school, he time training to be a teacher, and a period in London working as an au pair. H is not forgotten:

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.”

She also attempts to become the woman she feels he will love, losing weight, learning to swim and dance:

“To make him like me, love me, I had to radically transform.”

Ernaux’s narratives are never self-pitying or self-justifying. This not a story of blame, nor one where she is a victim. She seeks only to understand:

“What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge? … What compels her is the hope of discovering even a drop of likeness between this girl, Annie Duchesne, and any other being.”

Reading Ernaux’s work I frequently understand something new, have intuitions expressed clearly, and recognise experiences which only rarely seem to feature in literature. Her honesty is not simply in her content but in her craft. If it was up to me, I would give every teenager this book.

Symposium

May 19, 2020

Muriel Spark’s nineteenth novel, Symposium, as the title suggests, centres on a dinner party, the word having originated from the part of a feast in Ancient Greece where the eating stops but the drinking continues. It also, of course, puts us in mind of Plato’s Symposium where, at just such a banquet, Plato recounts the speeches of a number of famous Greeks in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. Love and desire are never far away in Spark’s novel which seems particularly concerned with marriage. Among the couples at the dinner party are the newly wedded William Damien and Margaret (nee) Murchie.

Typically, while the dinner party is the novel’s ‘present’, much of it is concerned with events beforehand. The novel opens with a burglary at the home of Lord and Lady Suzy who will later be invited to the dinner party, Lord Suzy’s horror at the crime (“This is rape!”) being his only topic of conversation. This seemingly unrelated and random incident is, of course, central to the plot. In the meantime, William and Mary’s marriage is subject to gossip even before the meal. The story of how they met (at the fruit counter of Marks and Spencer’s) is regarded with suspicion by William’s wealthy mother, Hilda:

“What was she doing in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s?… she was staying in a half-board hostel at the time.”

Margaret herself is more generally distrusted. Chris Donovan, one of the dinner party hosts, wonders about her family:

“But the name Murchie…I’m sure I’ve heard it before in connection with some affair, some case in the papers; something.”

For Roland Sykes, another of the guests, the name also rings a bell: “There was something about the Murchies last year…it was in all the papers.” Hilda, who has met Margaret’s parents, says of the family:

“They are quite all right but there is something wrong.”

The wrongness of the Murchies lies in Uncle Magnus (surely the similarity to Magus is not accidental) who spends most of his time in an insane asylum but is regularly asked for advice by Margaret’s parents, Dan and Greta:

“Magnus had now been their guru for six years.”

It is Magnus who suggests that they ask their mother to alter her will and leave everything to Dan. When she is murdered soon after, they discover that the will has been recently changed. Even more suspicious, the madwoman who kills her has escaped from the asylum where Magnus resides. In the aftermath of this Margaret becomes a nun, though that vocation ends when one of the sisters is found strangled. We discover that Margaret has a track record of being near when violent death occurs – beginning with a drowned school friend – and Magnus has a track record of being near Margaret. It is he who advises her to find someone wealthy to marry. Magnus frequently expresses himself in ballad verses, including at least one verse form ‘The Demon Lover’ about a woman tempted by a former lover to leave her husband and children. The lover, of course, turns out to be the Devil. There is something of Magnus and Margaret’s relationship in this. Even Dan is concerned about his daughter:

“He was aware that Margaret was cultivating an exterior sweetness that was not her own.”

Margaret’s story runs parallel to the story of the robberies, which are not as random as at first appears, linked together by various characters. The sentence “They were full of wonder that neither of the couple had heard a sound” with reference to the Suzy’s break-in turns out to represent a more general ignorance of the wealthy.

As with all Spark’s work, there is enormous enjoyment to be had in watching the connections between the story and characters develop, but Spark is also a master craftsman at connecting ideas, and Symposium, like Plato’s seems particularly focused on love. None of the marriages it presents are especially successful. Lady Suzy, who married the father of a school friend, seems to enjoy writing to his daughter more; Ella and Ernest Untzinger are faring better, perhaps because:

“By unspoken consent Ella and Ernest were not sleeping together anymore.”

The unmarried hosts of the dinner party, Hurley Reed and Chris, seem more at ease with each other:

“It is a union of great convenience and contentment.”

As do the two other guest, Annabel and Roland, who are cousins. As Hurley explains:

“The vows of marriage… are mostly made under the influence of the love-passion. Let me tell you…that the vows of love-passion are like confessions obtained under torture.”

This is one of the most comic of Spark’s novels, which is perhaps why she prefaces it by a quotation from Plato’s Symposium which states that “the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy.” Even a throwaway line such as, “You never stop talking about who’s married who, and what the fortune is,” seems placed to remind us of the comic tradition of Austen. It is both wonderfully entertaining and wonderfully erudite – a perfect combination.

Occupation Journal

May 14, 2020

Jean Giono’s Occupation Journal, covering the year between September 1943 and September 1944, (published in French in 1995 and only now translated into English by Jody Gladding) becomes a far more recognisable text under our own current lockdown conditions. “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” Giono tells us, though he also declares, “I have never been so happy as now.”

“I believe I am deeply grateful for everything that forcefully cuts me off from the world.”

In 1943 Giono was forty-eight years old, living, as he did for most of his life, in Manosque in Provence and famous for his portrayal of Provencal peasant life in novels such as Hill and Second Harvest. His writing would begin to change with the publication of Melville in 1941, a novel he continued to have affection for (“I don’t consider anything I’ve done to be valuable,” he says, “Possibly Colline (Hill) and Pour saluer Melville, but just barely if at all”). His pacifism had already brought him into conflict with the state with a brief arrest in 1939, and shortly after the final journal entry he was arrested again, accused of being a Nazi sympathiser, and imprisoned for five months without charge. (Giono’s pacifism originated from his experience in the First World War: at Verdun he was one of eleven survivors in his company. He wrote about his experience in To the Slaughterhouse).

Despite the title, a direct translation, Giono states:

“This is not a journal. It’s simply a tool of the trade. My life is not completely depicted. Nor would I want it to be. As I’ve said here, I practice scales, I break up my sentences, I try to stick as closely as possible to the truth.”

This does not, however, mean that its publication is undeserved. In fact, although by its nature the insights it contains are scattered, it covers a lot of ground. Not only do we get a sense of conditions in France during the year before liberation, but we also have a window into the daily life of a writer, as well as Giono’s musings on art and politics. Less vital, but still interesting, we see the practical problems he faces: illness is common place, and two members of his family, an aunt and uncle who both stay with him, die in the course of the year. Money is another frequently mentioned challenge. “I can’t wait to be less strapped for money,” he tells us, and:

“I work precisely to make a living.”

In June he tells us, “I now have the same money worries as in January,” and, in the course of the year he resorts to selling two of his manuscripts:

“I’m mad at myself for all my generosities that now force me to part with these manuscripts.”

It doesn’t hep that he is widely regarded as rich – “the legend of my ‘immense’ fortune” as he describes it. (I couldn’t help but feel that many writers would sympathise with these problems!).

The journal also contains some thoughts on what he is reading. Of Nicholas Nickleby he says:

“…the story doesn’t escape ‘Punch’: caricature, sentimentality. It’s very engaging, despite some long passages that seem to drag on, but it remains a sketch, witty, exceptionally well constructed, but constructed.”

He is much more complementary when it comes to Stendhal and Balzac, and saves his most scathing remarks for Gone with the Wind:

“The women are cardboard cutouts. How do they have children?… Does Scarlett even have sex organs?”

Throughout, the war forms a background to Giono’s work and thoughts:

“This morning gunfire can be heard very distinctly from the south.”

As the possibility of the Allies freeing France from German occupation increases, different groups compete for power and influence. “The country is all abuzz with conspiracies,” Giono tells us, and “…it’s going to devolve into murder, pure and simple.” This is indeed what happens in May:

“The attack in Voiron a sign of the times. A whole family shot dead from the eighty-year-old grandmother to a child, three years old, killed in its crib by three bullets to the neck and one in the belly. The murderers (what other word to use?) are students and teachers at the vocational school in the town!”

As a pacifist, Giono deplores all violence, but he also feels “War and revolution never killed the right people” and doesn’t trust the Communists not to collaborate with the bourgeoisie they find useful to them. (He also sees them as anti-peasant). When France is finally liberated he is not:

“I’m not leaving the house and not going into town.”

Even before his arrest he is preparing his defence:

“I tell him I wish everyone had done as much as I did for the poor wretches hunted down by the Gestapo.”

Above all, Occupation Journal demonstrates that, in war, it is not good against evil, but, in fact, life becomes even more morally murky than before.

Occupation Journal is not just for Giono completists – it’s a fascinating historical document as well as an interesting insight into the life of a writer. It would probably have benefitted from an introduction and notes, both to provide the historical background, and to clarify the many references Giono makes to his work, particularly what he is writing at the time, but that does not prevent it from being eminently readable, particularly at today:

“The mental vicissitudes that all the contradictory passions of the present moment make us go through destroy any equilibrium.”

The Blessed Rita

May 10, 2020

I first encountered Tommy Wieringa’s work when The Death of Murat Idrissi was long-listed for the International Booker Prize last year (or Man Booker as it was then), and subsequently read his previous novel, A Beautiful Young Wife. Both are short (one might even claim novella status for them) and succinct, giving the impression of originating from a single ‘what if?’ scenario. The Blessed Rita (translated once again by Sam Garrett), on the other hand, is longer than the two previous novels combined, though its focus is far from wide-angled: set in a small village, its central character, Paul Kruzan, lives an insular and repetitive life, and worries that his horizons are in danger of narrowing further.

Paul lives with his elderly father, Alois, in an isolated farm cottage. He is no longer a farmer, but makes a living selling militaria, an occupation that began fortuitously when he finds he can acquire old uniforms and paraphernalia cheaply when the Iron Curtain is parted and travel to eastern Europe is possible. It has a perhaps deeper origin in a key moment from his childhood when a Russian pilot, attempting to escape the USSR, crash lands in his father’s fields. The pilot, Anton Rubin, ends up recuperating in their farmhouse after he leaves hospital, alongside Paul, Alois and his mother, Alice:

“It would have taken a heart of stone and a heap of bad manners to send a fallen hero packing, so Alice agreed to let them role him into the house.”

Unfortunately for Paul, Anton will later take Alice away from the house; Alois “had with the Russian admitted his own, personal Trojan horse.” And when Alice leaves, she does not take Paul with her.

This appears to have had a long-lasting effect on Paul as, at forty-nine, he is not only unmarried but seems to have little interest in forming a long-term relationship. This is not to say he has not interest in sex as he sleeps with prostitutes at a local club , and goes every year to Thailand with his only friend Hedwig (another loner) where his habit of buying sex began years before. If Paul does not at first appear pitiful, it is because he seems satisfied with the limited life he is living. Like his father, who becomes homesick during his honeymoon, Paul has no great desire to see the world. However, as the novel progresses, the foundations of his life begin to look increasingly shaky. His father has a wound on his leg which will not heal:

“It had started out as an innocent enough little cut; his father had paid no attention to it… In old age, the little details could suddenly bring you down. Paul thought about his father with only one leg. He feared that that would exceed his competency as ‘informal care-giver’.”

Hedwig offers him little solace (“Hedwig’s conversation had grown limited to illness and death”) and, when, in reaction to the threat of loneliness (“Anything better than dying lonely”), he goes on a date with a woman he was at school, with, he cannot sustain an erection:

“Nakedness had revealed an old woman.”

Into this mid-life crisis comes a Russian, a friend of the local gangster and pimp (and another one time fellow pupil), Laurens Steggink (“Steggink didn’t have a biography, he had a charge sheet”). Paul, of course, has an inbuilt dislike of Russians (“Russians, he had no use for them…”). When Hedwig foolishly tells everyone he is a millionaire (he isn’t) and is then robbed, Paul is certain that Steggink and the Russian are behind it.

Paul’s dislike of Russians forms part of a wider, and more subtle, examination of immigration in the novel. “He had seen more folk from the east in recent years,” he thinks to himself at one point. The bar he frequents is run by a Chinese family and the customers regularly make comments about what goes into the food. Races and nationalities are reduced to stereotype: Paul gets his security system upgraded in fear of Steggink and the Russian by a Pole:

“The historical role of the Pole, Paul thought as he watched the man work, is to protect us from the Russians.”

His prejudices (except when it comes to the Russian) are largely passive, but he does regard those who are not Dutch as ‘other’, exacerbating his isolation. Yet when he learns that the Chinese family are selling the bar:

“He felt abandoned, betrayed. The Chinese had somehow been a window on the world, without them it seemed like a possibility had been cut off.”

Paul demonstrates that attitudes to immigration are complex: at different times he enjoys, dislikes, or is indifferent to those from elsewhere, while at the same time happy to exploit Asian prostitutes both at home and abroad.

Partly, this is a result of not feeling he can, or even wishing to, change anything. The Blessed Rita is “the patroness of hopeless causes.” In speaking about his ‘millions’ Hedwig had made the mistake of drawing attention to himself. Rita is also the name of one of the prostitutes he visits, and, (and this is not unconnected) reminds him of his mother:

“Rita of Cascia hadn’t flinched at giving up her offspring for the sake of her great love, just like his own mother.”

In Paul, Wieringa gives us another example of the male midlife crisis, but not of an academic in a comfortable university town, but of an ordinary man in a rundown backwater who has come to realise he is all but alone. In doing so, he draws attention to many of the problems of our age.

The Rock Blaster

May 7, 2020

Henning Mankell is, of course, famous for his Kurt Wallander series, adapted for television in his native Sweden and in the UK, but he was also the author of numerous other novels which he continued to write even after Wallander’s success. Up you now only The Eye of the Leopard, (originally published in 1990) of the novels which predated Faceless Killers (1991), the first Wallander book, had been translated into English, but George Goulding has rectified this with a translation of Mankell’s first novel, The Rock Blaster, from 1973.

It is well known that Mankell wrote Faceless Killers in response to growing racism in Sweden, and viewed crime fiction as an effective way of commenting on society. The Rock Blaster is a more overtly political book, particularly focussed on class and inequality, covering, as it does, more than fifty years of the twentieth century. The central character, Oskar Johansson, is a rock blaster, working with dynamite to clear the way for the rapidly expanding railways. “There was nothing special about me,” he claims frequently throughout the novel, but his life is defined by an accident in 1911 when he returns to a faulty charge only for it to explode. The accident is serious enough for the local newspaper to report his death, but miraculously he survives, losing a hand and an eye. He recovers after a lengthy stay in hospital, marries (not his intended of the time before the accident but her sister, Elvira) and has children, returning to his job as a rock blaster as well as enduring periods of unemployment during the Depression. Of Elvira’s attitude towards his disfigurement he says:

“In those days there were many who were injured. Sooner or later it happened to most workers.”

The lives of ordinary people are a key focus of the novel, but Mankell also wants to highlight Johansson as an individual. To highlight the challenges of this he creates a narrator who has come to befriend Oskar in his old age. The narrator becomes frustrated with Oskar’s desire to downplay his individuality. “Oskar provides precious little information,” he says:

“The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part.”

The narrator outlines his task as follows:

“I hear the words, close up the gaps between them, fill in the margins.”

Although Mankell is not the narrator, there is an acknowledgement here that he is describing a life he has not lived, and cannot entirely know. He links this directly to a more general ignorance of the lives of the working classes:

“The picture of Oskar that never becomes complete is inextricably linked to the society in which he lived.”

This explains why Oskar himself sees his life as “nothing special”. As he tells the narrator when he cannot remember the names of those he worked with:

“We were so anonymous to everyone else. We had no value other than as blasters.”

He also makes a telling remark with regard to his father, who works his whole life emptying privies:

“He did what he had to do. And didn’t think it would be possible to get a better job.”

Despite this, when Oskar becomes a socialist his father tells him he has to leave home.

The novel, ranging from 1911 to the 1960s, traditionally marks a period when worker’s rights and living conditions gradually improved. In Oskar’s view however, “Lots of things have changed, but not for us.” Mankell uses a poster first printed in 1910 to demonstrate this. It shows a pyramid with money on top and workers on the bottom. In 1949, Oskar is able to comment:

“But if you look at this picture, compare it to our situation today, you can see how little is being achieved.”

For Oskar much more radical change is needed:

“Everytime there’s a revolution somewhere it makes me happy.”

Yet, despite this, he is not a man of action. Getting up in the night to put up a poster advertising a political discussion is as far as it goes. Even when faced with Nazis in Stockholm in 1933 he can only imagine himself “charging in”. This, too, perhaps stems from his belief that “he had never been, nor ever would be anything extraordinary.”

The structure of the novel works well, a collage of moments from Oskar’s life, often told on his own words, meetings with the narrator and the narrator’s comments: “Tiny beads of narrative that string together to form a rosary.” It is clearly the work of an angry young man but, as Oskar says:

“One does get angry. That must be the last thing that goes.”

For Mankell that was also true. As he says in a 1997 preface, “Today there are ghettos outside Swedish cities. Twenty-five years ago they did not exist… What I wrote here is still highly relevant.”

The Doll

May 2, 2020

Ismail Kadare’s novels can be divided into those set in contemporary Albania, such as The Successor and A Girl in Exile, and those historical novels which seem designed to examine aspects of Albanian politics from a distance, such as The Siege and The Pyramid. There is a third strand, however, of novels which are more personal – one example is Twilight of the Eastern Gods, which draws on Kadare’s experience in Russia as a young writer – into which The Doll (translated by John Hodgson) can be safely placed. The central character is ‘Ismail’ and the details of his life echo those of the author, from his wife’s name (Helena) to his exile in France. At the centre of the novel is Ismail’s mother, the doll of the title, a character who seems both simple and unknowable.

Ismail explains early in the novel what he sees as his mother’s likeness to a doll:

“It had to do mainly with her fragility, with what would later strike me as he resemblance to paper or plaster of Paris.”

He struggles to see his mother as a typical mother:

“I felt like my mother was less like the mother’s in the poems and more a kind of draft mother or an outline sketch which she could not step beyond.”

He quickly develops the idea of his mother being simpler and more childlike than he is, referring to her “unfounded naivety…her extended adolescence.” The idea of the literary child becoming distant from a less educated parent is common in literature (see, for example, Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’), though Ismail is also convinced of his mother’s unhappiness. He feels his parents’ marriage is difficult to understand, both in terms of the two families (the Kadares are relatively poor compared to his mother’s family) and the two individuals:

“The alliance between the two was a mistake from the start, and nobody ever understood the reason for the marriage.”

He also relates her poor relationship with her mother-in-law which his father resolves by holding ‘trials’ within the house when there is a dispute. Yet later he is less certain of her feelings, commenting on her request to be buried with her husband:

“I could not help wondering whether this could really be called a love story, even a simple one: seeing a man from a window and then, three quarters of a century later, wanting to be with him in the same grave.”

Ismail shows awareness that he cannot entirely understand his mother. Kadare also has fun with Ismail’s (and presumable his own) early writing career, what he calls “the grotesque mock-epic of my adolescence.” His early attempts at writing, for example, are mainly focussed on adverts for what he intends to write:

“Three-quarters of the notebook was filled with advertisements along the lines of, “The century’s most demonic novel, hurry to the Gutenberg bookshop, buy I. H. de Kadare’s magnificent posthumous novel’”

He has a particular affinity for Shakespeare, whom he describes as “almost a cousin”:

“I even thought that when I was a little more grown up – in other words, when I became clever – I would correct Shakespeare’s mistakes, as far as I could.”

When Ismail is published, his mother worries that she will be abandoned as not good enough as “she had heard that boys, when they become famous, swapped their mothers.”

“I would be the source of her greatest and most absurd fear, that I would turn my back on her.”

And yet, this is what happens in a sense as Ismail and Helena travel to France and publish a letter calling for free elections, his mother only hearing about it listening to the radio with her daughter:

“They were stupefied. They trembled in the darkness, which gradually became more intense.”

It is many years before he sees her again, when one of her first questions is, “Are you a Frenchman now?”

Although initially the designation of his mother as a doll and his portrayal of her as immature and unintelligent implies a patronising tone, in fact the novel ultimately admits his mother’s character cannot be defined within the limits of his fiction. If she is an “outline sketch” it is because he cannot add the detail and the three dimensions. Even regarding what he understands of her personality it is unclear whether it should be viewed as strength of weakness:

“Her eyes assumed the expression she wore whenever she felt ashamed at not understanding something, a habit some people called a failing and others a gift.”

At the novel’s conclusion he returns to their old home in the village, now partly ruined. He discovers that there is a secret door which “it seem to me to offer a vital code to interpret everything, including the riddle of the doll.” As the novel ends, however, he realises that he “still had no idea where this door might be,” just as, with his mother, he cannot entirely understand her: the doll she most reminds the reader of is that which contains another doll within, and then another. Then novel is not only an interesting insight into Kadare’s family and early life, but a warning that human beings are not easily confined to the page.

The Sweet Indifference of the World

April 25, 2020

Peter Stamm has always been interested in the decisions which define our lives, and, in that sense, the shape those lives take. Often his novels involve a character instinctively breaking from the life they are leading without any obvious plan – see, for example, Thomas leaving his family at the beginning of To the Back of Beyond, or Andreas abandoning his life as a teacher in Paris in On a Day Like This. The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by the ever-dependable Michael Hofmann) also has at its heart such a decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena, but on this occasion Stamm explores not only Christoph and Magadalena’s lives but those of an alternate couple who seem to be following in their footsteps years later, Chris and Lena.

The story is told by Christoph to Lena as he tries to convince her that her life with Chris echoes is own:

“The scenes look different, even the words can be changed or cut, but the action follows its unvarying course.”

Christoph is a writer with one successful book behind him – written after his relationship with Magdalena ended. He first encounters Chris when he returns to his home town for an event in the local bookshop, working as a night porter in the hotel where he is staying:

“I saw his face next to the reflection of my own but not until he held the door open for me did I realise that he was me.”

The “younger version of myself” apparently notices no such similarity, but Christoph is not only struck by the physical resemblance but the fact that he, too, once worked as a night porter:

“It was as though a playmate had copied my every word when I was a child, copied every movement, which used to put me in a seething rage.”

Christoph’s feelings about Chris are confused. On the one hand he sees this alternate version of himself as a chance to avoid the mistakes he feels he has made:

“I wanted to live in the illusion that I was young again and could give my life a different turn.”

However, at points he feels that Chris has taken his life from him: “It was as though he was stealing my life from me by living it himself.” This is particularly true when he speaks to Chris, telling him about the novel he has written, and Chris can find no trace of the book:

“If the book didn’t exist, what else about my story and my memories could possibly be true.”

He also becomes angry when Chris and Lena’s life diverges from his own, for example when Chris writes his novel without breaking up with Lena. This is partly because he sees these two defining events as inextricably linked; that is, he was only able to write his novel by giving up Magdalena. As Lean tells him:

“The question is, are you prepared to allow him a better life… or do you want to wreck it just like you wrecked your own?”

Chris and Lean’s lives become a story Christoph is writing – exactly what had happened previously with Magdalena: “…as though the written Magdalena was more important to me than the living woman.” Magdalena, we feel, is not understood by Christoph as an individual:

“The fictive Magdalena had covered the real one, as a mask covers a face.”

Both Magdalena and Lena are actors and this further obfuscates Christoph’s ability to see Magdalena clearly: “sometimes I had the sense that she was playing part.” Mainly, however, he is so focused on his story that he does not notice the stories of others unless they are connected, hence, perhaps, his desire to make Chris’ story his own. He is also, despite more than once pointing out the difference between fiction and reality, frequently tempted to interpret his life as though it were fiction, “as though my life were a story.” This, in turn, affects the way we remember our past, as he tells Lena when it transpires the story of his first meeting with Magdalena is not the whole truth:

“Looking back, you believe that kind of thing when you find your narrative.”

The Sweet Indifference of the World is cleverly constructed so that the two stories are told concurrently though not necessarily chronologically. Stamm does not offer us any easy answers as to the veracity of Christoph’s claims – in fact, even in the final pages he introduces further mysteries, leaving us to question what influence Christoph may have had on Chris’ life, and even whether Christoph is who he claims to be. More pointedly, this vital, provocative writer questions our relationship with fiction and with fate, and our refusal to accept the sweet indifference of the world.

Malicroix

April 20, 2020

Henri Bosco is French writer, famous enough in his time to be nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize, who has largely been forgotten in English. Though some of his work was translated in the 1950s, these translations have never been reprinted, and there have been no new translations – until now. Thanks to Joyce Zonana, we can now enjoy Bosco’s 1948 novel, Malicroix, without having to first learn the language it was written in.

Malicroix is an adventure novel without much adventuring. It begins when our narrator, Martial de Megremut, is declared heir to a great uncle he has never met. The catch is that, in order to inherit, he must first stay for three months in the solitary residence of his relative on an isolated island with only the company of his great uncle’s taciturn servant, Balandran, and his dog, Brequillet. As well as withstanding the loneliness and hostile climate of the island, he must also outfox the machinations of his great uncle’s notary, Dromiols, who seems less than keen that Martial should inherit. Even should he manage to last the allotted time, there is a further action he must undertake in a codicil which he will only discover at that point.

Mood, rather than action, is to the fore, as Bosco creates breath-holding tension merely by relaying Martial’s impression of the landscape. Crossing to the island he feels “as if we were floating on a shadow lake, itself adrift through the night’s dark.” Once there he tells us:

“My nerves were on edge, and nothing could escape me that might reach my senses.”

From the moment of Martial’s arrival, there is a sense of foreboding and threat, though the danger is always on the periphery of our vision, hinted at rather than revealed. Martial himself is torn between a determination to stay for the three months, and a desire to leave as “I was in territory foreign to my natural life.” The novel’s title is reflective of the question it asks: whether Martial is, indeed, a Malicroix. This is frequently discussed in terms of the landscape, for example in his wariness of rivers:

“As a man raised in the hills, I like to look at them from afar and from a high vantage point…But now I was in the lowlands, surrounded on all sides by waters…”

Also with reference to the difference in climate, as he recalls the land he is used to:

“Even in winter, the brisk wind does not harm the orchards, protected from above by small rose-coloured cliffs and from below by hedges of reeds over which cypress trees bend when the wind blows.”

The island, on the other hand, is prone to storms which keep him unable to venture outside for days at a time. To emphasise the point, we learn that Martial’s main occupation is as a horticulturalist, someone used to the greenhouse rather than the wilds. He even uses such imagery when he describes himself:

“You are a hothouse plant, a friend to fruits and flowers, a scholar.”

As Dromiols is quick to point out to him: “I imagine you must find yourself quite out of your element here.” At one point he sends Martial a cutting from an exotic plant as a reminder of his promise to return home.

This conflict is also played out in blood – not through violence, but through the blood of the two families which Martial feels flowing in his veins. Speaking to Dromiol he senses:

“…he probably judged me insignificant and malleable, even as I, for the first time in my life, sensed a darker blood flowing into my peaceful heart, a bitter blood that warmed me.”

This blood is the Malicroix blood, in competition with the gentler, Megremut blood:

“This blood, the last of the line, a Malicroix blood—strong, warm, brisk, wild—but whose strength, warmth, briskness, and wildness within me had evaporated.”

Much of the narrative tension is therefore created by the ebbing and flowing of Martial’s determination to last the three months. This is exacerbated by his isolation, both on the island and in the sense he seems to have no allies (“Did I have a friend? No, not a single one…”). Yet Balandran treats him kindly – he awakes on his first morning to find he has laid his coat over him as he slept. Dromiol’s servant, Uncle Rat, also offers him advice which seems to go against his master’s intentions. And when he is ill, a woman nurses him. In each case, however, Bosco makes the intentions of the other characters ambiguous, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

For some reason, the novel reminded me a little of Robert Louis Stevenson, particularly his Scottish novels such as Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston. This was not simply the result of a similarity of climate (and Bosco does enjoy describing the weather at length) but perhaps can be more generally ascribed to a strong sense of place (something Bosco does of course share with that other Provencal writer, Jean Giono). Master of Ballantrae is, of course, all about inheritance, and in Weir of Hermiston Archie must leave Edinburgh and his family to live in the relatively wild Borders. Both writers are adept at creating tension and threat, and Dromiol in particular felt like a character Stevenson could have written, though no doubt his version of Martial’s story would have been a little more action-packed.

Malicroix is a novel which keeps the reader on high alert from beginning to end, even when Bosco spends pages describing a storm, or we find ourselves alone with Martial and his thoughts. The success of its execution (and translation) is evident in the growing feeling that you are not simply reading his story, but are living on that island alongside him.

A Voyage to Arcturus

April 17, 2020

David Lindsay was another writer affected by the First World War. Prior to the war he was an insurance clerk with Lloyd’s of London, after being unable to take up a scholarship to university, but afterwards he moved to Cornwall with his family to write. A Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, was his first novel, famously unsuccessful though influential (on, for example, C S Lewis). He continued to write throughout the twenties, including two novels (The Violet Apple and The Witch) which were not published until thirty years after his death, in the seventies. Despite this, A Voyage to Arcturus has rarely fallen out of print and is frequently included in lists of important science fiction or fantasy novels.

A Voyage to Arcturus begins with a séance (also popular in the aftermath of World War One) but unusually almost all the characters introduced in this conventional opening are irrelevant to the novel. Only three, all strangely named and uninvited, will be seen again: Maskull, Nightspore and Krag. Maskull and Nightspore appear together, though we are told nothing of their relationship:

“The two strangers remained standing by the door, which was closed quietly behind them. They seemed to be waiting for the mild sensation caused by their appearance to subside before advancing into the room.”

Krag appears (“the door burst open violently”) after the séance has begun and a “phantom body” has appeared:

“Before anyone realised what he was doing he encircled the soft white neck of the materialised shape with his hairy hands and, with a double turn, twisted it completely round. A faint unearthly shriek sounded, and the body fell in a heap to the floor.”

Such sudden and inexplicable acts of violence, so shocking here, are commonplace throughout the novel which, from this point, challenges conventional notions of morality. Afterwards Krag claims that the apparition came from Tormance, the one inhabited planet orbiting Arcturus, and tells Maskull that he can take him there. Maskull and Nightspore arrange to meet Krag at his observatory in the north of Scotland, at Starkness, where they will undertake the trip from the top of a tower. If this sounds unlikely that is because Lindsay is not interested in the science of space travel; instead we have a bottle labelled ‘Arcturian Back Rays’ and a tower which, the further you climb, the more intense the gravity. The journey itself is covered only briefly:

“The torpedo glided gently from its platform, and passed rather slowly away from the tower seaward… Krag then released the speed valve, and the car sped on its way with a velocity more nearly approaching that of thought than of light.”

The idea of travelling at the speed of thought indicates that, for Lindsay, this is a journey of the mind.



When Maskull awakes he is alone, and, again, Lindsay is happy to drop characters from the narrative as it suits him. This will be a repeated pattern as Maskull travels across Tormance where he will meet an inhabitant who, once Lindsay has exhausted their philosophical potential, will disappear or die, sometimes at Maskull’s hands. Also typically, Maskull finds he has physically changed on arrival:

“He felt something hard on his forehead. Putting his hand up, he discovered there a fleshy protuberance, the size of a small plum, having a cavity on the middle, of which he could not feel the bottom. Then he also became aware of a large knob on each side of his neck, an inch below the ear. From the region of his heart, a tentacle had budded.”

This is one aspect of the great originality of the novel: not only do the different characters of Tormance display different physical attributes, but Maskull adopts these too. These extra organs are often related to communication, as is the case with the first person he meets, Joiwind, who speaks in “an inaudible language”:

“This time he discovered that the sense of what she said was received by his brain through the organ on his forehead.”

Joiwind is the most peaceful and harmless person he meets on his travels, drinking only water as, “We don’t eat living things. The thought is horrible to us.” However not all of Tormance is so gentle, the next person he meets, Oceaxe, telling him:

“…animals were made to be eaten, and simple natures made to be absorbed.”

Thus he will encounter the philosophies of those he meets, not unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, albeit there is no overriding dogma to create a clear sense of revelation. Maskull’s meeting with Oceaxe is also the first indication of Lindsay’s preoccupation with gender, with the suggestion that Maskull’s new organs make him more female than male.

And so the novel continues in this vein, no doubt becoming tiresome for some readers who look for more in the way of plot and character. Its great strength is its originality, both in terms of the worlds which Lindsay creates and in his uncompromising attitude to his readership – at times it feels more like a vision than a fiction. While this means it is unlikely ever to be best seller, for the same reason it will continue to make an impression on those who read it.

Wandering

April 13, 2020

When Karen and Simon chose 1920 as the next year for their biannual book club, they could have little idea of the circumstances in which we would be reading those books from a hundred years ago, in the face of a global disaster the repercussions of which can only be guessed at. The authors, however, would know something of that sort having just emerged from the First World War, many of them having participated in that conflict. Though Hermann Hesse is widely regarded as a pacifist, he attempted to enlist in 1914 and, having been found unfit for the front line, instead found a role looking after prisoners of war. In 1920 he published two books: Klingsor’s Last Summer, reflecting his growing love of painting, and Wandering, a collection of notes and poems on travelling, with his own illustrations scattered throughout.

Wandering (the translation is by James Wright from 1972) begins with Hesse’s antipathy to borders (though he had volunteered for his country, he was consistent in rejecting nationalism):

“If there were many people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptable than borders.”

This abstract reference to war is a reminder that his journey would not have been possible even two years before. Generally the war sits behinds the stories he tells, an implicit contrast, though in one chapter, where he crosses a bridge he also crossed in war-time, it is mentioned explicitly:

“But this was all nothing, my love for the sagging wet bushes was just sentimental, and reality was something else, it was the war, and it rang through the general’s mouth, the sergeant’s mouth, and I had to run, and out of all the valleys of the world thousands of others had to run with me, and a great time had dawned.”

For the most part, though, Hesse is interested in the experience of wandering, describing himself as a “nomad”: “I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic.” Rather than root his love in what he knows, he applies it to what he sees as he travels:

“We separate love from its object, love alone is enough for us, in the same way that, in wandering, we don’t look for a goal, we only look for the happiness of wandering, only the wandering.”

We find a similar conviction in the poem ‘Glorious World’:

“A mountain range in the night,
On the balcony a silent woman,
A white street in the moonlight curving gently away
That tears my heart with longing out of my body.”

This is not to say Hesse has no doubts about his wandering. At times he longs for the more settled life of home:

“Like the day between morning and evening, my life falls between my urge to travel and my homesickness.”

In one chapter he speculates at length about a possible life as a priest on sight of a rectory:

“How wonderful it would be for a man like me to make his home here, to be a priest!”

In the end, however, he decides he would not be able to change, “I would only be the same inconstant, harmless wanderer, the same man I am now.” Rather than adopt a single role, Hesse enjoys the freedom of imagining himself living different lives:

“I want my soul to be a wandering thing, able to move back into a hundred forms. I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and tress.”

In this imaginative wandering we see the mind of the writer.

Wandering is not relentlessly optimistic, however. In the chapter ‘Rainy Weather’, for example, Hesse talks about “how meanly and maliciously the clouds hang on the mountains” leading him to feel:

“How stupid and comfortless everything is, everything that comes into my mind.”

These moods are discussed later when he refers to “the dark waves in my life, which I fear, come also with certain regularity.” It is this honesty, of course, which makes Hesse worth reading, the sense that we are being allowed access to his thoughts rather than a censored version recollected later.

Wandering is a slight collection of under a hundred pages – and many of these taken up with illustrations – but it is a tonic for our times, a hymn of praise for journeys with no purpose in our new utilitarian world.

“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”