The Best of Muriel Spark

September 14, 2021

In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of Muriel Spark’s birth, I decided to spend the year reading her 22 novels in order. With rather less efficiency than Spark herself, who wrote a novel a year between her debut, The Comforters, in 1957, and The Mandelbaum Gate in 1965, I finally finished her final novel, The Finishing School, in January this year. Here are my five favourites:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I make no apology for including Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It survives in the public imagination because Brodie has transcended the novel itself – which seems appropriate for a character who places such importance on being special. Her pupils, after all, are the crème de la crème, and even Mary McGregor, “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame” is famous for these qualities in Brodie’s eyes. Brodie, of course, has a darker side, as an admirer of Mussolini, and later Hitler (“more reliable than Mussolini”), and as a manipulator of young girls: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Her early influence becomes something altogether more unsettling when we discover that she intends for Rose to sleep with Teddy Lloyd, the man she loves, in her place. Brodie is never in any doubt that God is on her side but God, of courses, is in the narrative, which flits backwards and forwards revealing effect before cause as only God can. She remains the greatest of Spark’s characters but not the only one to over-reach.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

The Girls of Slender Means was the novel which followed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it’s tempting to see the girls of The May of Teck Club, a hostel where young women of ’slender means’ living away from home may stay, as the Brodie set grown up. The novel is set during the months in 1945 between VE Day and VJ Day, though it begins with the news that, years later, Nicholas Farringdon, who converts to Catholicism as a result of events in the novel, has been killed in Haiti. The novel conveys an atmosphere of excited possibility, created both by the end of the war and the youth of the protagonists. Despite this, we are aware something terrible will happen towards the end, the “act of savagery” which will cause Farringdon, a left-wing intellectual, to change the way he sees the world. Spark does not disappoint.

The Driver’s Seat (1970)

Of The Driver’s Seat, Sam Jordison, looking back at the lost Booker Prize, said, “It isn’t one to love.” His lack of love for Spark’s first novel of the seventies can perhaps be traced to his rather more perceptive comment regarding the central character, Lise, “We are encouraged to laugh at her – but constantly reminded that to do so is awful.” In other words, it’s a novel where the reader is not allowed to feel comfortable. The Driver’s Seat is a crime novel where the victim is in search of the murderer: “I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone,” Lise tells us, commandeering the language of romance to more violent ends. It’s funny (Lise is offended when offered a dress which won’t show stains) but also desperate, as Lise attempts to take control of her fate, to be in the ‘driver’s seat’. Not to everyone’s taste, but a masterclass in black comedy and narrative economy.

Not to Disturb (1971)

The crime genre is also subverted in the novel which follows The Driver’s Seat, Not to Disturb, which borrows from, as the title suggests, the normally cosier country house murder, with a locked room element thrown in for good measure. Although Baron Klopstock and his wife are not yet dead, their deaths are, according to the butler, Lister, only a matter of time: “To all intents and purposes they are already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.” The butler does not do it, but he knows it will be done. The Baron and Baroness hardly feature – they are, after all, not to be disturbed, and instead the staff wait for the moment they can sell the Baron and Baroness’ story to the press. Oh, and there’s a madman in the attic.

Loitering with Intent (1981)

Throughout the seventies Spark wrote deliberately modern, international novels echoing the life she lived – New York for The Hothouse by the East River, a satire on Watergate in The Abbess of Crewe, Italy for The Takeover and Territorial Rights. Loitering with Intent, her first novel of the eighties, sees her return to the London of The Girls of Slender Means, in the “middle of the twentieth century”; it also sees her use the first person for the first time since Robinson in 1958. The narrator is a novelist, Fleur Talbot, at the beginning of her career, not unlike Caroline Rose in The Comforters. Whereas Caroline hears her thoughts being narrated to the sound of typing, Fleur finds real life copying the characters and events of her novel. Hired by the Autobiographical Association to type up the memoirs of its members, she finds herself inserting her own additions to liven up the rather dull originals. Despite its ominous title, Loitering with Intent is one of Spark’s happier novels – even when Fleur’s manuscript is stolen, we need not worry as we already know the novel will be published

The Beginners

August 31, 2021

French writer Anne Serre’s debut novel, The Governesses, appeared in 1992 but was not translated into English until 2018, by which time Serre had published another thirteen. The Beginners has taken only ten years to be translated – once again by Mark Hutchison – following on from The Fool and Other Moral Tales in 2019. Serre has said that “What determines the start of a novel is a sentence that pops up all of a sudden and seems to me to contain an entire book,” and, certainly, the first sentence of The Beginners, as ordinary as it might appears, contains the entire focus of the novel:

“In August 2002, Anna Lore, aged forty-three, fell madly in love with Thomas, age fifty-six.”

The parenthetical ages suggest a newspaper story rather than a novel, and give some sense of the detached tone with which the story will be told. Anna’s love for Thomas is problematic as she is already in a twenty-year relationship with Guillaume, one which, she is happy to admit, it is difficult to fault:

“Their life was happy and had never come up against the deadweight of boredom or routine, they still made passionate love, travelled from time to time, seldom quarrelled, he was an architect, she wrote for art magazines, she had a childlike trust in him, he looked on her as a marvel.”

Anna’s situation is not new to fiction but Serre’s approach is playful, with the insertion of the couple’s occupations into the list a shorthand for a particular genre of comfortable middle-class relationship angst, followed by the hyperbolic description of their flawless love. This is no defence, however, against meeting Thomas, a man she only vaguely knows, in the street, and beginning a polite conversation which she dismisses as “of no great importance” but:

“In reality she was already strongly attracted to him and had been from the moment she’d set eyes on him, but she brushed that away into a corner at the back of her mind.”

In the next few months their relationship, such as it is, centres on the hope of running into each other again, with neither of them prepared to take decisive action. Anna, meanwhile, feels guilty about not being happier with Guillaume, while realising for the first time (as he tries to please her, suspecting that something has changed) that Guillaume “wasn’t bound to her body and soul, but had ideas and plans of his own.” The idea that they are an indivisible unit has weakened, but she still loves him, seeing Guillaume and Thomas as “two sides of a coin.” Entirely convinced of her love for Thomas (and of his for her), there is still little in the way of evidence. When they do finally meet again:

“Thomas didn’t flirt with her at all, he didn’t so much as glance at her even, but their love was already at its height.”

As the novel is presented from Anna’s viewpoint, we can only guess at Thomas’s motives, though he may sense that she is reluctant to begin an affair. Serre follows Anna’s thoughts and emotions in detail, though with, as has already been mentioned, a detached, almost playful, tone, to the exclusion of all else. This prolongs a potentially dramatic situation as, in Serre’s words, Anna’s “folly hurtles back and forth” like a “terrifying fairground attraction” to the point that it might stretch the reader’s patience; certainly, Serre is not primarily concerned with suspense. Even sections of the narrative which seem to escape from Anna (such as that which repeatedly asks, “Who are you, then, Thomas Lenz?”) reveal little of the other characters that cannot be observed by her.

The notion of Thomas comes to dominate Anna in the way it does the narrative:

“…she had a dream. And for months, for more than a year now, she had been nursing that dream in secret. So great had it grown that it henceforth filled the entire cage with its wings poking out, so that she couldn’t really hide it from Guillaume any longer.”

The image feels appropriate: her love is something that, like a dream, has lived largely in her mind (despite booking a hotel room, she and Thomas have not slept together) but it has grown to the point it can no longer be contained and Guillaume, at the novel’s mid-point, leaves her, confirming Anna’s passive role in both her relationships, a passivity that ensure we cannot be certain Thomas will simply take his place.

The Beginners takes the literary commonplace of the love triangle and, almost entirely through the focused lens of narrative voice, creates something new. By making Anna an innocent, and seemingly acted on rather than an actor, Serre removes moral concerns from the novel. She also enlightens with some wonderful images which develop Anna’s journey, for example:

“As in one of those science-fiction movies where the walls protecting a secret cavern… part for a moment to admit an aircraft carrier or let out a spaceship, enormous slow movements are taking place inside Anna. Walls you would have thought fixed pivot and change place…”

Though it feels tamer than her previous work, constrained as it is by a combination of Anna’s obsession and passivity, once again Serre demonstrates she is a unique and illuminating voice.

Eve out of Her Ruins

August 26, 2021

Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman) is a shocking portrayal of life as a young girl in Troumaron, one of the poorest areas in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius:

“Troumaron, a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.”

It is a place without hope, as Saad, one of the novel’s four narrators, tells us: “One day we wake up and the future has disappeared.” Eve has nothing – “I went to school completely and totally empty” – until one day, still a child, she discovers a new currency when, in return for the small things that the boys give her – pencil, eraser, ruler – one wants “a piece of me.”

“For the first time my bag was no longer empty. I had something I could pay with: me.”

Eve increasingly exists in detachment. Saad talks about her having “solitude for an armour” and she, too, recognises the “value of solitude.” In using her body, she believes she has “decided my life.” Eve is not the only victim; whereas Saad, lover of poetry as well of Eve, has some hope of escape, his teachers suggesting, “you can make miracles happen,” Clelio, our third narrator, is already immersed in a life of crime and violence:

“I’m at war. Fighting everybody and nobody. I can’t get away from my rage.”

The only joy in Eve’s life comes for her friend, Savita:

“Our earrings chime. Her nose is pierced with a tiny jewel like a star. The poetry of women is laughter in this lost place.”

Savita’s voice only rarely joins the narrative. Where Clelio sees Eve as an object of lust, and Saad as one idealised by his love, Savita can see her more clearly:

“It hurts me to se her so fragile when she thinks she’s so strong. When she’s serious her face is like a child’s, shocked in a dream, eyes filled with lights.”

Her picture of Eve echoes that of another voice which Devi employs in the novel, a second person which addresses Eve directly, perhaps from a different part of her consciousness:

“You have no choice now. You can only scrub your burdened flesh again and again, without realising that you are also erasing your own flesh.”

As you can see, the temptation to quote Devi’s words is almost irresistible such is the power of her voice(s). The horror of Eve’s experiences would perhaps be harder to read in plainer prose but it would be wrong to suggest that Devi’s ‘poetic’ language somehow lessons the impact of the poverty and hopelessness she is describing. The language is only ‘poetic’ in the sense it is precise, that it uses words to perfectly capture the experience, the thought – that, like poetry, it is both unexpected and recognised at the same time. This works both in aphorisms such as, “Everyone knows poverty is the harshest of jailers,” or in imagery, such as when Eve’s life is described as a hand around her ankle, or the previously quoted, more subtle, suggestion of friendship in Eve and Savita’s earrings chiming. Above all, the individuality of the expression convinces the reader that Eve, and the other narrators, are individuals, with complex inner lives.

The novel’s second part takes us into the territory of the crime genre. Devi cleverly begins with Saad’s narrative creating the impression that Eve has been murdered, an event that has seemed almost inevitable for some time:

“She was found in the trash, at the bottom of a skip.”

Eve, however, is not the victim, though she is connected to the murder. Clelio finds himself accused:

“Couldn’t fail. I was the first one to be questioned. The first suspect.”

Ultimately the real killer will be found, and Saad will be allowed to demonstrate his love for Eve, but there will be little sense of hope or redemption. Saad sees her “sculpted like volcanic rock” suggesting that Eve will survive but at the same time all life has left her. Eve out of Her Ruins is a devastating portrait of poverty, a novel which is easily read but difficult to forget.

Elena Knows

August 23, 2021

Claudia Pineiro is, on the surface, an unusual choice for Charco Press, who have generally specialised in bringing previously untranslated Latin American writers to an English-speaking audience. Pineiro, on the other hand, has already had four novels published by Bitter Lemon Press, and is relatively well know as a crime writer. However, as Fiona Mackintosh points out in her excellent afterward, this has tended to pigeonhole Pineiro’s work and “has perhaps overshadow a broader appreciation of the urgent social scrutiny of contemporary society that her novels undertake.”

Despite this, Elena Knows, translated by Frances Riddle, has all the hallmarks of a crime novel, if an unusual one. There is, first of all, disagreement over whether a crime has actually taken place. Only Elena, it seems, believes that her daughter, Rita, was murdered:

“Elena knows, even though everyone else says something different…”

Rita was found hanging from the church belfry – an obvious suicide according to the police, but Elena believes that Rita would not have willingly gone to church when it was raining due to her fear of lightning:

“Whatever it took to avoid going near that cross on a rainy day. That’s how she’d always been.”

Elena also makes for an unusual detective, not only because she is the victim’s mother, but because she suffers from Parkinson’s disease. This means that she struggles with the simplest of physical tasks, as we learn in the novel’s opening lines:

“The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it.”

Elena is only able to function thanks to the drug Levodopa; as the effect of the drug wears off, she finds herself increasingly immobile, waiting helplessly until she can take her next tablet. This would be a challenge on a normal day, but the novel is set during one particular day as she attempts to travel to a building she and her daughter visited only once years before to find a woman called Isabel:

“If luck is on her side, if Isabel hasn’t move, or if she hasn’t died like her daughter died, she’ll find her there, in that old house in Belgrano that has a heavy wooden door with bronze fittings, right beside some doctor’s offices.”

Elena’s condition adds tension as her quest – involving a train and a taxi journey – is an enormous challenge for her. (In fact, Pineiro divides the novel into sections according to the pills Elena takes).  One of the novel’s strengths is the detailed way in which Pineiro conveys Elena’s difficulties, for example, when she leaves the train stain and is looking for a taxi but unable to raise her head, “like a swimmer who can only see the bottom of the pool.” Elena personifies her Parkinson’s as ‘Herself’:

“She accepts the punishment that Herself, her illness, imposes… It reminds her who’s in charge.”

It makes Elena a more sympathetic character, as otherwise she comes across as difficult, particularly in her relationship with Rita. Early in the novel, for example, she remembers holidaying together:

“They argued. Always, every afternoon. About anything… They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other.”

The more we learn of their relationship, the more this seems typical, though they are undeniably close, particularly now that Rita is Elena’s carer. Elena’s belief that Rita was murdered is sincere, but also self-serving as she does not have to consider why she may have killed herself. In the end, however, Pineiro’s focus is not murder or suicide but abortion.

The Isabel Elena is trying to locate was a desperate young woman when Rita found her outside a building where illegal abortions were performed (abortion was only legalised in Argentina in 2020). She takes her back to her house, locks her in her bedroom and then returns her to her husband:

“That afternoon, Rita, who was not a mother, and never would be, forced another woman to become one, applying the dogma she’d learned to another woman’s body.”

Every year since Rita and Elena have been sent a picture of the child and so Elena believes that Isabel is the one person who will help her. The truth is, of course, more complicated.

Elena Knows is a perfect example of how a skilled writer can tackle a social issue and at the same time produce a gripping and psychologically convincing narrative. As Elena retreats into the dependency of childhood, Rita encounters the reality of a kind of motherhood for the first time. Simultaneously, the novel forces the reader to question the mother-daughter bond between Elena and Rita, Elena’s belief in Rita’s murder being based entirely on how well she thinks she knows her daughter. The issue, in the end, is wider than abortion: a critique of the ways in which women are forced into physical and social roles they may not want, or even be capable of carrying out. Just like Isabel, Elena experiences for herself what it feels like to lose control of your body.


August 16, 2021

The success of Breasts and Eggs has, of course, opened the door to further translations of Mieko Kawakami’s work; the (hopefully) first of these is Heaven, written shortly after the first part of Breast and Eggs in 2009, and now translated by the same translators, Sam Bett and David Boyd. Heaven is a story of bullying, and contains within its 167 pages, some astonishing acts of cruelty ‘Eyes’, a fourteen-year-old boy with a lazy eye, is relentlessly picked on by the rest of his class, largely at the behest of Ninomiya, the most popular student:

“He was the best athlete in our grade, but he also got straight A’s, and he had a chiselled face that anybody would consider beautiful.”

The bullying is consistent but varied – in the first example they make him eat chalk; at another point in the novel they fill his desk with rubbish. The situation has an element of cliche about it, as does the friendship which develops between Eyes and Kojima, a girl who is also bullied, in her case for looking untidy and unwashed, which begins when she leaves him a note asking if they can meet. Their relationship largely revolves around writing short letters – they certainly can’t talk to each other in school – but their friendship comes at a cost:

“I was thinking about Kojima in a completely different way,

“Not like it was anything new, but it got harder and harder to watch and listen to the other girls in our class bully her, just like it was stressful knowing that Kojima watched me being bullied.”

The reader, trapped in the narrator’s powerlessness, will be disappointed if they are expecting a typical redemption arc. Kawakami is not so much tackling the theme of bullying as examining violence and cruelty in a more general way. to this end she introduces the character of Momose, who is as clever as Ninomiya, but who, unlike the others, participates in the bullying in a detached manner, almost like an observer. When the narrator meets Momose at a hospital, after a scene in which his head is placed inside a volleyball and kicked, he speaks to him for the first time, asking “Why…” Momose presents a cynical view of the world:

“Good and bad don’t enter into it. Everyone does whatever they feel like doing, whatever works.”

He portrays a world of urges which people can act on if they want to – “Isn’t it pretty obvious that no-one else is going to look after your emotions?” Does Kawakmai share this view? Certainly, there is no attempt to psychoanalyse Ninomiya’ behaviour in the same way as Kojima’s lack of personal hygiene sis explained. Breasts and Eggs demonstrated that Kawakami uses her characters to argue different positions around a topic and Heaven is no different. Kojima, too, has her theory about the bullying they suffer:

“Maybe we are weak, in a way. But that’s not a bad thing. if we’re weak, our weakness has meaning. We may be weak but we get it. We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong.”

Kawakami has expanded on this in interview:

“I think we have a tendency to categorise people as strong or weak, but I think that weakness is really what’s at the core of, or a fundamental part of humanity.”

In the same interview she states, “In order to pursue happiness, I think there needs to be a sacrifice,” and in the novel, when Kojima takes Eyes to see the painting she calls ‘Heaven’, of “two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table” she tells him:

“Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony.”

The focus therefore is on Kojima and the narrator’s ordeal, rather than the bullying itself; in other words, Kawakami does not allow the bullies to take centre stage. In the novel’s climax Kawakami manages to escalate the bullying to a crisis while at the same time providing an unexpected resolution. That the narrator, in visiting the hospital, learns that he can have his eye corrected cheaply, suggests that he has, ironically, gained from his cruel treatment.

Heaven is a disturbing read as the cruelty on display is wilful and conscienceless. There is also a sense that it is to be accepted, that if the bullying wasn’t directed at Kojima and the narrator it would be directed at someone else. This makes for a novel which is both emotionally powerful and philosophically challenging. Though it lacks the range and the novelty of Breasts and Eggs, it more than makes up for it in the focus of its narrative and the ferocity of its ideas.

Lost Books – Scarlet Song

August 12, 2021

I first read Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter in the 1980s, not long, therefore, after it was originally published in French in 1979. It seemed clear even then that it was an important work of African literature, and therefore surprising that little else of Ba’s work was visible. (This was a time when finding information on any writer, never mind an African writer, was far from straight forward). Almost forty years later, having failed to take advantage of the proliferation of the internet in the meantime to investigate this further, I was both surprised and excited to encounter a second novel by Ba casually slanted on a second-hand bookshop shelf: Scarlet Song. Of course, now I know that this was both Ba’s second and final novel, published in 1981, the same year that she died at the age of fifty-two.

Scarlet Song (translated by Dorothy S Blair in 1985) does not adopt the epistolary format of So Long a Letter, nor does it initially seem concerned with the lives of women, focusing instead on Ousmane, the son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family, who has the opportunity to escape poverty through a university education. Ousmane has worked hard to reach this point, rejecting other temptations such as falling in love, especially after an early rebuff:

“Whenever he felt himself beginning to fancy any girl, after the Ouleymatou experience, the memory of her mocking indifference and his own disillusionment had made him fiercely determined to nip any emotional attachment in the bud.”

This begins to change when he befriends Mireille, the daughter of a French diplomat, in his final year of high school. Though it is nothing more than a friendship, when the final exams are over, he finds himself thinking about her more and more frequently until “never a day now passed without his dreaming of her, her quivering lips became the focal point of his desire.” He allows himself this fantasy in the belief that they are unlikely to see each other again but when he arrives at university, he discovers that Mireille has declined the chance to continue her education in France and now, finally, he allows himself to fall in love

“Ousmane Gueye, who had mistrusted all women, threw himself at the mercy of a woman, and a white woman at that.”

Their relationship blossoms but Ousmane can’t help but wonder if they are compatible:

“Was he a possible partner for Mireille? Could he assume such a mutation?”

Both keep the relationship secret from their families. Ousmane tells his mother that the photograph of Mireille in his room is that of a film star; but when Mireille’s father discovers a photograph of Ousmane in his daughter’s possession, inscribed to her with love, he takes the drastic step of sending her back to France. Mireille’s father’s attitude may seem typical of the time, but Ousmane’s mother’s opposition, which becomes clear when Ousmane and Mireille marry when he finishes university, is for equally selfish reasons:

“A Toubab can’t be a proper daughter-in-law. She’ll only have eyes for her man. We’ll mean nothing to her.”

Ba’s novel is not so much about racism as it is about the clash of the two cultures. We have some warning of this when Ousmane is discussing Negritude with his friends; “I’m for returning to your roots and keeping the way open.” Once married, Ousmane wants to live as a Senegalese husband, eating in every room in the house, using a spoon rather than a fork, inviting his friends over and expecting Mireille to be at their beck and call. The change in their relationship is dramatic:

“We saw everything through the same eyes before we were married… But now we seem to be divided over everything.”

That Ousmane’s mother is constantly visiting, throwing her toothpicks on the floor, and making her displeasure at Mireille evident does not help. In the novel’s final section, Ousmane returns to his first love, Ouleymatou, and there is a growing sense that the two relationships cannot continue to exist concurrently for long.

Scarlet Song is a novel of its time, but the tensions created when individuals from different cultural backgrounds marry is not something that has been ‘solved’ in the last forty years. As in So Long a Letter, Ba’s real anger is directed at the way women are treated, which she emphasises by inflicting the traditional role of a Senegalese wife on a white woman, demonstrating how ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ can reinforce both privilege and subservience. This, she demonstrates, is perpetuated by both men and women. Discovering this novel, one can’t help but wonder how Ba’s work would have progressed had she lived to continue writing.

The Stranger Next Door

August 7, 2021

The Stranger Next Door was the first of Amelie Nothomb’s novels to be translated into English (by Carol Volk), in 1996 only a year after its original publication, and fourteen years before her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin in 2010. Nothomb is now regularly translated, though not quite at a pace to keep up with the novel a year she has written since 1992. The story begins when the narrator, Emile, a classics teacher, and his wife (and childhood sweetheart), Juliette, retire to a house in the country:

“When we saw the House we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we had been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house – the House – pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.”

They have only one neighbour, a doctor, which they find reassuring – “Juliette and I would be retiring from the world but thirty yards from our refuge would a doctor!” – until, that is, he pays them a visit. The neighbour, Bernardin, turn out to be taciturn in the extreme, rarely extending his speech beyond a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’:

“He reminded me of a depressed buddha. At least you couldn’t fault him for being a chatterbox.”

Despite his distinct lack of conversational elan, he stays for two hours. The narrator initially finds him “touching”, believing that he has visited only because “he felt obliged to… by some naïve idea of decorum.” However, the next day, at exactly the same time, he returns for a further two hours of mono-syllabic responses. Emile experiments with sitting silently but this only seems to anger Bernardin. He finds himself helpless to be anything other than well-mannered:

“I didn’t have the courage to be rude.”

The daily afternoon visits leave Emile feeling a “vague anxiety” even as he wakes up, referring to Bernardin as “our torturer”. After a few days they decide the only solution is to be out at four o’clock, but a walk in the woods results in Juliette developing a cold and she takes to her bed the next day and they decide instead to not answer the door. However, this simply results in Bernardin knocking louder and louder, “like a madman”, until Emile is worried he will break the door down.

Eventually, they invite Bernardin to bring his wife, Bernadette, for dinner, whom they discover to be even more outlandish than he, “a mass of flesh wearing a dress. or, rather, that had been wrapped in a piece of fabric.” Though they find her both horrifying and disgusting, they identify with her in the face of Bernardin’s persecution, finding that she “inspired tender sympathy in us.” Afterwards, however, Bernardin’s visits continue:

“I had first thought him inert because he sat for hours doing nothing. But, in fact, he only seemed to be doing nothing: in reality, he was in the process of destroying me”

In this sense, The Stranger Next Door is a slow burn thriller, with Nothomb’s focus not Bernardin but Emile. To what lengths will he go to be rid of his troublesome neighbour? At the beginning he claims he is powerless:

“We are so polite that our politeness has become unconscious. You can’t fight your unconscious.”

However, we are warned in the novel’s opening lines that:

“We know nothing about ourselves. We think we’re used to being ourselves, but it’s just the opposite. The more the years pass the less we understand the person in whose name we say and do things.”

The reader may also find their sympathies waver as the novel progresses. At times, Emile’s attempts to understand Bernardin can seem as invasive as Bernardin’s presence. Bernardin, on the other hand, explicitly rejects understanding. There is also something cloying in Emile and Juliette’s marriage. You may find lines like, “I had eyes only for the little six-year-old girl with whom I had lived for nearly sixty years,” sweet, or you may, like me, suspect that Emile is unable to see Juliette as an individual adult, describing her as “even more fragile than she was petite” and remembering happily when they showered together as ten-year-olds. (There are no memories of their adult life together). How you feel about Emile will colour how you feel about the novel’s eventual conclusion, and the choices that he makes. What is without doubt, however, is Nothomb’s ability to provoke her readers with a lightness of touch which disguises her more darker intentions.

Garden by the Sea

August 2, 2021

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “They are different from you and me.” Set in a villa on the Catalonian coast on the 1920s, Merce Rodoreda’s Garden by the Sea, translated last year by Maruxa Relano and Martha Tennant, tells a similar story. The novel unfolds over six years, narrated by the widowed gardener who observes the summer activities of its wealthy owners, Francesc and Rosamaria, and their friends, while also sharing in the gossip of the servants. As he says on the opening page, “There was no need to go to the Excelsior to see films the year they came with their friends.” However, their happiness does not last forever, and their seemingly care-free lives do not disguise a sense of foreboding:

“Such gaiety and youth, so much money… so much of everything… and two wrecked lives.”

Rodoreda’s masterstroke is the character of the narrator, who, as he says himself, is not garrulous, but likes people (and is liked). Far from being inquisitive he lets the story comes to him, adopting the same general attitude as he does with the maid:

“I had already noticed with Mariona that it was better to play dumb and then she would tell you everything. If you asked her directly, she was quiet as a mouse.”

He is honest, but in a kindly way, for example when Rosamaria asks him if he likes her horse:

“I liked the other one better, but I couldn’t see the harm in pleasing her.

‘Handsome, very handsome,’ I said.”

In return he is generally trusted by others and treated well, saying of Fransesc:

“He might have been less than perfect, he drank and lazed about, but with me, truth be told, he had always been kind.”

Since his wife’s death, the garden has been his only love, raising him above the flirtations and jealousies of the villa. Rodoreda’s commentary on the carelessness of the rich is generally focused on the damage which their drunken parties cause:

“It pained me to think about the gladiolus and the fate they had met: the whole stretch of garden was ruined. But those who have the money make the rules.”

Their indulgences include a pet monkey which is allowed to run wild causing further damage – it’s difficult not to assume some sort of comparison is implied. The novel includes numerous conversations where the narrator demonstrates both his love and knowledge of gardening. He, and perhaps Rodoreda too, believes in the superiority of the natural world to the artificial – when Feliu, an artist who visits Francesc and Rosamaria every year, asks him for an opinion on his painting, he answers:

“What can I say? No matter how it’s done, I still prefer the real thing to any painting of the sea.”

Life at the villa changes when a new villa is constructed next to it by Bellom, who has made his fortune in South America and is building it for his daughter and son-in-law. While the villa is being built, with no expense spared, the gardener has a visit from an elderly couple who are looking for their son, Engeni, who they have not seen for a number of years. They hope he may have been in touch with Rosamarie, who was once close to him. Though this is not the case, after his parents leave, it soon becomes clear that Engeni is the son-in-law who will be arriving at the new villa within weeks with his new wife, Mirabel.

The situation has the potential for melodrama, but the distance created by the narration creates an atmosphere of uncertain suffering instead. There are warning signs when Engeni befriends the gardener, helping him to collect seeds and tend the garden, as he says he did when he was a child. “I have a feeling you’re one of those people who lives in the past,” the narrator tells him.

“It’s hard to say if I do or I don’t. Sometimes I think I do, other times, no. I’m rather detached from the past.”

Perhaps what he means is that, although he has left the poverty of his youth behind, he still loves Rosamaria.

In a sense love and wealth are the two poles of the novel. If the rich are different, it is because they find love difficult, from Francesc’s flirtation with the Brazilian maid, Miranda, to Bellom’s confession that his dead wife, whom he claimed to love as much as the narrator loved his, “slept with every known friend and acquaintance”- and he had only married her because her father was rich, the same reason we suspect Rosamaria married Francesc. In contrast, the only married couple we see closely, Engeni’s parents, are clearly devoted to each other, despite their disagreements and troubles. The narrator’s attachment to the garden, meanwhile, is also an attachment to his wife:

“…while I’m here she won’t be gone, not completely… believe me, it’s true: she won’t be completely dead.”

Appropriately, Garden by the Sea is as beautiful a novel as the garden we imagine its narrator lovingly tends.

The Lightning of August

July 31, 2021

Latin America not only has a history of dictators, but an entire genre of dictator novels, from Miguel Angel Asturia’s The President to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. In The Lightning of August, Jorge Ibarguengoitia offers us a different viewpoint, that of General Jose ‘Lupe’ Arroyo, whose attempts to gain power have a tendency towards catastrophe, none of which, in his telling, are his own fault. The novel holds the heroes of the Mexican revolution up to the light and finds them wanting: rather than heroism what we see is self-interest, back-stabbing and military incompetence. In making Lupe the narrator of his own story, zealously defending his own actions, Ibarguengoitia mines a rich vein of ironic humour.

As the novel opens it is clear that Lupe has some score-settling to do, targeting, in particular, the memoirs of a fellow general:

“I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not born in a dirt-floor hut, as Fatty Artajo claims, and my mother was not a prostitute, as some have hinted; nor is it true that I never entered a school room.”

Such asides occur throughout the novel and, such is Lupe’s propensity for presenting himself in an unfailingly favourable light, they often have the effect of seeming more believable than his own version of his life story. This, and his not unrelated inability to back down, are his defining characteristics. We see the latter in effect early in the novel, alongside the bad luck that will dog him throughout. Lupe is appointed Private Secretary to the newly elected President, Marcos Gonzalez – but Gonzalez manages to die while Lupe is in transit to his new posting, and before officially taking office. When Lupe does arrive, Gonzalez’s widow tells him her husband’s final words were, “I want Lupe to have my gold watch,” but the watch is now missing. Lupe immediately blames the only other visitor to Gonzalez’s death bed, Eulalio Perez, whom he promptly pushes into an empty grave at the funeral. The next day, however, Lupe and his comrades, plotting to seize power, are outmanoeuvred and Perez is named Acting President. Though his fellow Generals beg him, Lupe refuses to consider apologising, even when he returns to his hotel room to find a note from Gonzalez’s widow to say she has found the watch:

“I decided that even if Perez hadn’t stolen the watch in question, the punishment was well deserved anyway because he’d been a dishonest man all his life.”

The real power, however, lies with Vidal Sanchez. When Lupe complains that Perez is incapable of organising an election, Sanchez retorts, “Where did you get the idea anyone gives a damn about a free election?” The novel goes on to recount the lead-up to the election. Sanchez forbids the military from belonging to any political party, but Lupe and his friends think they have outwitted him:

“While it would appear the party’s sole assets were two remarkable orators… it would actually boast some twenty thousand fully armed and equipped troops.”

However, Sanchez promptly resigns his post so he can stand for election.

The approaching election is more about military manoeuvring than campaigning for votes. Though often bordering on farcical, the novel also highlights an atmosphere of fear, for example when the generals are meeting and find their telephone lines cut:

“People I’ve told this story to invariably ask why we were so frightened. They don’t realise that anyone who gets involved in politics has to be prepared for the worst.”

The generals work together but have little respect for each other – one is even known as the Jinx and, when, in perhaps the novel’s most farcical episode, attempts to roll a train carriage full of dynamite towards the enemy repeatedly fail, Lupe has an idea:

“And then it occurred to me that the best idea might be to let it go with the Jinx on board. Maybe he’d take his bad luck with him.”

Lupe is similarly scathing when it comes to their presidential candidate, Juan Valdivia:

“The fact that Juan Valdivia was incompetent had been fully demonstrated. What I can’t understand is not that the troops realised he was a bungler, but that we hadn’t discovered it before we made him Commander in Chief of the East Army of the Restoration Forces.”

The Lightning of August is history as farce, demonstrating that the fate of a country often relies on the whims and flaws of those in and with power, and that political rhetoric is frequently used to excuse personal ambition. That Lupe himself reveals this in the story he tells is a masterstroke, his apparent openness uncovering his own delusions.

A Perfect Cemetery

July 27, 2021

There is so much to admire about Charco Press, who have opened up a new world of Latin American literature to an English-speaking audience over the last few years, that perhaps not enough is made of the fact that they, beyond the risk of publishing previously unheard-of authors, have more than once done so with a commercially precarious collection of short stories. This has brought us Margarita Garcia Robayo’s Fish Soup, Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up, and now, Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, translated by International Booker Prize winner, Jennifer Croft. The collection grabs the reader’s attention from the opening sentence of the first story, ‘The Hares’:

“The king of the hares finished his coffee, put out the furs and set his cup down on a rock that was still hot.”

The juxtaposition of the strange, dream-like ‘king of the hares’ with the ordinary everyday act of drinking coffee is a feature of Falco’s writing throughout. The story begins like some ancient tale, with an altar of bleached bones and the hares circled around the king, “ears pricked, the slits in their noses probing the air.” When the king ventures into town he is spotted and chased, only escaping via the river. But a visit from a young woman, Cristina, suggests a more a more contemporary backstory from the moment she calls him Oscar. Falco provides enough detail to convince – for example, the names which feature in Cristina and Oscar’s conversation – without ever explaining, leaving the story suspended between the fantasy world of its opening and the ordinary world of its end.

The fantastic and the ordinary also battle it out in the title story as architect Victor Bagiardelli is hired to design a cemetery for the town of Colonel Isabeta. He is immediately determined to create the perfect cemetery:

“In his mind’s eye he could already see the new cemetery. The site could not have been better – he would never encounter its equal.”

Bargiardelli sees himself as an artist – “as though commanding an orchestra he began to conduct the movement of the bulldozers” – and refuses to compromise his vision despite the mayor’s concerns over the budget. Bargiardelli worries about the entrance gate, which the blacksmith will not show him until it is finished, and finding an oak tree big enough for his centre-piece, whereas in the mayor’s opinion “it is insane to pay that much for a plant.” Single-minded as he is, Bargiardelli must navigate the living as well as the dead: the mayor’s 104-year-old father whose deteriorating relationship with his son colours his view of the architect; and the mayor’s secretary, Mis Mahoney, whose advances he ignores to focus on his project. Whereas ‘The Hares’ feels as if a novel may lie behind it, ‘The Perfect Cemetery’ in lesser hands would have been stretched to novel length.

The same is true of ‘Forest Life’ which begins with a father trying to persuade the local undertaker to marry his daughter, Mabel:

“She knows how to sew, and she can make a good dinner, and she can clean…”

When this is unsuccessful, he tries again in a restaurant – “I’m giving her away” – but to no avail. What seems cruel proves to be a sign of their close relationship: their house is about to be taken from them as the forest around it is cut down and her father can see no other way to safeguard their future. Eventually she marries a Japanese man, Sakoiti, who pays for her father to go into a retirement home. He is polite and kind, even when it comes to sex:

“Are you comfortable? Are you relaxed? You can concentrate on how it feels, I’m going to give you pleasure…”

However, her father seems unable to leave their old life behind, and Mabel struggles to embrace her new one. A culture clash of a different kind takes place in ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ when the teenage Silvi, whose mother administers the last rites to those in need, loses her faith. At the same time, she falls for one of a pair of young Mormon men going from house to house:

“She couldn’t take her eyes off Steve’s hands, Steve’s fingernails, Steve’s knees bent beneath the fabric of his trousers, his firm muscles, the taut grey seam.”

Her mother fears the Mormon’s have ’brain-washed’ her but in fact they are made uneasy by Silvi’s repeated attempts to convince Steve she loves him. What is in some ways a simple coming-of-age story becomes a spiritual battle ground, not least because Silvi’s growth will be spiritual if not religious.

As with the other stories in A Perfect Cemetery, ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ demonstrates Falco’s skill with unusual relationships. All the stories contain characters who are devoted to another, whether that devotion is reciprocated or not. This, Falco seems to suggest, is where the complexity and wonder of the world lies. This is another excellent collection from Charco, and one can only hope that more of Falco’s work will follow.