The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am

December 2, 2019

When Amy Arnold, author of Slip of a Fish, was speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, she discussed her love of Scandinavian Literature and mentioned, in particular, The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am, the award-winning debut novel by Kjersti A Skomsvold, originally published in 2009, and translated by Kerri A Pierce two years later. The novel’s narrator is an elderly woman, Mathea, who lives a life of solitude, both longing for and terrified by the company and conversation of others. Her isolation begins with her marriage, though this is not something she recognises, talking throughout about her husband Epsilon with love.

Her life has revolved around Epsilon to the point she has wanted little to do with others. Early in their marriage her husband gets her a job cleaning his boss’ house. “But I don’t like mingling with people,” she tells him, “I like mingling with you.” Needless to say, the job does not last long. “Now I’ll have more time to spend with you,” she informs Epsilon, responding to his observation that he will be at work:

“Yes, but you’ll be in my thoughts.”

This is also perhaps the first occasion when she mentions Epsilon retiring, something he refuses to do even when he is past retirement age:

“’But I need a refuge, away from all the …” – for a second I thought he was going to say “togetherness” but instead he said “nakedness.” ‘Does that mean me?’ I asked. ‘I’m not naming any names,’ he said.”

Epsilon, we gather, is not the most affectionate of husband’s; when he makes her a wooden box for her knitting (it could also be argued that the ear-warmers she is always making for him suggest his inability to hear her) the engraving at the bottom, ‘To my beloved Mathea’, is an unusual out-pouring of emotion:

“Usually, I only ever hear him say ‘I love you’ when we’ve already gone to bed and he thinks I’m asleep.”

Her brief and intermittent contact with the outside world is both funny and heart-breaking. She largely avoids her neighbours:

“Sometimes June or his mother peeks out their door at the very moment I do, to grab their newspaper off the mat, and it’s uncomfortable every time.”

Yet when June comes round to borrow sugar, she makes sure to buy more in case it should happen again. Similarly, after she is asked for the time as she returns from the shops, she begins to wear her husband’s watch. The grocery store is another point of contact:

“When I give him my money, I touch the palm of his hand, but he doesn’t seem to notice… if I was kidnapped five minutes later, and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the boy would say he’d never seen me before in his life.”

Her isolation is symbolised in her every expanding collection of jam: she is unable to unscrew the lids of the jars but lacks the courage to ask anyone to do it for her. When the building she lives in holds a community meeting it throws her into panic, and she wishes instead she was under house arrest.

What sets this novel above being simply a story of how the elderly can become detached from society, alongside the engaging if eccentric narrative voice, are the occasional excursions beyond the boundaries of realism into the absurd. One such can be found when June unexpectedly visits and Mathea is able to see how he sees her flat, as we are transported to a time after her death:

“He takes all the pictures off the wall and leans them against the coffee table, and then he takes out a paint brush… Then he rips up the carpet and lays parquet…”

Another story, which seems at first an aside but will go on to provide the novel with its affecting conclusion, is that of Stein, their dog:

“I tried to convince Epsilon that he’d committed suicide… In reality, though, it was me who’d killed him.”

She does this by pretending to throw a meringue into a lake for Stein to fetch; he keeps swimming and is never seen again.

The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am is a surprisingly light-hearted mediation on death and loneliness, but though it will make you smile, its quirky humour does not disguise the deep sadness which lies at its heart.

On a Day Like This

November 26, 2019

As with so many of Peter Stamm’s characters, Andreas, in his 2006 novel On a Day Like This (translated, as always, by Michael Hofmann), makes a series of apparently impulsive decisions which will change his life dramatically. Typically, Andreas’ motives are not entirely transparent, though we understand that his life as a teacher in Paris has gradually been drained of meaning:

“Emptiness was his life in this city, in eighteen years in which nothing had changed, without his wishing for anything to change.”

With a secure, if increasingly unrewarding, job and two casual lovers, Andreas considers himself settled into the pattern of his life, but there are signs that he is beginning to long for change, imagining, for example, what it would be like to be run over by a bus:

“The collision would be the end of what had been thus far, and at the same time a sort of fresh start.”

Nothing quite so dramatic occurs – as Stamm has said in interview, “The behaviour of people in daily crisis seems much more varied than when big things happen” – and Andreas continues to feel both the insignificance of his life and his detachment from it:

“He was both an extra in the imaginary film and a member of the audience.”

He will also complain:

“He life was too formless, and at the same time too much of a tangle.”

Much of his dissatisfaction is rooted in a story from his youth, a summer afternoon when he went swimming with two friends, Fabienne and Manuel. While Manuel is swimming in the lake, Andreas kisses Fabienne. Nothing more happens, and later Fabienne and Manuel begin a relationship that will end in marriage, but Andreas feels that “Fabienne and Andreas was a love story that had never quite happened.” This has allowed Andreas to continue to idolise Fabienne – “he couldn’t imagine Fabienne sweaty or tired” – and this, in turn, at least partly explains why he has never sustained a relationship with a woman:

“From that time, she had accompanied him through all his relationships.”

Though Andreas seems, unconsciously at least, to be longing for change, it is, as previously stated, a series of minor decisions, rather than one major one, which lead his life in a new direction. Stamm has described his writing technique as:

“…more to do with feelings than with thoughts. I use my intuition to decide whether a person would do one thing or another. There is no planning, most of the time it’s not even real decisions.”

When Andreas decides to walk one of the younger teachers, Delphine, home at the end of term, and they end up sleeping together, it does not seem particularly out of the ordinary; afterwards, knowing that she will be going to a new job after the holidays, he assumes “that would be the last either of them would ever hear of the other.” This choice, however, coincides with an event Andreas has less control over, a small exploratory operation, which leads Delphine to move in with him while he recovers. This, too, ends abruptly – “I want you to leave” he tells her – but he is not only reacting to the threat of someone getting close to him (“He had always been careful not to be loved too much himself”) but to fear of the results of the biopsy:

“Someone had made a diagnosis and come to certain decisions about him, someone he didn’t even know.”

In the end, he cannot face finding out that something serious may be wrong with him, and he misses the appointment. It is this which leads him to decide to return to his home town in Switzerland, abandoning his life in France by selling his flat and buying a car instead, and asking Delphine to go with him, while at the same time intent on seeing Fabienne again:

“He had to begin a new life. That, he thought, is my only choice.”

The novel then contrasts the relationship with Delphine – casual, uncertain – with his feelings for Fabienne. As with many of Stamm’s novels, this represents a contrast between fiction and reality – if we weren’t sure that Andreas and Fabienne’s ‘relationship’ was ‘fictional’, Stamm has already made this clear by connecting it to the story in an instructional booklet which Andreas uses to teach German. Though he is set on meeting Fabienne again, “He didn’t know what he expected from her. He didn’t even know what he wanted.” It is almost as if he, too, wants to believe that part of his life is not real:

“He wanted to convince himself that the only reason that his love had lasted so long was that it had remained unrequited.”

Fabienne also makes the point clearly:

“What I have with Manuel isn’t a story. It’s reality.”

In many ways Andreas is an unsympathetic character, showing little understanding of others, but it becomes clear that this originates in a lack of self-knowledge – “He had never had a very clear sense of himself.” His failure to follow up on the moments he shared with Fabienne (“You were so dismissive, after you kissed me”) is what he has been missing in holding on to that memory.

On a Day Like This is another fascinating Stamm novel, its title capturing both the banality of Andreas’ world and his long-stifled hope for change.

The Bread of Those Early Years

November 17, 2019

Heinrich Boll’s fifth novel, The Bread of These Early Years, originally published in1955, is a story of hunger. The hunger originates in the narrator’s childhood: the rationing of the Second World War, and the poverty of the post-war period. But it also encompasses a more ambiguous longing, one which rejects the conventional life he has gradually accrued for the love of a woman he barely knows. As with The Train was on Time, it is short enough to qualify as a novella, and exists within an even briefer time period, a single day, a fact Boll emphasises by echoing the first sentence (“The day Hedwig arrived was a Monday…”) in the opening line of the final part: “It was dark, still Monday…”

On that Monday morning the narrator receives a letter from his father asking him to meet the daughter of a fellow teacher, Hedwig, who is coming to the city to train as a teacher herself. He is already aware of Hedwig’s approaching arrival as he has previously been asked by her father to find her a place to stay. Having lived in the city for seven years, only rarely visiting his father, he remembers her only as a child, “playing with some empty flower-pots in the garden.” In his recollection her hair is blonde and so he doesn’t initially recognise her as the young woman he is immediately attracted to at the train station:

“Her hair was dark, like slate roots after rain, her face white, startlingly white, like fresh whitewash with a bit of ochre shimmering trough…”

This physical description is suggestive of a new beginning – the cleansing rain, the freshening paint – and we are reminded of the narrator’s earlier comments on “how things would have turned out if I hadn’t met Hedwig at the train station”:

“I would have stepped into another life, the way a person mighty step into another train by mistake, a life that, in those days, before I knew Hedwig, seemed tolerable enough.”

His instant reaction is that he must make her his:

“…suddenly I was filled with fear, that fear explorers must feel when they step onto a new land, knowing that another expedition is on the way, might have already planted its flag, taken possession…”

Though the metaphor may feel slightly dated in its description of ‘conquest’, it too conveys the idea of new beginnings, and, in highlighting fear as the primary emotion, emphasises how vital this relationship suddenly seems to the narrator. This is not simply a love story, where the central character leaves one woman (in this case Ulla, the boss’ daughter) for another, but one where that decision is connected to rejecting the life he is currently living for a different one. It is clear that he has already struggled to find a life which satisfies him:

“I didn’t feel like continuing my electrician’s apprenticeship, but I had already tried so many things: I had been a bank clerk, a sales clerk, and a carpenter’s apprentice, each for exactly two months, and I hated this new job too…”

Meeting Hedwig is enough to make him abandoned his current job, fixing washing machines, leaving calls unanswered not only when he goes to meet her, but from that moment on. Even when he is standing in the laundrette he refuses to look at an overheating machine:

“I knew now what I’d always known but hadn’t admitted to myself for the last six years: that I hated this job as I hated every job I had tried my hand at.”

Further, he withdraws all his savings in another sign that he is drawing a line under his old life, this having hardly spoken to Hedwig. This longing is mirrored in his longing for bread as a child – he tells how he ‘prompted’ his father to visit a baker whose son his father taught every Sunday to get a loaf of bread, a gift which ends when his father gives the boy an F. He frequently remembers those who have fed him – Sister Clara, Veronika (“Each time she gave me a piece of bread I had those hands near my eyes”) – and often calculates prices in terms of loaves of bread. He describes his hunger as “the wolf that still slept inside me.” The memory of a visit to his mother in hospital demonstrates he is not the only one marked by this obsession as she says in reference to the woman in the next bed:

“Every time he [her husband] came they quarrelled about the money she gave him to buy food.”

This is perhaps contrasted by his boss’ more abstract attitude to money, also exemplified by his intended Ulla. In the conversation where he ends their relationship, he specifically mentions “the bread that you, that your father, never gave me,” while she speaks throughout in financial metaphors, even telling him, “There are such things a receipts for kisses.” It feels like two different ways of looking at the world are in competition.

The Bread of These Early Years, translated by Leila Vennewitz, is another powerful story from Boll, both a document of Germany’s post-war years and a wider examination of human longing, a longing which, as the ending suggests, can never be assuaged.

The Left-Handed Woman

November 8, 2019

When it comes to who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature each year (although I may well have an opinion on whether one writer deserves it more than another) what I largely long for is that a writer in a language other than English is the winner, particularly one who has not been widely translated into English, or one who has largely fallen out of print. Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich would be examples of the former (the translation of Modiano since his win in 2014 has been quite astonishing); J M G Clezio would be an example of the latter, with six of his novels reprinted in November 2008 after his win. This year’s winner, Peter Handke, would seem a perfect example of another writer who falls into this category, with almost all his work out of print in the UK. So far, however, any reissuing is limited to the US (Pushkin Press’ edition of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams had already been planned), with seven of his novels due in December, and New Review of Books reprinting another two next year. Can this be down to the controversy that has surrounded his award, or is he simply seen as a more difficult sell by UK publishers? Whatever the case, it seemed an appropriate time to read the 1982 Abacus copy of The Left-Handed Woman (translator unnamed) I had picked up earlier this year.

The Left-Handed Woman is a novella rather than a novel, not quite reaching 90 pages in this edition. In summary, very little happens: Marianne and Bruno are married with a young son, Stefan, but when Bruno returns from a trip abroad, Marianne asks him to move out and he goes to stay with a friend, Franziska. Marianne is initially quite isolated, but as the story progresses she develops new relationships and the novel ends with a gathering in her house of those she knows, both from before the break-up, and her new acquaintances. The novel explores Marianne’s loneliness and questions whether it is entirely negative.

Our introduction to Marianne immediately suggests she is at one remove from reality, an aspect of her character which is emphasised by the distancing technique of being referred to as ‘the woman’ throughout:

“The woman stood as if in a trance, but instead of going stiff she seemed to bend to her thoughts. The child came and asked her what she was looking at. She didn’t so much as blink.”

This idea is repeated throughout the novella:

“Then for a time she remained motionless in the same posture.”

The word ‘motionless’ in particular applies itself to the character again and again: “For a time the woman stood motionless…” and “The woman sat motionless at the desk.” This has the effect of leaving the reader on the outside of the character, looking on as if from a distance – echoing the way in which Marianne herself is often portrayed looking out of the window of her flat. That we have little access to her thoughts or feelings is best demonstrated by the moment she asks her husband to leave, shortly after he has told her, “Tonight I feel as if everything I’d ever wished for had come true” (suggesting she is also closed to him):

“I suddenly had an illumination… that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.”

Bruno’s frustration shows in later encounters: “Damn it, you’re not well,” he tells her, and:

“Do you suppose there’s no one else in the world but you? I exist, too, Marianne. I exist!”

Her decision is impossible to judge, however, as we have little insight into their life before – perhaps it is Bruno who is solipsistic.

When Bruno leaves she decides to return to work as a translator and her progress from isolation to a new accord with the world can perhaps be measured against the scenes where she is sitting at her typewriter. Initially She struggles to type at all:

“She sat at the typewriter, in the bedroom. She didn’t type… Suddenly the woman pushed the typewriter aside and it fell to the floor.”

Later we are told, “she folded her arms over the typewriter and laid her head on her arms.” Eventually she begins to type, something that seems to coincide with others coming into her life, for example her father’s visit. She also develops new relationships – an actor falls in love with her, and she also invites a shop assistant – who tells her “you seem so free” – to visit her. When Bruno and Franziska visit her near the end – “expecting to find the loneliest woman on earth” – her apartment is full.

Handke, however, is not making a point about the benefits of company. Marianne’s loneliness seems to have purified her and allowed her make new relationships on her own terms, something, now that we look back at the opening scene, was not the case with Bruno (why else would Franziska say, “At last your Marianne has woken up”?). This is revealed in her final statement:

“You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.”

The Left-Handed Woman can be disconcertingly distant but it is ultimately a rich and subtle novella. Many of its initially banal moments remain frozen in the reader’s imagination. It is a brief but fascinating introduction to Handke’s work.

Berlin Finale

November 3, 2019

As with Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, German writer Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale, published in the same year of 1947, was a best-seller in Germany, and was soon translated into to English (in 1952). Like Fallada, however, Rein’s reputation quickly faded in the UK and US, and, only now, with Shaun Whiteside’s new translation, will it hopefully be restored. Berlin Finale (and here, at least, ‘Berlin’ is uncontroversially in the original title) is set during the final days of the Second World War with the capital surrounded and Germany facing a defeat which Hitler and the Nazi High Command refuse to recognise. Over 660 pages Rein describes in painful detail the delusions of those who still believe the Third Reich can survive, and the defiance of those who wish to end the war and begin rebuilding. Amid the rubble, a dangerous atmosphere of suspicion still exists, with those supposed to be opposed to Nazi victory facing summary execution.

The novel opens as Joachim Lassehn, a disillusioned deserter from the Eastern front, arrives in Berlin. He has only the vaguest idea of why he has returned – his parents are dead and he can barely remember his wife, the result of a marriage that took place only days after meeting, and of which he says:

“It’s quite possible that we could walk past each other in the street and not recognise each other.”

Instead he finds himself in a bar talking to the landlord, Oskar Klose. When Klose speculates that Lassehn has deserted – “you’ve done a bunk, you’re on the run, you’ve high-tailed it, you’ve skedaddled” – Lassehn threatens to shoot him, but Klose, luckily, has been long opposed to the Nazi regime. Rein is quick to establish Lassehn’s innocence: this is partly political but also extends to a lack of life experience in general, particularly when it comes to women. (When he later finds a woman he has just met is attracted to him he doesn’t understand it, “he doesn’t know that there is also an animal lust that requires only the body and nothing else.”) His age, twenty-two, partly explains this, but, as Klose points out, so do the circumstances of his youth:

“You didn’t grow up in normal times… But when you started thinking the trouble-makers had already glued up your brain.”

This is a topic Rein will turn to again and again, the question of how Germany can recover from the war when its young men and women have known nothing but National Socialism. Lassehn himself recognises that, though he has rebelled, he has no other political system to recommend:

“He cannot think of an idea that carries his life and forces its way towards a goal, he knows only rejection of the idea that they had tried to force on him with pathos and brute force.”

Klose introduces Lassehn to a small group of like-minded anti-Nazis including Dr Bottcher and Friedrich Wiegand. Wiegand is wanted by the Nazis and living under a false name. Where Lassehn typifies those who have grown disillusioned and disgusted by National Socialism, Wiegand best represents those who have resisted all along. Wiegand has already spent time in a concentration camp as a political prisoner and, in the course of the novel, he will come under suspicion again, placing his wife in danger. His eldest son, Robert, on the other hand, has fully embraced fascism having “willingly allowed the poison of National Socialism to seep into him.” All live with the fear of discovery, as Wiegand explains:

“Experience has taught me that everyone observes everyone, that everybody suspects his neighbour, whether it’s because he fears he’s being spied upon or because he himself is a spy, quite apart from those creature who, without actually being spies, like to make themselves tools of the party, to demonstrate their loyalty and reliability.”

It is this constant sense of danger which makes the novel feel like a thriller at points (and perhaps explains the endorsement of Lee Childs on the cover). Many of the tensest moments take place in the confined space of an air raid shelter. Lassehn is questioned by an air raid warden when he goes to visit his wife and he is forced to take shelter:

“…in a flash, he is… aware of his situation: a deserter with inadequate papers in a city that is keenly searching for soldiers who have fled the battlefield, a deserter surrounded by strangers, any of whom could give him away…”

Wiegand encounters a different problem when he is recognised by an old comrade and has to deny any knowledge of him. There are later encounters, for example when Wiegand, Klose and Bottcher are questioned in the pub, that end more violently, and, overall, the effect is to have the reader permanently on edge.

The novel is not only the story of Lassehn, Wiegand and the resistance, however; Rein seeks to paint a wider picture of life in Berlin during these final days. This is not only done with set-piece descriptions reminiscent of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with chapters set aside which take us into the offices of the Gestapo, or tell the story of a man whose wife and child do not return after a raid. One chapter is specifically titled ‘Biography of a National Socialist’. Even within chapters, other characters widen the novel’s scope, like the woman who has lost her daughter denouncing Hitler in an air raid shelter: “something has changed in me.”

Thematically, Rein looks both backward and forward: wondering how Germany will reform as previously mentioned, but also questioning how Germany allowed itself to become enthralled to Hitler in the first place:

“It would drive you mad that a handful of crazy demagogues and charlatans have managed to make an entire people obsessed with their idea.”

Berlin Finale is a classic of its kind: not only detailed and documentary (it seems likely that extracts of Nazi propaganda are verbatim) but incisive and insightful (take, for example, the thought that, “The adaptability of the human spirit is one of the most significant, but also one of the most terrible, gifts of man…”). That it is such a riveting, roller-coaster of a read is an added bonus.

The Memoir of an Anti-Hero

October 26, 2019

Kornel Filipowicz is a Polish writer, born in 1913, who lived through both world wars and the Soviet occupation of Poland (he died in 1990). He seems to have been completely ignored by the English language until now, despite a writing career which began in the thirties, and encompassed poetry and screen-writing as well as novels and short stories, and a record of resistance to the censorship of both National Socialism (he was imprisoned in Groß-Rosen and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in 1944) and Communism (signing the protest letter Memorial 59 in 1975). He was, and is, widely respected in Poland; Janusz Kowalcyzk, who calls him “one of Poland’s most important post-war prosaists,” tells us:

“In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘going to Kornel’s place’ was proof of belonging to the literary circle. Young writers flocked to him and wore him out with their works.”

Finally, thanks to Penguin Classics and translator Anna Zaranko, we can now read him in English with the publication of his 1961 novella, The Memoir of an Anti-Hero. The memoir opens as the Second World War begins, with our narrator, the ‘anti-hero’ of the title, on holiday, and deciding, unlike other holiday-makers, to resist the temptation to return home immediately:

“I told myself that what the majority did was not necessarily what one ought to do – and I stayed.”

The narrator’s ability to make decisions for himself, though not necessarily always admirable, will be one reason he is able to survive the dangers ahead. It also demonstrates his disengagement from others. When he sees Jews wearing six-pointed stars on armbands he comments:

“I had many Jewish acquaintances, I was even on quite intimate terms with some of them – but ultimately their fate was a source of indifference to me.”

Conversely, he expects no sympathy from others. When he is slapped by a member of the SS and falls, he has no time for those who come to his aid:

“I felt disgust and hatred for these people and their sympathy. I would have been happy to see them meet the same fate on the next street corner.”

The narrator sees his attitude as a rational response to reality:

“The country had been occupied by the victors. I belong to the side of the losers and I have to succumb to those who now run the country.”

He has little patience with those who offer either passive or active resistance – when he finds the behaviour of other Poles in a café ‘provocative’ towards the Germans he simply stops going there. By the same token, he understands “the wisdom of not permitting myself to be drawn too far into intimacy with [the Germans].” His ability to accomplish this balancing act is greatly aided by the fact he can speak German. More than once he pretends to be German to remove himself from a difficult situation. It also aids his attempts to remain uninvolved:

“The Germans simply took me for a Pole, the Poles for a German, whereas I was neither.”

In his desire to remain neutral, he rejects the idea of nationality. He does, however, act when his neutrality is threatened. When the caretaker’s children throw snowballs at him shouting, “Volksdeutsch,” he bribes a German policeman to have the caretaker arrested for a couple of days and then insinuates to his wife that he has worked to have him released.

Filipowicz, however does not present the ‘anti-hero’s’ life as one of constant worry and tension; on the contrary he often refers to feelings of happiness. At the beginning, when he decides he is “not qualified for heroism,” he says, “I became quite cheerful,” and later, following a lucky escape after being arrested for not having his identity papers on him, he comments:

“I felt happy. It was a warm, fragrant evening. The sun had set already, dusk was falling, but the sky was still bright.”

This is not to suggest Filipowicz approves of his character – his own life indicates a different viewpoint – but he convincingly represents a self-preserving cynicism which was likely to have been prevalent at the time, and, of course, still is. Only at the very end does the narrator show any sign of regret (in what he calls a “moment of weakness”), though even here he wishes heroism had been forced upon him.

The Memoir of an Anti-Hero (I assume on some level a response to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time) brings a new viewpoint to a genre which is not under-represented in translated literature. Filipowicz, however, certainly is, and it is to be hoped that more of his work will soon become available in English.

Will and Testament

October 21, 2019

Verso are no strangers to translated fiction, having published writers like Jose Saramago and Wu Ming in the past, but in August they announced the launch of a translated fiction imprint with two titles published this autumn, the first of which was Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament translated by Charlotte Barslund. Hjorth is a Norwegian writer with a career beginning in the 1980s, but Will and Testament is a recent novel, originally published in 2016. Its topic is, as the title suggests, is a disputed will, but the dispute is only the final fracture in a family which is no longer a family.

The novel is narrated by estranged daughter Bergjlot, who at first characterises the dispute as one between her brother, Bard, and her two sisters, Asa and Astrid, beginning when their parents’ will is changed before the unexpected death of their father:

“In the weeks leading up to his death, my siblings had become embroiled in a heated argument about how to share the family estate, the holiday cabins on Hvaler.”

The new will leaves the two holiday cabins to Astrid and Asa despite a long-stated intention that all four children will be treated equally. Bard and Bergjlot will be compensated financially, though the amount they are offered under-values the cabins according to Bard, who views the will as “the final straw in a long line of financial favouritism.” It soon becomes clear, however, that the real story is Bergjlot’s estrangement. For a long time her only contact with her family has been through Astrid, but even here there is tension, particularly when Astrid passes on news regarding their mother:

“Sometimes I had sent furious replies to such messages because Astrid treated me as though it were a matter of will, as though I could simply decide to turn up, to be nice, to make conversation. Astrid had deleted my furious emails without reading them, she wrote, and that was her right…”

This is also the first indication that Bergjlot is not listened to by her family: while deciding not to read a message sent in anger may initially be seen as emotionally mature, it is also a form of selective blindness, refusing to acknowledge that the anger exists, and may even be justified. (Ironically, Astrid is a human rights lawyer: “Everybody makes mistakes, you write… When you meet victims of human rights abuses, is that what you tell them?”). Bergjlot comments frequently ion not being heard: I has learned that speaking the truth was against the rules,” she says, and, “it was as if I didn’t exist, as if my story didn’t exist.”

Clearly something has happened in Bergjlot’s past which the family will not acknowledge, something which, though it is only revealed later in ten narrative, is unlikely to surprise many readers. The novel, however, is not really about what happened, but about the family’s reaction to it, both initially, when it is suppressed by Berjlot as well as her parents, and later, when Bergjlot, through counselling, faces up to her past:

“To finally admit the truth about the very thing they had devoted so much energy to repress and deny.”

She reaches this point after years of unhappiness: “I existed in a state of pain and shame, which couldn’t be undone, but which I couldn’t live with unprocessed either.” Her family’s refusal to engage with her, however, eventually leads her to cut off almost all ties: “the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief.”

Hjorth is not writing a novel where the character’s past is dangled in front of the reader like a carrot; she is instead interested in the ways in which we choose to ignore or side-step what is inconvenient or disruptive. Bergjlot’s mother refuses to acknowledge what happened to Bergjlot not so much by openly denying it as by not hearing it; her sisters, similarly, allow the accusations to exist in a grey area they choose never to visit, instead carrying on as normal. Behaving otherwise poses too much of a challenge to the comfortable status quo:

“If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable.”

As Bergjlot says of Astrid, “she sought reconciliation and cooperation, but there are opposites which can’t be cancelled out, there are times when you must choose.”

Will and Testament is a novel which probes large questions about guilt, acknowledgment and reconciliation in the small space of a family feud; it is a domestic drama with philosophical inquiry at its heart. It marks the discovery of another wonderful Scandinavian writer.

An Evening with Claire

October 15, 2019

An Evening with Claire, Gaito Gazdanov’s first novel, was published in 1930 in France where Gazdanov had arrived in 1923, a Russian émigré. The novel certainly has autobiographical elements, telling, as it does, of a young Russian in Paris who left his homeland after fighting with the White Army when little more than a child. The story is framed around Claire, whom he first meets when he is thirteen. She is slightly older (“At that time I was between the fifth and sixth grades; Claire was finishing her tenth and last.”) – and one of her friends quickly dismisses the narrator as “extraordinarily immature”, something illustrated by the fact he senses rather than understands her “budding sexuality”:

“It always seemed to me I was sinking into a fiery and sweet liquid and seeing Claire’s body and her bright eyes with their long lashes near me.”

He stops visiting her after he is insulted by her mother (in French, as she assumes he will not understand) but now, in Paris he has renewed his acquaintance with her despite her marriage. Though he is now in his twenties, there is still a strong sense that he is the junior partner:

“She smiled and her smile clearly said, ‘My god, is he naïve.’”

It is finally sleeping with Claire, however, which seems to prompt the recollections which form the bulk of the narrative, originating from the feeling that there is sadness as well as joy in achieving his dream:

“…never again could I dream about Claire as I had always dreamed about her, and that much time would come to pass before I would come to form another image of her and before this image would become in its own way just as unattainable for me as had been this moment…”

The narrator’s memories from this point are presented impressionistically, a style which Gazdanov describes as follows:

“It was as if I no longer saw or knew anything that happened to me beyond the moment I chose to recollect… I grew accustomed to living within a past reality which my imagination had brought back to life.”

The narrator’s childhood is one of loss: his father dies when he is eight, and he loses his sisters as well. This makes him rather self-contained – he says, “I never loved anyone and would leave those from whom circumstances would separate me with no regrets.” It is this quality which perhaps encourages him to enlist during the civil war, an action which is not based on ideology:

“I joined the White Army because I was on its territory, because it was expected of me; and if in those days the Reds had occupied Kislovodsk, I probably would have joined the Red Army.”

His time in the army is recounted largely in the characters of his comrades rather than the horrors of war or the incompetence of generals. Even as he demonstrates his affection for his fellow soldiers, however, he continues to remain at one remove from them:

“I passed the time with the soldiers but around me they behaved with a certain guardedness, because I didn’t understand many things which, in their opinion, were extraordinarily simple; at the same time they though I knew things which, in turn, where inaccessible to them.”

The narrator’s ability to observe in detail while maintaining some distance, as well as his desire to embrace experience, suggests the writer in waiting. It also reflects what translator Jodi Daynard calls Gazdanov’s attempt “to reconcile his own joyous sense of wonderment with the depressing material and moral conditions of his times.”

An Evening with Claire can seem slight compared to some other émigré novels: Nina Berberova, for example, deals with childhood during the revolution in much greater depth in The Book of Happiness, and the civil war has been written about extensively in fiction. It also lacks the thriller structure which makes later novels such as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and The Buddha’s Return such a delight. Having said that, it is still a beguiling read, suffused with Gazdanov’s trademark weary joy, encompassing everything from love to war.

An Orphan World

September 28, 2019

Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World, translated by Juana Adcock and Sophie Hughes, is a novel of juxtapositions. Each of its chapters tells of two different moments in the life of its narrator, alternating between each story. Caputo also places in contrast his character’s close relationship with his father and the often distant sexual exchanges which take place in his life as gay man. Finally, we find light and darkness in constant play across the narrative: the novel’s title, for example, originating in stories that the narrator’s father tells him of life on a different planet, “an orphan world with no sun, plunged into perpetual darkness.”

However, An Orphan World is, first of all, a tale of poverty:

“That’s how we lived, my dad and I, in that grey neighbourhood – a grey that was sometimes smoky, sometimes blackish – trapped in a cycle of poverty and never quite at peace.”

The father thinks up numerous schemes to make money – from charging to give people advice at the local bar (“The first piece is free, and from then on I charge.”) to using a tape recorder to pretend that their house is talking, a scam which backfires when they fail to open the door on time and everything on the tape plays ahead of the action. It is their lack of money which forces them to move to the section of town which is without any lights at night:

“I was terrified of the location, right in the heart of the dark zone – as it was called – which had no street lights at all, but the price was within what we could afford.”

Later, when their electricity is cut off because they cannot afford to pay the bill and they illegally reconnect it themselves, they are unable to put any lights on in the front of the house in case they are seen from the street. In many ways, their poverty can be seen as a journey into increasing darkness; however, light in the novel is not presented as the benevolent opposite.

The novel’s central event, overshadowing everything, is the mass murder of homosexuals, presumably on one night. We do not see the violence but are made fully aware of the horror in its aftermath:

“There, in the bar district, we came upon men with no heads: four or five bodies, floating from the neck down in their own lake. Beyond them, in a little heap, the chopped-up crimson flesh of a man (or several men) who’d been out dancing.”

Later, when a lorry appears to take the corpses away, even a policeman throws up at the sights illuminated by the headlights – including the severed heads which have been placed inside the street lights. It’s perhaps for this reason the narrator says at one point:

“So much light that, instead of illuminating the night or dissipating the darkness, it seemed to create them.”

This threat hangs over the narrator throughout – for example, when he is stopped by the police having gone out to look for food, one of them comments: “How come they didn’t kill this one, though?”

The narrator’s sex life is revealed in a refreshingly uncompromising manner. There are no ‘relationships’ but simply a series of sexual encounters. Some of these take place in a sex club he visits, others online. Caputo is particularly good at writing about the Roulette chatroom, and the narrator’s attitude to it:

“A hundred men in one; a stranger transforming into a hundred strangers.”

Later he says, “Sometimes I mistake my screen for the stranger’s”. The influence of the internet on sexual desire is clearly going to be an important topic for writers over the coming decades, and it’s exciting to see Caputo begin to explore this, though elements of voyeurism are also apparent at the sex club:

“I watched them, and I watched him watching them.”

That Caputo places this alongside the narrator’s loving relationship with his father illustrates that he is not emotionally empty – a cliché which is often present when a character indulges in sexual gratification outside of love. The narrator’s connection to his father is evident from the beginning, and Caputo often use language we would associate with a couple:

“With our arms around each other we went to his room…”

And:

“I think about my dad, and go back to lie down beside him (‘beside him’ is code for spooning him).”

There is a beauty in their relationship that survives the ugliness which surrounds them.

An Orphan World is a novel which does things that not many other novels are doing. Its father / son relationship is one of love and companionship rather than tension and resentment; the narrator’s homosexuality is powerfully central to his story without overwhelming the narrative; and the ugliness of its poverty and violence is never quite victorious in the face of its human virtues. It would be a pity if it did not get the audience it deserves simply because of its sexual openness.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

September 21, 2019

Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting, also translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, consisted entirely of short passages which built towards a picture of love in all its many forms. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is more traditionally structured as a series of short stories, but has a similarly cumulative effect as we discover characters and incidents reappearing from different angles, perhaps still central to the story, but just as possibly an aside, a sentence or two glimpsed fleetingly as we travel on. Where Trysting was very clearly an exploration of love, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, as the title is perhaps intended to suggest, is more difficult to pin down, reflecting, as it does, on place, isolation, and eccentricity.

The idea of isolation is touched on in the first, and briefest story, told in the first person, when the narrator tells us, “I pedalled out to the middle of the lake to read there, away from the others but not too far away.” It forms a companion piece with the final story, ‘Glitter’, in which the narrator finds glitter between the pages of a library book; the suggestion of being “away…but not to far away” echoed in the way in which the narrator believes this discovery connects her to other readers:

“I never did find more glitter. But I did find readers. I’ve found other proofs of reading. I’m no longer alone reading these demanding books, no longer alone in my steamy bath, my bubble.”

Isolation which is not loneliness is a common thread, as can be seen from the narrator of the second story’s summation of the setting:

“The plateau harbours so many solitudes you might think it bustling with life.”

Solitary characters often momentarily connect or at least coincide. In ‘Blind Spots’ the narrator intentionally hides by the roadside: “I stand in their blind spots… I make myself invisible.” But in the story he is seen:

“It’s different with you. You’re the one frightening me. You’re so serene, you’re like my fear, you’re like fear itself.”

The woman who picks the narrator up is, in fact, intent on suicide, a suicide already mentioned in the previous story (“I think she decided to kill herself, I think it was on purpose.”) but one she postpones in the course of this story, only to return to in ‘Three Press-ups and Unable to Die’:

“They’ll know of my death today, of course; I won’t get it wrong again.”

The man from the roadside wonders, “Who are you not to be frightened – a madwoman?” but he will later be referred to by another man who has hitched a lift in ‘The Mini-pilgrimage’, along with others – “he knew some mad people too, more like roadside loonies.” Another reoccurring character, “the automatic tour guide” is first introduced as “the mad old Polish man”. Madness, in this context, is living your life by ritual; habitual behaviour that is both imprisoning and liberating.

This is perhaps best seen in another ‘roadside loony’ who waits by the roadside at the place where his wife and children were killed:

“He waited there for things to be reversed, for the past, for the return of the dead. Going backwards every evening at five o’clock, waiting for life to be different.”

When the road is changed locals wonder how he will react and, in what seemed a hopeless tale, the narrator strikes a hopeful note: “He goes beyond the figure we made of him, that we thought we could reduce him to.” ‘The Loony and the Bright Spark’, is one of the most successful stand-alone stories in the collection, and could easily be placed in an anthology. The same applies to ‘The Short Cut’, although only five pages long, where a woman, returning home for a funeral, finds that a short cut has taken her back too quickly:

“I wasn’t lost on the road but in my mind. It had gone too fast, this return with the short cut.”

‘The Drop-out’, despite echoes to previous talk of cousins who look alike, also works well isolation, and is possibly the strangest story in the collection, as the narrator leaves her daughter’s wedding with the woman who may or may not be the cousin she has not seen for many years. Other stories work better in the context of the collection, accumulating meaning in their echoes, something, perhaps, to be expected from the constant play of isolation and connection within them. In both cases Pagano has an eye for the unseen, the blind spots of life, those we shun or try to forget about. This collection, alongside Trysting, marks her out as a unique and perceptive voice.