The Blue Soda Siphon

January 31, 2016

blue soda siphon

Every so often it’s the idea behind a novel which leads you to pick it up. Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon is a case in point. Widmer is a Swiss writer who, despite the fact that Seagull books, and Donal McLaughlin, have now translated six of his titles into English, I had never heard of before (though it has to be said that I came across him while exploring their back catalogue). Yet as soon as I read the conceit behind this particular novel I wanted to read it. The premise was simple but intriguing: the narrator finds himself inexplicably returned to the time of his childhood, while his childhood self is transported to the present.

Though this is a playful novel, Widmer indicates that serious intentions lie behind it from the start when the present day (the novel was published in 1992) is strongly identified with the Gulf War:

“Oil fields were burning. Bombs were falling on cities. Missiles were flying along avenues at the height of traffic lights and detonating when they reached the end. People had stared at the sky like this before, in Dresden, in Coventry, and seen the planes, then the black dots falling towards them, and the women covered their children’s ears before they were blown to pieces.”

Mention of Dresden and Coventry links to the childhood he will return to in the 1940s.The transformation takes place when the narrator visits the cinema. On his exit he discovers the streets unusually quiet, and, returning home finds that his house “no longer had a bell but a new door.” Suffice to say, when he pounds on it, it is not his wife’s head which appears out of the window but that of an unknown man threatening him with the police. Considering the police a good idea, he visits the local station:

“The ‘Police’ sign outside was new too, with letters reminiscent of films from the Nazi period.”

Instinctively he boards a train for his home town, and only after encountering his father among a group of soldiers (it’s his bicycle he recognises) does he realise what has happened. He makes his way to his old house, encountering numerous amusing ironies. “Does the dog know you?” his mother asks, and when he tells his father he’s his son, his father replies, “Listen, any other time, yes. But I’m not in the mood for jokes today.” Only later do they discover their ‘real’ son is missing.

What prevents this being a literary Back to the Future is that there seems little danger of either narrator altering the other’s timeline. Nor is there much tension regarding returning to the correct time – it is assumed by the older man that all he need do is go back to the cinema, where his younger version also disappeared. Only after they have returned do we discover that child’s adventures in his future. Widmer also takes time to recount the stories of the films his narrators watch, containing strange echoes of their own story.

Widmer’s main concern seems to be the fragility of life. More than once he speaks of the threat of war. The capsules of the soda siphon are likened to bombs – and the bomb which fell on Hiroshima in particular, mentioned at the end of both parts of the story:

“Were I to see a black dot, I wouldn’t have much time anymore. Maybe my silhouette would etched on the wall of the house.”

The older narrator also meets a young woman at the top of a water tower who later throws herself off – perhaps the first memory of his childhood. In contrast, both visits out of time focus on the joy to be found there; neither the adult nor the boy seem at all worried or distressed. The older narrator returns to the present followed by his childhood dog which he gives to his daughter; the teenage girl, Lisette who looked after him as a child, returns his love before he leaves. From the top of the water tower he says:

“I haven’t seen anything as beautiful for a very long time.”

Recognising the fragility of his experience has heightened it.

The Blue Soda Siphon was as fascinating as I had hoped it would be. My late discovery of Widmer at least means that another five titles are already waiting.

In Diamond Square

January 26, 2016

diamond square

At the end of last year, a number of other bloggers I follow decided to take part in the Classics Club challenge (to read fifty classics in five years). Initially it seemed very much my kind of thing: it involved books and a list for a start. It also identified a problem created by keeping up with the latest releases: never finding the time to fill in the gaps in your personal reading history. Twenty years ago I had taken part in my own classics challenge, attempting to read all the major novels in English beginning with Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and getting as far as Silas Marner in 1861 over the course of four years. This was, of course, a fairly rigorous definition of classic, and the looseness of today’s equivalent (for example, allowing novels only twenty-five years old to be included) was one reason I resisted – that and the fact I knew that I would never stick to a list over five years anyway.

Instead I sought a more straight-forward solution: simply read at least one classic each month. with no need to decide anything in advance of picking up the book. I made it a little harder on myself by insisting that, in order to count, the book would either need to be a universally recognised classic, or published by a classics imprint (though, as this is largely a marketing technique, I wasn’t making it that difficult). This lack of planning paid off when I came across Merce Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square in my local library. I was aware that Open Letter had been translating and publishing some of Rodoreda’s novels, but didn’t know that Virago Modern Classics (you see how it works?) had issued a new translation of her Spanish Civil War novel by Peter Bush in 2013. As it’s regarded as one of the most important Catalan novels of the last century, it qualifies as a classic in every sense.

In Diamond Square is the story of a woman’s life. It begins as Natalia leaves her childhood behind when she meets a young man, Joe, at a dance in the square of the title. Joe is a forceful, charismatic character; he tells Natalia, whom he immediately rechristens Pidgey, she’ll “be his wife within a year.” As Natalia runs from him, perhaps her final childish action, the elastic on her petticoat snaps as she sheds clothes which no longer fit her, just as she discards the notion of herself as a “little girl.”

“I got home and threw myself on my bed in the dark, my little girl’s brass bed, as if I was hurling a stone at it.”

Natalia and Joe marry within the first thirty pages: one of the most invigorating aspects of the novel is the breathless pace with which it proceeds. One way Rodoreda achieves this is beginning sentences, paragraphs and even chapters with ‘and.’ Here is the opening of Chapter XI in which Natalia gives birth (five pages after we discover she is pregnant):

“And that first scream of mine was deafening. Who’d have thought my voice could carry so far or last so long?”

You might worry that such speed necessitates a lack of detail and yet both Natalia and Joe are fully rounded characters. Joe is not the perfect husband but neither is he caricatured as a bad one. He has faults such as his occasional jealousies and the suspicion that the sore leg he so often complains of is largely in his mind, but his affection for Natalia, and later their children, is also evident.

If the novel were only a picture of their relationship it would be a very good one, but this is a marriage which is interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Joe goes to fight leaving Natalia alone with their two children, Anthony and Rita. This is not a novel for those interested in the causes or course of the war itself; what follows is a moving portrait of how war affects civilians:

“The gas went. I mean it didn’t reach the flat or the underground rooms in the house I cleaned… Joe was also running around on the streets and every day I’d think that would be the last I’d see of him… after several days of smoke and churches in flames, he walked in with a revolver in his belt and a double-barrelled shotgun over his shoulder….The grocer’s downstairs was soon cleaned out…”

As the war goes on, food becomes scarcer and scarcer:

“It was a real struggle to buy food because I had hardly any money and because there was no food to buy. The milk contained no milk in it. The meat, when there was any, was horsemeat, so they said.”

Natalia sells everything she owns and, at one point, has to send Anthony away because she cannot feed him.

In Diamond Square is a wonderful book, the portrait of a woman as a survivor. As Rodoreda says in her introduction:

“Pidgey does what she must do within the situation she finds herself in, and to do what must be done and no more reveals a natural talent that deserves the greatest respect.”


January 23, 2016


One of my reading resolutions for 2016 is to read more Scottish literature (the other is simply to read at least one classic each month). During the late eighties and throughout the nineties I read most new Scottish novels or short story collections which fell under the category of ‘literary fiction’. This meant encountering Alasdair Gray and James Kelman (who had first been published at the beginning of the eighties), Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Ali Smith and writers now less well known (for example Jeff Torrington, whose Swing Hammer Swing! was recently reprinted by Vintage Classics; or James Meek who later found fame with The People’s Act of Love). It’s also the reason I possess a copy of Iain Rankin’s first novel, The Flood, published by Edinburgh University imprint Polygon. In fact, Polygon was responsible for the first (UK) publication of Kelman, Galloway and Kennedy; Gray’s Lanark was published by Canongate, also based in Edinburgh. Of course Polygon is no more and Canongate is largely indistinguishable from other UK publishers (bar its Canongate Classics series).

However, the main reason I drifted away from Scottish fiction was the feeling that it wasn’t very interesting anymore. Rankin must take at least some of the blame for this: ever since he decided to become a great crime writer rather than a great writer, an army of Scottish writers have followed in his wake, so much so that a new sub-genre, Tartan Noir, has been created. I was recently surprised to discover my view was shared by Adrian Searle, founder of Freight Books, one of a number of exciting new Scottish publishers:

“Saying Scottish fiction is boring is, of course, a vast generalisation, and I wouldn’t be in this business if it was all like that, but as someone who reads large amounts of Scottish fiction as part of my job, I’ve come to believe that, as a literary culture, we’ve become infantilised. We set the bar of quality lower for our own literature than that from elsewhere.”

Ironically, Freight is at the forefront of some interesting new voices in Scottish fiction, a prime example being Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet, winner of last year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize. Fishnet is a novel about prostitution; that is, as well as doing everything else a novel does, it unambiguously sets itself up to explore this particular issue and our attitudes to it. Clearly there is danger that this function overwhelms the narrative and that the novel becomes little more than an outlet for the author’s research; that this doesn’t happen is testament to Innes’ skill, in what is her first novel.

Innes has the confidence to begin with a series of short, disconcerting chapters, the first a prelude to the main story, in which two young women wake up after a night spent in a hotel room with a DJ. One is clearly more innocent than the other: “Cam, he left us like, cash…” Innes disguises the identity of the first girl by using the second person, at the same time demanding that the reader place themselves in her position. This is followed with a brief glimpse of the first person narrative which will make up the majority of the novel describing a scrapbook of missing persons. Before we can become acquainted, however, we encounter a third section entitled About Me… – a series of adverts for female escorts:

“Whatever your looking for a brief encounter or a longer date, Sabrina offers a truly sophisticated girlfriend experience!!!”

From this point on the novel is largely told by our first person narrator, Fiona Leonard, whose sister Rona (we discover) went missing seven years before, but it will continue to be interrupted with material from the internet, in particular the blog posts of certain sex workers Fiona comes to follow, one of those rare occasions where the use of a blog genuinely enhances the novel. Fiona’s monotonous, dead-end job largely consists of making photocopies, phone-calls and tea. She lives in the flat above her parents, who help her look after Beth. Since her sister went missing her life has narrowed to work and child. Two coincidences connect her to the world of prostitution: new information she discovers about her sister on a hen night in the town where she last lived; and the involvement of her construction company in the closure of a refuge. Fiona’s journey into that world becomes our own as she seeks understanding as well as information.

Innes is careful not divorce the issue of sex work from that of gender politics: from the hen party onwards the novel shows an astute awareness of the roles women are given and adopt. The male gaze is never far away:

“Heather came tottering over. We’d dressed her in a white basque and pink fishnet stockings tonight, veil, tiara and a pink garter to hang her L-plates off. The men were watching her from their corners, watching her wobble and shake.”

Fishnet succeeds on every level: as a character portrait, a missing person thriller, an exploration of sexuality, and a re-evaluation of sex work (and work in general) If it doesn’t at least give you pause for thought, you must have come to it very enlightened indeed.

Numero Zero

January 18, 2016

numero zero

I sometimes wonder whether Umberto Eco’s legacy as a writer will largely ignore his fiction. Not, of course, The Name of the Rose, the novel which made Eco’s name as a result of both its popularity and skilful construction. Had it not been a success, though, would he have gone on to write more fiction, or retreated back into the academic world? Don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy Eco’s novels – they are frequently entertaining and learned – but none have quite matched his first, and, until The Prague Cemetery, seemed to be on a downward trajectory reaching its nadir in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Eco continues the fascination with conspiracies displayed (not for the first time) in The Prague Cemetery in his latest novel, Numero Zero. Set in 1992, it satirises Italian corruption while at the same time offering a series of Fascist conspiracies which only begin with Mussolini’s death, continuing through Italian post-war history to the novel’s present. The satire originates with an offer of employment to the novel’s narrator, Colonna:

“A book. The memoirs of a journalist, the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published.”

The newspaper (Domani = tomorrow) is being created entirely for the benefit of the publisher, Commendatore Vimercate: by suggesting that he is prepared to sanction a newspaper which will “tell the truth about everything” he hopes to put enough pressure on the rich and powerful to be allowed to join the club:

“Once the Commendatore has shown he can create problems for the so-called inner sanctum of finance and politics, it’s likely they’ll ask him to put a stop to such an idea. He’ll close down Domani and will then be given an entry permit to the inner sanctum.”

It is through working with the newspaper’s staff (who are unaware of the log-term plan) that Colonna meets Braggadocio, a signed-up, card-carrying conspiracy theorist:

“…my father taught me never to take news as gospel truth. The newspapers lie, historians lie, now the television lies….And so I stuck to being a journalist and hunting out conspiracies.”

Braggadocio attempts to convince Colonna that Mussolini survived the end of the Second World War; it was, in fact, his double who was killed. As Braggadocio has already conducted most of his research, this presented largely in dialogue, which Eco splits over more than one scene in an effort to create some tension. More plausibly, Braggadocio goes on to outline the use of ex-Fascists by the Americans to prevent European countries from straying towards socialism (this will be of interest to anyone who has read Peter Carey’s Amnesia which recounts an American plot to remove an Australian government they felt were too left wing).

The novel raises the possibility that Colonna’s life may be in danger as a result of what Braggadocio has told him – it begins with Colonna fearing that this is then case in June before rewinding to April to tell the rest of the story in flashback. How seriously Eco intends us to take this is unclear: it is the fact that his water has been turned off which causes Colonna to panic, and, while panicking, he is able to summarise his life story up to that point for our benefit.
How seriously we are to take the novel as a whole is also unclear. Obviously the newspaper satire is poking fun at Italian corruption, but is Eco also satirising conspiracy theorists? Or is he suggesting that the more ridiculous theory (Mussolini’s survival) merely symbolises the continued influence of Fascism on Italy? Though far from a perfect novel, Carey is clearly upset (okay, outraged) at the American coup in Amnesia; Numero Zero feels more like an intellectual game. (And this is without considering the least plausible aspect of the novel, the love affair which Eco inserts into the narrative).

Numero Zero is short and entertaining, but the entertainment lies more is the conspiracies themselves than in the way they are presented in the novel. In turn they clash with the satirical intent, leaving this reader a little uncertain what to make of it all, a not atypical reaction to conspiracy theories themselves.

All For Nothing

January 13, 2016

all for nothing

Despite Walter Kempowki’s first success as a novelist coming with the autobiographical Tadellöser und Wolf in 1971, it was only last year that he began to appear in English with the final volume of his ‘German Chronicle’, Swansong 1945, which consists of thousands of personal documents, newspaper reports, letters and diaries collected and collated by the author. This has been followed by a translation of his final novel (by Anthea Bell), All For Nothing, published in 2006, one year before his death.

All For Nothing is also concerned with the Second World War, which Kempowski experienced as a teenager. The novel is set on the Georgenhof estate in East Prussia in 1945 as the Russian army advances on Germany:

“The estate was a small one. All the land apart from a remnant had been sold and the manor house was far from being a castle…Early in this January of 1945, the tiles on the roof were rattling in an icy wind that swept up fine snow from far and away over the fields and against the estate buildings.”

Despite the weather and the distant guns, the estate owners, the von Globigs, live a life relatively sheltered from the hardships of the war. Though the husband has enlisted, he is currently posted in Italy far from the front line; his wife, Katharina, largely spends her time at leisure, insisting she is left in her room to read undisturbed. Their twelve-year-old son, Peter, has even been excused membership of the Hitler Youth on account of his tonsillitis. Only Auntie makes an effort to keep the estate running, roaming the rooms in her trousers and two cardigans while shouting at the imported servants (a Pole and two Ukrainians).

From the start, All For Nothing feels like a Chekhov play: the snow, the country house setting, the procession of regular and irregular visitors. The way in which the past washes across the present also feels very like Chekhov: Peter’s sister, Elfie’s, room preserved from the day she died; Katharina reminiscing over a day spent at the beach with another man, Sarkander, when her husband was in Berlin for the Olympics. Here, the threat to the family comes from the war, something they have avoided up to this point but which will now encroach upon them entirely.

Kempowski builds the tension incrementally. In the first half the war impinges on Katharina’s consciousness in the form of visitors who have already suffered at its hands: Herr Schunemann, for example, who arrives on crutches, a stamp-collecting ‘political economist’, who is the first to warn them of the Russian threat:

“Who could tell what was going to happen? The Russians? Who knew? At the moment, he said, the front was deep in slumber, but that could change in no time at all.”

“Pack it all up!” he tells them. For the visitors, the house is a sanctuary, a place where food and warmth are available; at the same time, all of them are moving on.

The war intervenes more directly when Katharina is asked by the local Pastor to shelter a man for the night. Her agreement arises from her foggy understanding of what is happening around her:

“A strange man? For a night? Possibly one of those men in the striped uniforms?”

In the novel’s second half the question of whether they should leave Georgenhof becomes more urgent. Columns of refugees pass by until the nearby town is all but empty.

All For Nothing is a richly atmospheric novel. The von Globigs’ privileged position makes its difficult for them to understand the dangers which approach, both from the Russian advance and the local Nazi official, Drygalski, who has long looked for an excuse to take them down a peg or two (for example, insisting they use Elfie’s bedroom to house refugees). Even when she is in most peril Katharina thinks that Sarkander will save her on the basis of their day away. Even Auntie, the most practical character, refers more than once to how well-treated they were by the Russians at the end of the First World War. None of them can accept the powerlessness which the novel so exemplifies, encapsulated in its title. Despite all this, however, Kempowski still manages to pull off a surprise at the end.

The Truce

January 10, 2016


Many end of year selections deservedly identified the enormous contribution which small publishers make to translated literature. However, anyone interested in writers from around the world becoming available to English-speakers would do well to keep an eye on Penguin Modern Classics. Already this year we’ve seen the second book from Stanislaw Lem’s back catalogue and two new works from Brazilian Raduan Nasser, as well as a translation of Stefan Zweig’s novel, Impatience of the Heart. February will see the publication of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years; and last August saw the appearance of Uruguayan classic The Truce, Mario Bendetti’s debut in the UK six years after his death, and fifty-five years after the novel’s first publication. (This isn’t translator Harry Morales first attempt to bring Bendetti to a wider audience: a collection of short stories appeared in the US in 1997).

Bendetti was a Uruguayan writer who had the misfortune to be of the same generation as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. If The Truce is anything to go by, his fiction is much quieter, lacking the pyrotechnics of magical realism, focused instead on the everyday lives of the middle-classes. The Truce is sub-titled ‘The Diary of Martin Santome’, and that is the form it takes, recounting Santome’s life over the course of around a year. Santome could hardly be more ordinary: he works as an accountant and looks forward to the day he can retire; indeed, it is the first thing we learn about him:

“In only six months and twenty-eight days I’ll be in a position to retire. I’ve been doing this daily calculation of the time remaining for at least the past five years.”

His wife died a number of years ago and he lives with his adult children with whom he has generally awkward and uncommunicative relationships:

“Esteban is the most aloof. I still don’t know whom his resentment is directed at, but he truly appears resentful…Jaime is probably my favourite, although I can never understand him…It’s apparent that there is a barrier between us…At least Bianca and I have something in common: she, too, is a sad person with a calling for happiness.”

“A sad person with a calling for happiness” is an accurate description of Santome’s character, and it seems he may have a chance of that happiness when a young woman, Laura, joins his department. Despite having “never trusted women with numbers” he is forced to admit she is an “intelligent employee” (generally cynical, this comes as a surprise). He’s not immune to her physical appearance either:

“Every now and then I would sneak a look at her. She has pretty legs… She isn’t beautiful, but her smile is passable. Better than nothing.”

The diary form works well in both illustrating and easing the slow pace of the novel – a month passes before Santome admits to himself he is attracted to Laura. In the meantime he records his conversations with his children, and his irritation at running into an old friend who insists on renewing the relationship. Santome is not only an individual of habit, but one who wishes for few acquaintances – this emphasises how striking his decision to pursue Laura is. As we have only his viewpoint, it is unclear how Laura will respond.

Of course, as an older man, and Laura’s boss, such a relationship would be frowned upon today; but so reticent and gentle is Santome in his approach, it’s difficult not to feel sympathetic; at no point does Laura seem under any duress. He also worries about how his children will react. Though we are far from Romeo and Juliet territory, it becomes clear that a deep and genuine love is at the heart of his feelings.

So does Santome achieve the happiness that is his calling? The answer is, of course, yes and no, the novel’s title originating in a feeling that perhaps we have all had regarding joy in our lives:

“…it wasn’t happiness, it was only a truce.”

It is this exploration of happiness that makes the novel as relevant today as ever, and, while it’s easy to see why Bendetti was overshadowed by the Boom generation of Latin American writers, this quiet, ordinary novel is, in its own way, a classic.

Mrs Dalloway

January 5, 2016

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What better way to begin the New Year than by reading Britain’s third greatest novel, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway? (There are obviously two better ways, I hear you say, but that would then leave nothing to look forward to). Now approaching its hundredth anniversary (it was published in 1925), Mrs Dalloway feels remarkably fresh in its execution, if dated in its preponderance of upper-class characters. Perhaps even that isn’t true: the corridors of power, as represented by Clarissa Dalloway’s guest list (featuring a cameo from the then prime minister), are no doubt as narrow as ever, and the suggestion that her husband, Richard, is not bright enough to make the cabinet suggests that the right background gets you rather further today.

Woolf’s novel, however, is not celebrated for its insight into the workings of the state in any case, but the workings of the human mind. Within a sentence we realise that the novel is not going to allow us to observe. If the word “for” (“For Lucy had her work cut out for her”) hadn’t convinced us we had somehow, within the confines of a third person narrative, slipped into Clarissa’s thoughts, the opening of paragraph three is unmistakeable:

“What a lark! What a plunge!”

Even more impressively, as Clarissa’s thoughts seem to wander, she in fact focuses on the defining moment of her life (her decision not to marry Peter Walsh), and foreshadows one of the novel’s two central events (Peter’s return from India). Let’s be honest, though, despite Peter’s continued fascination, a whole novel of Clarissa might be less than riveting. Clearly Woolf thought so too, and within ten pages we have moved onto another character. This takes place without a change of scene, however, in a way which anachronistically makes me think of a director moving character within a single shot:

“The violent explosion which made Mrs Dalloway jump and Miss Pym go to the window and apologise came from a motor car which had drawn to the side of the pavement precisely opposite Mulberry’s shop window.”

Septimus Smith is momentarily frozen to the spot, presumably by the First World War memories which haunt him as a result of the sudden explosion: “The world has raised its whip: where will it descend?” Smith is the character through which Woolf will channel what are presumably her own feelings of depression, clinging to sanity with a white-knuckle determination:

“But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

Smith’s depression is perhaps best seen through the thoughts of his wife, Rezia, as Woolf begins to move from character to character in a stream-of-consciousness version of netball:

“For she could stand it no longer. Dr Holmes might say there was nothing the matter. Far rather would she that he were dead! She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible.”

It is the lack of understanding of others, at a time when suicide was seen as “cowardly”, that consigns Smith to his fate, not only from his wife, who loves him, but from the medical profession, who first dismiss his feelings and then seek to have him committed. This in stark contrast to the compassion of Woolf’s narrative which finds sympathy and understanding for every character.

In is a novel which is superficially quiet, like a flat sea, violent tides seethe beneath as Woolf rejects traditional notions of character by revealing the ever-changing feelings below the surface: in his despair, Smith is not without moments of happiness; Clarissa, in her happiness, is not free from doubt and anxiety. Is Woolf critiquing that famous English upper-middle class reserve? Clarissa rejects Peter because “with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into.” Smith’s suffering seems to originate from a lack of emotion during the war:

“…when Evans was killed, just before the Armistice, in Italy, Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little…”

Her very narrative style makes clear that what we see superficially bears little resemblance to ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ – as Thoreau said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”

Whether Mrs Dalloway is the third greatest British novel or not, it is certainly a great novel, and a revitalising read for the New Year. Plans to read To the Lighthouse (number two) are now firmly in place.

Mona Lisa

December 20, 2015

mona lisa

In 2013 Pushkin Press had a hit with Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s thriller I Was Jack Mortimer, recently reprinted in their new Vertigo series. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they have released another of Lernet-Holenia’s stories from the 1930s, Mona Lisa, also translated by Ignat Avesy. Those familiar with I Was Jack Mortimer, however, will find Mona Lisa a quite different work: gone is the mid-twentieth century, middle-Europe setting, so associated with noir that it’s easy to believe life was lived in black and white; instead we are in the much sunnier streets of Renaissance Florence where Leonardo da Vinci is still adding the occasional brush stroke to his masterpiece.

The story begins when the King of France sends Louis la Tremoille to Italy – France had interests in both Milan and Naples at the time. Though the King offers to finance the expedition he also makes it clear that la Tremoille should “take every opportunity of recouping the cost of the campaign.” Little of worth is found to send back to Paris so la Tremoille opts to rest in Florence with his nobles while his army goes on before, hoping to acquire some Italian art. This inevitably leads him to visit the home of Leonardo da Vinci who, unfortunately, has rather lost interest in art at that moment, preoccupied instead with siege engines, submarines, and “the weight of God.” The conversation between la Tremoille and da Vinci illustrates the light-hearted tone of the novella, particularly a disagreement over the number of legs a fly possesses, but Lernet-Holenia also introduces his more serious topic:

“I’ve resolved to depict the essence of love in verses and, in order to probe onto the anatomical origins of the same, I too have had arms and legs lying around in my workshop – in short I dissected the bodies of two women. The only thing is, I failed to discover anything of note.”

It is on this visit that we first glimpse Mona Lisa, revealed when Bougainville, the youngest of la Tremoille’s entourage, is engaged in attempting to catch a fly in order to settle the above mentioned dispute:

“A fantastic effulgence greeted his eyes. At the first instant he believed it to be flame, or the radiance of jewels. Only the luminance came from the perfectly flat surface of a picture, propped up at an angle on a chair…”

Bougainville falls instantly in love – “Not with the painting…With the lady” – only to discover that she died a number of years ago, news he finds difficult to accept: “Looking at the painting, he could not imagine she was dead.” He becomes further convinced she still lives when he visits her tomb:

“It seemed impossible that a full-grown woman could have been buried there, for otherwise the wall would have to be more than an arm-length thicker.”

Faced with the choice – accept what everyone is telling him, that Mona Lisa is deceased, or pry open her tomb just to be sure – he does what any self-respecting fictional character would and returns with a crow-bar and some friends. Bougainville’s efforts to prove Mona Lisa lives (and to locate her) are also (unsurprisingly) detrimental to French-Italian relations in the city as his passion makes him headstrong, to say the least, when questioning her husband.

Mona Lisa is a short (less than 100 pages) suspenseful entertainment, a tribute to both the power of art and love. As Bougainville says near the end:

“Love does not need any comforting. It does not even need requiting. All it needs is itself.”

Therein lies its beauty, and its danger.

The Vegetarian

December 14, 2015


Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (beautifully rendered in English by Deborah Smith) was one of the first, if not the first, novel of 2015 to be greeted with excited praise, something evident in the ecstatic anticipation in evidence prior to the publication of Human Acts, her second novel to appear in English, in just a few weeks. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian, and of the cataclysmic effect this has on her family, her marriage, and her life. The novel is told in three parts, by three different narrators – none of them Yeong-hye. This would be surprising were it not for the fact that it becomes increasingly evident that she is not listened to, or understood, by those around her, and that her voicelessness is a facet of her slow vanishing from the narrative.

The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’, is told from the point of view of her husband, Cheong, who immediately sums up his wife as “completely unremarkable in every way.” His decision to marry her comes some way short of true love:

“However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.”

Marrying Yeong-hye is predicated on the impossibility of her ever shocking or surprising him – he praises her “passive personality” – and therefore how much more shocked and surprised he is when she declares that she will no longer eat meat as a result of as dream she has had. It becomes clear that her vegetarianism is not for moral or health reasons, but because she has developed a revulsion to meat; she refuses to sleep with her husband because of “the meat smell. Your body smells of meat.” Eventually, Cheong contacts Yeong-hye’s family and the first section climaxes in a violent scene when her father attempts to force her to eat meat.

Between each section, time passes, and by the time ‘Mongolian Mark’ begins, Cheong has left his wife. The second story is told in the third person but from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law who develops an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye centred around her Mongolian mark – a birth mark which, as he explains, “appeared on the buttocks or backs of children only, always fading away completely before adulthood.” This unconsciously reveals what attracts him to Yeong-Hye, her childlike helplessness, exacerbated by her now emaciated body. He develops a plan to video her painted with flowers (less strange than it sounds as he is, apparently, a video artist). Does this suggest he understands her (she longs to become one with nature in some way) or is it an example of him objectifying her? When he has himself similarly painted so that she will sleep with him, you can’t help but feel it’s more desire than art, and the coupling which follows is ambiguous to say the least.

By the third part, ‘Flaming Trees’, narrated by her sister, Yeong-hye is hospitalised, diagnosed with anorexia. In-hye’s marriage has also ended, having finally fallen apart on the night she found her husband and her sister together. By this point, Yeong-hye has convinced herself she no longer needs food; she mentions a dream in which she is a tree:

“I was standing on my head…leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands…so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom form my crotch so I spread my legs.”

The clinic are going to attempt to feed her through a tube one last time in a scene that can only remind us of her father forcing meat into her mouth.

The Vegetarian can, of course, be read as an account of mental illness, and the damage it can cause not only to the victim but to the family. Yeong-hye’s story also seems to be one of a woman who is not listened to, surrounded by others who think they know better. You might also argue, the sanity of the other characters is called into question: her husband, rigid and unfeeling; her father’s violent rage; her brother-in-law’s obsessive lust and rush towards death when discovered; even her sister, the most sympathetic, who feels “her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance.” Fascinating, strange, the novel is not unlike a body painted with flowers, its naked truth glittering with images.

The Looking-Glass Sisters

December 10, 2015

looking glass

Gohril Gabrielsen’s The Looking-Glass Sisters, despite its pretty title, is an ugly book. Its titular sisters live together – or more accurately co-exist – in the house where they grew up, the older, who narrates the story, has been crippled from childhood, dependent on the younger, Ragna, for her care. Both are immersed in their personal unhappiness, resenting the dependence from each side of the relationship – until, that is, Ragna meets a man, Johan, and the dynamics begin to change.

The novel opens with a scene from its conclusion, with the narrator banished to the attic, and Ragna and Johan already married:

“My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window.”

So quickly does Gabrielsen establish the novel’s poisonous atmosphere (aided by translator, John Irons), that the digging of a hole almost immediately feels more ominous than the action of two keen gardeners. A year earlier, we see the state of war which exists between the two sisters: Ragna’s first words are an explosion of frustration: “You’ve got to go.” As the novel is told from the other sister’s point of view, it is difficult not to be sympathetic:

“She wants to put me in a nursing home in the village, that’s where she wants to park me; she’s threatened to do it before. I’m not very old, just partially paralysed. I’ve always lived here and will never leave this house.”

However, despite its fairy-tale title, this is not a novel with clearly defined good and evil, Cinderella versus her vicious step-sister. The narrator is, in fact, fully aware of her effect on Ragna: “…is she absent from her own life because I make demands on her the whole time?” And she can be demanding, waking Ragna to massage her legs when she feels cramp coming on:

“‘A bit harder!’ I shout out into the room. ‘Can’t you do it a bit harder?’ I yell as loudly as I can. I fling myself forward and grab her arm.”

She tells herself, “Ragna is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of existence.” Ragna’s unhappiness is also explained:

“I’ve always liked to think of Ragna as one of those people who find every experience disappointing.”

The irony of the title is that each sister feels she perfectly understands the other but neither of them sees themselves clearly.

When Ragna begins her relationship with Johan, her sister goes out of her way to make her presence felt, for example when the couple first make love:

“I howl. Johan comes with a groan, my sister lets dry air escape from the slit of her mouth.”

The narrator is frightened of the dissolution of their own relationship and of her sister’s apparent happiness. Her fears are not groundless: the intention to place her in a nursing home is real, and Johan will not even talk to her, instead directing comments about her to her sister. Her reaction to this is to become an irritant, insinuating herself into their company.

Gabrielsen is very good at unearthing the pettiness at the heart of much of the novel’s rage. The use of the single toilet is one battle ground; Johan usurping the narrator’s chair is another. She is also adept at immersing the reader in the physicality of the narrator’s world: her body, the house, her physical needs. The narrator’s contempt for her sister seems partly rooted in the idea that Ragna represents the physical world whereas she aims to exist in the realms of the intellect. Hence her need for books from the library, and the notes she makes in her copy of Home University; also her assumption that Ragna’s relationship with Johan is purely physical. Eventually, we ask ourselves how much her confinement to the house is a choice. Her banishment to the attic might be seen as an ironic reflection of her desire to place herself above others.

The Looking-Glass Sisters is not a pleasant read – you are entering a cold world without kindness – but I found its icy brilliance fascinating. Ultimately it is asking the question that all literature asks: how should we live our lives?


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