I Who Have Never Known Men

August 17, 2019

Jacqueline Harpman was a Belgian author who wrote numerous novels between 1958 and 2006, only two of which have been translated into English: Orlando, which won the Prix Medicis in 1996, and I Who Have Never Known Men, published one year earlier, and translated by Ros Schwartz under the title The Mistress of Silence for Harvill Press in 1997. It has now been reissued with a new introduction by Sophie Macintosh, perhaps hoping to capitalise on the growing feminist dystopia market. Yet, though I Who Have Never Known Men is clearly open to a feminist reading, the questions it raises reverberate even wider, forcing the reader to ask what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by the youngest of a group of forty woman incarcerated in a bunker for reasons none of them understand. “No one has the slightest idea what’s behind all this,” the narrator is told by one of the older women. There is a vague sense of some catastrophe which has led to their imprisonment but they “don’t even know if there was a war,” or how they arrived at the bunker in the first place; even their initial time in the bunker is described as “the hazy period in the early days of our captivity.” Their time in the bunker is regulated by guards who use whips to control the behaviour of the women – who are now so institutionalised that they are rarely subject to any violence – enforcing such rules as “we weren’t permitted to touch one another.”

The narrator is different from the other woman not only because she is the youngest (in fact they speculate that she is “almost certainly here by accident”) but because she retains a more active mind. Perhaps this is partly because she has, in other ways, been prevented from becoming a woman. She tells us:

“The others had been adult for a long time whereas I appeared to be prepubescent. But my development stopped there: I started to get hair under my arms and on my pubes, my breasts grew a little, and then everything came to a halt. I never had a period,”

Extracting knowledge from the other women, however, is difficult as they no longer see beyond what is necessary, and do not understand what the narrator later calls “the pleasure of knowing”. When she asks one of the women about “men and love” she is mystified:

“She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them.”

She begins to explore her sexuality by fantasizing about one of the younger guards, to the point where she is able to orgasm without physical stimulation – “an immense sensation swept through me, an overwhelming eruption” – but this is part of a wider attempt to gain control over her environment. At the same time she begins to count her heartbeat so that she can measure time.

At this point, however – about a third of the way into the novel – everything suddenly changes. There is a “terrifyingly loud noise” and within minutes the guards have disappeared:

“For the first time since we women had been imprisoned, we were alone in the bunker.”

The siren occurs at the same time the hatch to the cell is open and so the women are suddenly freed and able to leave the bunker, venturing outside to face a landscape so barren and desolate that they wonder if they are still on Earth:

“…all we could see was the stony plain where nothing moved except the scant grass gently swaying in the breeze.”

The rest of the novel follows the women’s journey across this landscape – “while we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t have any better reason for staying” – and what they discover, while the narrator contends with the knowledge that, as the youngest, she will likely be the last to die.

In these desperate circumstances, Harpman frequently raises the question of what it means to be human. In their captivity, the narrator comments:

“We have been deprived of everything that made us human, but we organise ourselves, I suppose in order to survive, or because, when you’re human, you can’t help it.”

Later, the decision to leave the bunker is taken as a result of a plea to the women’s humanity:

“We can’t settle here and live from the bunker like parasites. We must remain human beings.”

Despite this the narrator worries that her own life has left her less than human: “I must be lacking in certain experiences that make a person fully human.” Interestingly, it is only when she decides to write down her story (as she tells us at the beginning) that she feels her life, however limited, has the same value as that of any other person:

“After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.”

In I Who Have Never Known Men Harpman creates circumstances which are both hopeless and incomprehensible. Even when the women are released they quickly realise, “we’d merely moved to a new prison.” It is only the resolutely human qualities of the narrator which give the reader any hope, and it is in the clash between the two that the novel’s power lies. A deservedly rediscovered classic.

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The Yogini

August 5, 2019

“I am no one, fate is everything,” Homi, the central character in Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini (translated by Arunava Sinha), tells us in a three-page prologue, ‘Returned to her senses for the first time’, opening Bandyopadhyay’s latest novel with the unsettling intensity typical of her previous works, Panty and Abandon:

“There is no such thing as free will here. No fundamental independence.”

Yet The Yogini initially strikes a different note despite falling in between the two previous translations from Tilted Axis Press in its original publication. The women in both Panty and Abandon begin with nothing, struggling for survival in difficult circumstances. Homi, on the other hand, has everything – a postgraduate degree in English, a job in the media, and a loving husband, Lalit. In fact the novel settles into something almost conventional, even going as far as to include a Jane Austenesque portrait of Homi’s mother, who complains of her other daughter, Homi’s half-sister, “She goes abroad on shopping sprees at the drop of a hat, but everything she buys is for herself,” and, when her husband falls seriously ill, worries that he will return home an invalid:

“The thing is, Lalit, I need my afternoon nap. How can I have a cripple disturbing me?”

Tensions also exist within Homi and Lalit’s relationship as Lalit accuses her of a more subtle form of selfishness, an emotional withholding:

“People like you only want to take, Khuku, you don’t know how to give.”

Only later does Homi realise what Lalit means when he ends a phone call abruptly after telling her he is staying with his family:

“…it occurred to Homi that the way he had treated her just them was exactly how she had treated him for the last year and a half.”

What prevents the first half of the novel being simply social satire is the appearance of a mysterious figure seen only by Homi:

“He looked fearsome, his matted locks and beard framing his face like a spider. His eyes blazed and his body gave off a mild stench.”

The hermit identifies himself as Homi’s ‘fate’, and Homi finds herself both repulsed and attracted, feelings which Bandyopadhyay characterises sexually. After their first meeting her body feels “violated” but later, when she is making love to Lalit, “she shocked herself with the realisation that she had subconsciously been seeking something else – a much larger head, one with matted locks and a necklace of beads round its neck.” Later still she finds her “body caught fire at his touch.” The idea of fate quickly becomes the dominant theme of the novel – Bandyopadhyay has said in interview, “Our real battle is with predilection and destiny.” It influences Homi’s view of herself and her behaviour, acting with Lalit “like a marionette” and “like a solider under orders.”

“She realised that the word ‘fate’ was gathering in her heart like unshed tears, gnawing away at her.”

The novel, and Homi’s, turning point occurs when she seeks out a palmist, who describes her as “someone whose life is influenced by no one else”;

“You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them.”

From this point on Homi’s life begins to change, at first gradually but later dramatically. Bandyopadhyay slowly dismantles the trappings of the conventional novel as Homi experiences what can only be described as a spiritual crisis which will lead us to an ending far from the romcom echoes of the opening.

Reading The Yogini I was unexpectedly reminded of the 19th century Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This was not only because it, too, is very much concerned with fate (or predestination) versus free will, but because it also contains a character, Gil-Martin, who may be a supernatural manifestation or a delusion – something Homi considers when she first sees the hermit (“Homi had classified the previous night’s frightening incident as largely imagined.”) However, where Gil-Martin seems intent only on damning Wringham, it is feasible that the hermit is saving Homi. Though she seems to have lost everything by the end of the novel, she inadvertently admitted to Lalit in the opening pages that, “I don’t want this kind of life.”

‘Yogini’ is, of course, a female noun and cannot be applied to the hermit, real or imagined. It could refer to Bibirani, a spiritual teacher whom Homi meets towards the end of the novel, but it may be intended to describe Homi herself. It would, perhaps, explain why the hermit calls her ‘Empress’, and allows us to reinterpret her journey as one towards enlightenment where she is able to give herself to fate entirely:

“She had thought her fate was stalking her, but now she wondered whether it wasn’t the other way round.”

That this remains only one possible interpretation suggests the pleasurable complexity of this wonderful author.

Empty Words

July 6, 2019

In 2013 Juan Pablo Villalobos wrote about Mario Levrero for Granta’s Best Untranslated Writers series, stating that, even before he had read him, “I knew he was a ‘strange’ writer, unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who was creating one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language.” Six years later we finally have one of Levrero’s novels, Empty Words, available to us in English thanks to translator Annie McDermott, who similarly describes the author as an “uncategorisable writer who refused to be bound by rules or conventions, and for whom ‘the only thing that matters in literature is writing with as much freedom as you possibly can.’”

The novel itself certainly suggests a writer who is not interested in rules or conventions, but potential readers should not assume that this makes the work in any way ‘difficult’. In fact, its strangeness is companionable, even homely, perhaps because it is mostly set in and around Levrero’s home. In an introductory note, the author explains that the novel consist of two texts intercut:

“One, entitled ‘Exercises’, is a series of short handwriting exercises, written with no other purpose than that. The other, entitled ‘The Empty Discourse’, is a single, unified text that’s more ‘literary’ in intention.”

Of course, we must never entirely trust an author’s note: just as by interspersing extracts from ‘The Empty Discourse’ among ‘Exercises’, Levrero makes a mockery of the idea it is a ‘unified text’, so too should we mistrust the claim that the latter has ‘no other purpose’. Even in describing the process by which the novel was created, Levrero seems to be deliberately setting the unconscious against the conscious mind, humorously entitling his conscious (that is content-filled) text ‘The Empty Discourse’. Levrero begins with a further disclaimer:

“My aims at this stage of the therapeutic endeavour are fairly modest. To begin with I’m going to practise writing by hand. I won’t be attempting calligraphy, but I’ll at least try to manage a script that anyone could read – myself included, because these days my writing’s so bad that not even I can decipher it.”

However, he is soon commenting on the pull of his conscious mind:

“I’m getting distracted again and paying too little attention to the handwriting and too much to the subject matter, which is anti-therapeutic…”

He is also distracted by the outside world:

“Yesterday I only managed three and a half lines of exercises and then I was interrupted and had to stop.”

However later he concedes, “The problem isn’t the demands of the outside world even though I often think it is, but rather my attachment, or commitment, to those demands.” When the discourse begins to infiltrate the exercises in Part Two, rather than the philosophical tract we may have been expecting, we find simply that outside world, and in particular the story of Levrero’s dog:

“The discourse then has been filling up with the story of the dog.”

Although he goes on to say that “the story of the dog could be a symbol of the real content of the discourse, which for some reason it’s impossible to see directly,” he is accepting that his own vision is indistinct, not simply the reader’s. Just as in the exercises the conscious mind is superimposed on the unconscious mind, so here the situation is reversed:

“Today the topic of the dog has been thrust upon me once more…”

This is perhaps inevitable given the process Levrero describes:

“When I started writing this, my idea was simply to recover the form of an existing discourse and wait for its contents to be revealed as I went along.”

The two texts naturally begin to create a dialogue which in Part Three becomes a monologue as Levrero returns to his exercises but later also to the story of the dog – perhaps an admission that the separation is impossible.

All of this, however, does not really give a sense of the reading experience which I found as hypnotic as the repetitive exercises he describes. These provide a pulse, a rhythm which runs through the text, their artificial nature ironically enhancing the reality of everything else Levrero tells us. Even more astoundingly, they produce the character development we might expect from a traditional novel in the most unexpected way. Thankfully Annie McDermott tells us that a further Levrero translation is one its way (The Luminous Novel – “a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself”). Personally, I can’t wait to renew my acquaintance with this astonishing writer.

The Wind That Lays Waste

July 3, 2019

Selva Almada’s debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, now translated by Chris Andrews, could be described as dramatic in its intensity if that word had not become corrupted with connotations beyond its reference to the stage. With its affordable cast of four characters (each as important as any other), its single setting, and the action taking place over a few hours, it would be easily experienced in a theatre. Of course, the thunderstorm towards which the action builds might lack the three dimensions of the imagination, and moments of back story would have to be redeployed, but the novel’s greatest strengths would remain intact: the constricted, at times claustrophobic, setting which enhances themes of freedom and escape, the dialogue full with nuance and depth, and the shifting slow burn of character development.

The idea that those characters will come to reflect on the directions their lives are taking is immediately created by the artificial pause in the literal journey of two of them, the Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Elena, when their car breaks down and they are forced to stop for repairs. The mechanic, Gringo Brauer, also has the care of a teenage child, his assistant, nicknamed Tapioca. This is the first of a number of ways in which the men mirror each other. Tapioca is left with the mechanic aged nine by a woman who claims Brauer is the father:

“Tapioca nodded, still watching the truck, which had climbed up into the road now, with his mother inside, taking her away forever.”

A similar scene is repeated in reverse when Pearson drives off with Elena leaving her mother behind:

“Leni’s last image of her mother is from the rear window of the car…. Her mother is left standing there, beside the suitcase. She covers her face with her hands. She’s crying.”

This immediately marks the two men, and the two teenagers, as both similar and different. In the Reverend’s case, it is his religion which most separates him from Brauer, as seen to comic effect when he begins to say grace before a meal they are about to share together:

“‘Let us give thanks,’ said the Reverend.
Tapioca and the Gringo froze, their food-laden forks halfway between plate and mouth.”

Brauer is quietly dismissive of Pearson’s views:

“We make our own destinies, that’s what I believe. We know why we do what we do.”

As Pearson attempts to convert Tapioca, however, he grows irritated:

“I know him like the palm of my hand. And believe me, he doesn’t need any Jesus Christ. And he doesn’t need some John the Baptist like you to come along with your snake-oil spiel and tell him about the end of the world and all that crap.”

Religion is also coming between Pearson and his daughter:

“‘Ah, my girl, Jesus has blessed me,’ he said and patted her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them.”

Almada clearly conveys her love for her father, but one tempered with resentment:

“Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.”

Later she says she has never seen a photograph of herself as a little girl. While Tapioca’s life appears to be one of stasis and Leni’s one of movement, it feels static to her. Her only escape is to listen to music on her Walkman (she has promised her father only to play religious music in order to be allowed this one expression of individuality).

Things come to a head when Pearson insists that Tapioca should go with him, telling Brauer, “You don’t realise how special that boy is; there’s a treasure in him… You have no idea of the destiny awaiting that boy.” In this there are echoes of his own childhood, when he was taken by his mother, who was not a particularly religious woman, to be baptised by a preacher. Though he has since converted others, he believes the boy to be exceptional in his innocence.

However, this is not really a novel about religion, but about relationships: the longstanding relationships between the fathers and their children, and the new relationships developing in this moment, with the potential to change lives. It is beautifully judged and entirely free of cliché. As the characters grow closer, in that way we can believe we know others after only a few hours together, so too the reader comes to feel their presence in the room, as if they might look up and find them there.

Who Among Us?

July 1, 2019

Who Among Us? is the third of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti’s novels (though the first written, in 1953) to appear in English in recent years, translated, as with Springtime in a Broken Mirror, by Nick Caistor. His previous novels demonstrate a writer intrigued by different narrative forms: The Truce is written in the form of a diary; Springtime in a Broken Mirror presents us with a chorus of different voices. Who Among Us? is perhaps the most daring yet – its love triangle, while not quite a ménage a trois, is certainly a recit de trois, a story told in three narratives: the first a journal, the second a letter, and the third a short story written by one of the characters.

Each member of the triangle (Miguel, Alicia, Lucas) tells the story from their own particular angle. It is Miguel who writes the first and longest section, having encouraged his wife, Alicia, to go to Buenos Aires to sell some property in the hope she will meet Lucas. He now regards their eleven-year marriage as the wrong choice for her:

“The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas.”

Miguel, Alicia and Lucas’ relationship dates back to their time at school, the first two quickly becoming friends with Lucas added when he arrives a year later at Miguel’s insistence. Though Alicia is closer to Miguel, he feels that her relationship with Lucas is somehow more necessary:

“It was plain the two of them really liked me, were loyal to me and would carry on being so. I was certain of that. They, however, did not like each other: they needed one another.”

Despite this, and a period after school when it is Alicia and Lucas who spend most time together, it is Miguel and Alicia who later marry. Even so, Miguel considers Lucas an important factor in Alicia’s choice:

“Probably Lucas sang my praises (I also praised him whenever I talked with Alicia; the absent person was always the star), and no doubt as a result Alicia became convinced I was the best of the three – and consequently the better of the two, Lucas and me, which in the end was the only choice that mattered.”

Miguel tells the story of his relationship with Alicia in a detached manner, frequently commenting on his lack of strong feelings. “I’ve never needed,” he tells us, “to be the reflection of other people’s affections.” The crisis in his marriage with Alicia is precipitated by a realisation that his feelings for her, even when she is pregnant, are lacking to the point of absence:

“All of a sudden I was overcome by the sensation that my tenderness was forced and that deep down I couldn’t care less about her or her condition.”

“I still don’t know if any any point was in love with her,” he says, “but that’s more because I question my emotional capacity.” Miguel excuses his indifference by portraying himself as the inferior member of the trio. As a teenager, he says, “I knew I was there as their witness… and consciously vegetated in their shadow,” going one step further to describe his relationship with his own life in the same terms:

“Witness is a terrible role to be cast in, and I can’t even avoid being witness to my own life…”

He briefly describes a childhood where his father routinely abused his mother, where he is also a “silent witness,” winning the reader over with his honesty:

“I don’t want to be lied to, or lie to myself. I want to know everything about myself.”

Or, at least, so it seems – at the end of the first section there is a revelation which I assume is the reason Jonathan Gibbs commented on Twitter:

“Blimey. Something’s just happened in this book… that makes me want to chuck it across the room and leave it there.”

Miguel is not, after all, a reliable narrator, as we quickly discover reading Alicia’s letter:

“I never understood why you insisted on brining me and Lucas together. I saw him as an intruder and wanted to refuse him entry, to cut him down to size, before the boundless prestige you endowed him with could begin to overshadow our fragile bond.”

The final section is a short story written by Lucas with footnotes on which he relates the characters and events in the story to those in his life (for example the character Claudia is Alicia) when he meets Alicia in Buenos Aires. Just as the previous narratives have allowed us insight into the narrator’s feeling, so too does the story in the gaps between reality and fiction.

Who Among Us? is masterfully constructed, refracting its three relationships through three different lenses, while also questioning a fourth relationship – that between text and truth: the stories we construct to explain what we do. Luckily Benedetti still has five other novels awaiting translation.

Lost Books – The City and the House

June 26, 2019

A well-deserved Natalia Ginzburg revival is already underway in both the US and the UK, though not one which has (so far) extended to her final novel, The City and the House, published in 1984 and translated by Dick Davis in 1986. As a later work this neglect is perhaps unsurprising, but it might also be explained by the fact that it is an epistolary novel written long after the form was in its prime, and perhaps too close to its extinction (I mean the point when we can reasonably accept characters will commonly write letters to each other). Having said that, Ginzburg handles the form with skill, presenting a core exchange between former lovers Giuseppe and Lucrezia while encompassing a number of other correspondents, allowing her to examine a network of relationships along the way, and combining to give a powerful sense of time passing.

We learn in the first letter that Giuseppe is planning to leave Italy and live with his brother, Ferruccio, in in America. Giuseppe tells Lucrezia that, “I have never managed to do anything and I am nearly fifty.” He feels he has few ties to Italy, having only a distant relationship with his son, Alberico:

“I would have liked someone different. But that certainly goes for him too.”

He is indifferent to Lucrezia’s claim that he is the father of one of her children, telling her instead that her husband, Piero, is “an excellent father and they have not need of any other.” The life Giuseppe imagines for himself in America, however, is altered before he even leaves Rome as his brother informs him he has married an American divorcee, Ann Marie. This will be one of many crossed wires (one of Giuseppe’s most powerful reasons for going to America was the thought of the two of them living together as a couple of bachelors, going as far as to declare, “I will do the housework and prepare the meals”) to occur as the letters cross each other in the novel.

The plot of The City and the House is not complicated, but it would be both tedious and convoluted to recount, based as it is on the ever-changing relationships of its characters. Its soap opera tendencies are mediated by variety of voices and viewpoints by which it is told. Overall we have a picture of characters searching for happiness but often unsure where to find it. Giuseppe and Lucrezia typify this, partly because we sense that their previous relationship reached a point where they might have made a stronger commitment to each other, as Lucrezia suggests:

“I wanted to leave Piero and come and live with you… You told me that I should not leave Piero, that I shouldn’t even think of doing so. You said the children would suffer. I said I would bring them with me and they wouldn’t suffer much… Then you got very frightened.”

Here, Giuseppe’s fear of being a father seems, at least in part, to bring their relationship to an end. Later he will find Ann Marie’s daughter and son-in-law easier to tolerate than she does, as well as improving his relationship with Alberico. Meanwhile Lucrezia will leave her husband for another man, but with as much desperation to inflict a change on her life as love.

The idea of choosing what we do to find happiness in our lives is echoed in the choice of where contained in the novel’s title. The house referred to is that owned by Lucrezia and Piero, which many characters talk of fondly. Giuseppe writes to Piero:

“I shall carry your big, yellow old house, which you call Le Margherite, though goodness knows why, with me in my heart.”

And later, in reference to a phone call:

“It was a real joy for me to hear all their voices together and to think of them all together there, at Le Margherite, in the sitting-room, that sitting-room I remember so well with the big oval table, the lamp shade with its frayed border, the basket of firewood and the dog’s cushion, the sofa in front of the fireplace and over the fireplace the picture of King Lear.”

Just as Giuseppe moves to America, Lucrezia moves to the city, Rome. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lear, who gave away his kingdom, is featured in Giuseppe’s description. In fact, the sale of property is a repeated act in the novel, one reason we feel time is rushing on, towards the elegiac atmosphere of the final letters. For all is lightness of tone, The City and the House could not be described as a happy novel, though its ambiguous ending leaves us with a little hope.

Lost Books – The Revolt

June 23, 2019

Nina Berberova’s The Revolt begins with the separation of two lovers – no doubt one of many separations which took place in Paris during September 1939. Einar has decide to return to his native, neutral Sweden as war breaks across Europe, leaving behind Russian émigré, Olga. The scene is described in some detail as she accompanies him to the Gare du Nord, the “night not black, rather a kind of green…”

“The entire city, and the sky up above, and the river, and the inside of the bus – everything was dark green, bottle green: our faces and the faces of the other passengers, and the Grand Palais, which we rumbled past, were all the same colour.”

The city itself seems to have physically changed, and later Olga wonders, “Was this not an underwater kingdom? Had we not drowned?” as the landscape embodies the change of state taking place in their relationship. The war itself is visible in the “crowd of recruits marching in the utter darkness,” their future, like Olga’s, now suddenly obscured. The scene is almost melodramatic were it not for Olga’s awareness (and, of course, Berberova’s too) of the potential clichés inherent in the scene she is experiencing:

“I pressed my face to the pane, the way they used to write in novels.”

The journey towards Einar’s departure is ironically interrupted with stories of promised trips together – to Stockholm, to Brazil, to Russia – an early indication of Einar’s unreliability. It is seven years before they see each other again; two letters she sends to him are returned marked ‘address unknown’. When she is eventually invited to Stockholm it is not by Einar, but by a publisher who wishes her to write a book about her uncle, Dmitrii Georgievich:

“It all came down to three questions: Is he alive? Will I ever see him again? Does he still love me?”

When she is finally reunited with Einar, however, it is to discover he is married:

“Einar’s wife was a blue-eyed giantess with light brown hair, big round cheeks that puffed out a little, bringing to mind a chubby angel or, if you prefer, an angel blowing a trumpet.”

Though she stays with Einar and his wife, Emma, for four days, Emma is careful that they are never left alone, something Olga finds harder to accept than the marriage:

“No, there was nothing to explain, and no point in belabouring the past, but maybe we could have spent a little time together?… In that moment, in powerless and bitter despair, I felt as if I were burning up with hatred, grief and outrage.”

She returns to Paris, but she will see Einar again when Emma invites her to holiday with them in Italy. “I felt like some sort of trap had been set for me,” she reflects, and certainly Emma’s intentions seem different as Einar and Olga are frequently left alone.

This is the third of Berberova’s novels I have read, and each of them deals with love, though all in a different manner, in a way that suggests a deep understanding both of her protagonists’ emotions and the dynamics of their lives. Here she cleverly begins by describing the novel’s final scene at the same time as its first:

“In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a ‘perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed…”

She also speaks of what she calls a person’s ‘no man’s land’:

“…a domain that is his and his alone. The life everyone sees is one thing; the other belongs to the individual, and it is none of anyone else’s business.”

This, she says, is where she and Einar met, suggesting the closeness of their relationship, but, at the same time, this does not make love more important. As she says in the novel’s final pages, in reference to Dmitrii Georgievich’s fate:

“…if you allow anyone to arrange your no man’s land, then in the end, reasoning logically, it will reach the point where they put you in a luxurious suite of a luxurious hotel and burn your books and drive away everyone you ever loved.”

The Revolt has been recently review by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings who described it as “a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind”, and by Max at Pechorin’s Journal who ended his review by saying “very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.” Hopefully this revival of interest in Berberova’s work will attract the attention of publishers as she deserves to be both back in print and more widely known.

Lost Books – Hospital of the Transfiguration

June 16, 2019

Hospital of the Transfiguration was Stanislaw Lem’s first novel, written in 1948 but only later published in his native Poland. Its English translation, by William Brand, did not appear until 1988. Though Lem is best known as a writer of science fiction, Hospital of the Transfiguration is set in Poland shortly after the German invasion of 1939. Lem signposts this immediately when its central character, Stefan, arrives at Nieczawy for a family funeral to discovers a memorial to Poland’s ‘Sons’, “Faithful to Her Until the Hour of Their Death” with a September 1939 date. He thinks of this again later when the family gather for a meal after the burial:

“The memory was triggered because unanimity in the family was rare, usually forthcoming only after funerals, and although nobody had died last Christmas, the intensity of shared sorrow had been similar – the occasion was the burial of the fatherland.”

This is perhaps one reason why, when he meets Staszek, whom he knows from their time in medical school together, he gives some consideration to the idea that he might join him on the staff of the asylum where he works:

“It’s like being outside the Occupation, in fact it’s even like being outside the world!”

It is the fact he is unable to board the overflowing train back home, however, which finally makes up his mind to join Staszek on his “tiny island in a really weird sea.”

Much of the novel goes on to describe life in the asylum. Stefan, unsurprisingly, finds this unsettling at first, especially when he is initially placed on the women’s wing. Lem is particularly good at illustrating the erratic behaviour of the inhabitants which Stefan finds difficult to interpret:

“The naked woman inside was throwing her body against the padded walls as if it were a sack. Her eyes met Stefan’s and she froze. For an instant she was a normal human being. “

“The nurses,” according to Staszek, “are completely unqualified, so they are a little callous, a little brutal. In fact, they do some pretty rotten things.” The staff too – as is traditional in any novel set in an asylum – have their own versions of ‘normal’, and there are also complex internal politics at play:

“Webs of intrigue were spread throughout the hospital, discreetly awaiting any newcomer’s first misstep.”

Lem was, of course, a doctor (though he did not, to my knowledge, work in an asylum) and the hospital scenes are vivid to the point of grotesque, particularly one of an operation to remove a brain tumour:

“He was drawing a needle across the cortex. The brain was deeply open and there was more and more necrotic mass, fusing with the spirals and convolutions. Stefan looked at the wound, which gaped like an open mouth.”

For conversation, Stefan is increasingly drawn to Sekulowski, an inmate who suffers from literature rather than madness. It seems highly likely that Sekulowski is, to some, extent, a mouthpiece for Lem, producing a series of wonderful aphorisms regarding writing, for example:

“The only writers who have any peace of mind are the ones who don’t write.”

And:

“For the reader it is an attempt at escape. For the creator, an attempt at redemption.”

The Occupation is not entirely forgotten as Stefan befriends a couple of workers at a nearby power station who are rumoured to be hiding weapons. One in particular, Woch, he fails to warn when he fears he may be in danger, and we have an early indication of the threat the Germans pose:

“He figured he had the German all wrapped up, but the German is a fox, too, and came at night and took him away like a chicken.”

Eventually the Germans (with Ukrainian troops) come to the asylum with their own solution to the psychological problems of the patients:

“Every nation is like an organism. Sometimes the body’s sick cells need to be excised.”

The moral problem this creates for the doctors might remind us that Stefan was earlier reading Lord Jim.

Hospital of the Transfiguration is, of course, an interesting curio for Lem’s admirers (at one point, for example, Sekulowski tells Stefan, “I’ve been dreaming of writing the history of the world from the point of view of another planetary system”) but it also an accomplished novel in itself. It demonstrates our powerlessness in the face of insanity, both inside and outside the asylum; in that sense it is as relevant as ever.

Lost Books – Positions

June 4, 2019

Although The Years did not win the Man Booker International Prize, its short-listing is one example of the rapturous response which Ernaux’s work has recently received in the UK, a reception which has already seen her begin to return to print. Though the scope of The Years is very different to what she has written before, the method is not entirely new, and something she touches on in Positions when she decides to write about her father’s life:

“If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something ‘moving’ or ‘gripping’.”

Positions, translated by Tanya Leslie, was published by Quartet Books in 1991, its title varying from the same translation in the US where A Man’s Place was chosen to convey the French original, La Place. The variation is interesting as, whereas the American publishers placed the focus on gender (and perhaps also as a counterpoint to A Woman’s Story), in the UK the emphasis is on class (presumably the French title conveys both). The word appears only once (meaning social class) in reference to the customers of her father’s café:

“It was a café of regulars, habitual drinkers who dropped in before or after work, whose place was sacred: gangs from the building site, as well as a few customers whose position meant they could have chosen a less proletarian establishment.”

Social class is, however, at the book’s heart. It begins as Ernaux qualifies as a teacher, perhaps the point at which she feels her class has irrevocably changed. When her father dies shortly after, even the funeral is described in terms of class:

“In distinguished society grief at the loss of a loved one is expressed by tears, silence and dignity. The social conventions observed by my mother, and for that matter the rest of the neighbourhood, had nothing to do with dignity.”

Unlike Edouard Louis, who escaped his poverty in one bound, Ernaux’s parents’ act, to some extent, as bridge between their working-class origins and her middle class existence. From working-class origins they rise to run their own business, a shop and café, leaving her father “both worker and shop keeper.” This leaves them to some extent alienated from both the class they have left and the class they have not yet entered:

“Behind their backs, they were referred to as the rich, which was the worst possible insult.”

It also leaves them with a fear of returning to poverty, “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty.” Her father’s greatest fear, however, is of embarrassment:

“He was always afraid of being ashamed or out of place.”

Ernaux reports, “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.’” One area of possible ‘shame’ is language:

“My father saw patois as something old and ugly, a sign of inferiority. He was proud to have stopped using certain idioms.”

This was something I immediately recognised from my own childhood, where the language my father used at work was different to the one my mother taught us to speak at home (and then was surprised later when there were words or expressions I didn’t know which she knew from her own parents). Ernaux goes as far as to say “anything to do with language was a source of resentment, far more than the subject of money.” It’s an important reminder that class is not simply a matter of income but a more subtle sense of confidence and agency – one reason why, on meeting Ernaux’s future husband, “all they asked from the boy was that he had good manners.” Ernaux understands the difficulty of escaping from the class one is born into:

“Now I often say ‘we’ because I shared his way of thinking for a long time and I can’t remember when I stopped doing so.”

Again, I recognise the difficulty (which she, as a successful writer has managed much better than I) as I still don’t entirely feel I belong in middle class settings (such as, ironically, book festivals). She also admits to the difficulty class creates in writing about her past:

“As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a lifestyle generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it… I am constantly wavering between the two.”

It is Ernaux’s ability to analyse her own responses, as well as penetrate the thoughts and motivations of the characters she writes about, that make her such a rewarding writer, somehow both subjective and objective, both emotional and analytical, at the same time – exactly those qualities which made The Years such a success.

Lost Books – Emily L

June 1, 2019

How good a writer was Marguerite Duras? Certainly good enough to have most of her work translated into English, but, twenty-three years after her death, very little of that remains in print, with only The Lover apparently impervious to fashion. Of course, she wrote so much and for so long, mainly novellas, slight and intense, and, I suspect, repetitive. There is perhaps a clue to her process, and therefore her legacy, at the end of Emily L, a late novel from 1987 which was quickly translated by Barbara Bray:

“…one ought to write without making corrections, not necessarily at full tilt, no, but at one’s own pace and in accordance with what one is experiencing at the time; one ought to eject what one writes, manhandle it almost, yes, treat it roughly, not try to trim profusion but let it be part of the whole, and not tone down anything either, whether its speed or its slowness, just leave everything as it is when it appears.”

That the novel ends at this point reminds us that it is as much about writing as anything else. Its narrator, we assume, is Duras herself, sitting with her lover (addressed as ‘you’ throughout) in a bar overlooking the Seine. “One day,” he tells her, “it’ll all be in a book – the square, the heat, the river,” and she acknowledges:

“I was going to write the story of the affair we’d had together, the one that was still there and taking forever to die.”

Instead they watch another couple in the bar, an English couple (much of their dialogue is in English in the original) who have arrived by boat. He is quickly designated the Captain, and she, later, Emily L. The narrator observes that their relationship, too, is coming to an end:

“It was clear it was all over, and at the same time she was still there.”

This idea becoming conflated with another ending, death:

“And they’re at the end of the last voyage, the end of life.”

Emily, in particular, is seen as a living momento mori:

“Her body, hidden before, is now visible. Visible in its mortality. Her body is dressed like a girl’s, in the worn-out clothes of youth; on her fingers the diamonds and gold of her people in Devon. But under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…”

Already the narrator is reading her story into what she sees and, as the novel progresses, she will create Emily’s narrative from her observation, which will also be her own story, having decided “to write it all directly – no, that’s all over, I couldn’t do it now.” Emily, too, we are told, was once a writer, writing poetry – an act which the Captain finds unbearable:

“The Captain suffered. Suffered tortures. As if she’d betrayed him, as if she’d led another life at the same time as the one he thought she’d been living in the apartment over the boathouse. A life that was secret, hidden, incomprehensible, perhaps even shameful, and more painful to him than if she’d been unfaithful to him with her body.”

It is the first poem she begins writing after she has lost a child which the Captain destroys; when she cannot find her unfinished work she does not write again. It is at this point that they begin to travel: “All other uses for their love were rejected.”

This ends the first part of Emily’s story, but the narrator begins it again, introducing the character of the caretaker of Emily’s family home for whom Emily has an unfulfilled longing, something the narrator’s lover immediately connects to her:

“…you wanted to have one absolute perfect love, and at the same time to have another, to help out.”

The divergence in their lives is that the narrator has continued to write, an activity which allows her some control:

“…when it takes possession of your whole life long… It’s as if it protected you from some kind of fear.”

In contrast she wonders whether Emily “every evening of every day…with the languishing gentleness, the incredible tact of the English, she’d asked to be allowed to die.” The narrator’s own fear is referenced in the novel’s opening line – “It began with the fear” – and strangely represented by a group of Koreans.

In the retelling it seems very much as if one character (the narrator) is telling the story of another character (Emily), but the novel is far more subtle than this, with the stories bleeding into each other, not only in their parallels but in their telling, and, of course, Emily existing in the world of the narrator. This makes for an enigmatic narrative (sometimes too enigmatic: “They were so alone in the world, they’d forgotten what solitude was”) which focuses on seeing (“We must have looked at them first without seeing them, and then all of a sudden have seen them”) with the suspicion that in looking too closely we see only ourselves, or, closer still, “under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…” A novel of so many surfaces we can no longer tell the depth.