Agostino

October 21, 2018

It has not been easy finding a novel to read for Karen and Simon’s 1944 Club, but I eventually settled on Alberto Moravia’s Agostino which qualifies, hopefully, despite being originally published in 1943 thanks to a revised edition issued the next year. (This is according to the Afterword by translator Michael F Moore – the NYRB edition simultaneously claims it was first published in 1945!) Agostino is a slim coming-of-age story: the title character begins the novel as his mother’s shadow, happy to set out to sea each summer morning with her to swim together:

“He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and the sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.”

This pleasurable ritual is disturbed when a young man approaches his mother: “All at once a shadow obstructed the sunlight shining down on him.” Agostino is surprised when his mother accepts the young man’s invitation to take a boat trip with him; as he watches them leave together, he sees that he has been literally replaced, a rejection which feels as public as the pride he took in accompanying her previously. The next day, his mother insists that Agostino go with them, angering Agostino further:

“…as if rather than a person endowed with an independent will he were an object that could be moved about arbitrarily.”

Eventually a sarcastic remark leads his mother to slap him, and Agostino runs off. He meets another boy, Berto, playing cops and robbers, and manages to inveigle his way into Berto’s gang by offering him his mother’s cigarettes:

“He felt as if, by going off with Berto, he were pursuing an obscure and justified form of revenge.”

Berto, and his friends, are clearly both poorer and rougher than Agostino, and Moravia punctuates their dialogue with sudden outbursts of violence. This begins when Berto plays a trick on Agostino, burning him with a cigarette. In fury, Agostino charges at him, only to be quickly gripped in a headlock:

“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality… a new behaviour so monstrous it was almost attractive.”

Berto is treated no differently when they reach the boys’ den, his newly acquired cigarettes taken from him by an older boy:

“The other boy took a step back and waited till Berto was within range. Then he stuck the cigarette pack between his teeth and started methodically pounding Berto’s stomach with his fists.”

As much as Agostino is fascinated by the boys, they are also intrigued by him: his large house (twenty rooms), his car and driver, and his attractive mother. Agostino’s newly grasped independence allows him to see his mother as an individual as well: “She’s a woman, nothing more than a woman.” He becomes aware of her sexuality at the same time as his own, and Agostino’s coming-of-age is very much sexual rather than social – although he is aware of the other boys’ poverty he finds their freedom attractive and gives little thought to the difficulties of their lives compared to his.

Agostino’s awareness of the sexuality of others is also developed through the character of Saro, who seems initially a father figure to the boys, but is also sleeping with one of them. When Agostino is invited on his boat, he cannot convince the others that he has not also been subject to Saro’s desires. Moravia conveys the confusion in his mind:

“On that day his eyes had been forced open, but what he learned was far more than he could bear. What oppressed an embittered him was not so much the novelty as the quality of the things he had come to know, their massive and undigested importance.”

This is the novel’s greatest success, the picture it paints of Agostino’s turbulence and turmoil so typical of adolescence. Partly this is due to Moravia’s ability to explore sex without moralising. He also makes no claim that during the few days the novel covers, Agostino transforms from boy to man:

“But he wasn’t a man, and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”

Agostino is a classic coming-of-age story from a writer who is always interesting.

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Catastrophe and Other Stories

October 15, 2018

Dino Buzzati is most famous, certainly in the English-speaking world, for his novel The Tartar Steppe. Notable also, though less well-known, is his ‘graphic novel’ (it predates the term), Poem Strip, which he both wrote and drew. Other novels and short stories have been translated but have long been unavailable, so credit is due to Alma Classics for this compilation of existing translations, Catastrophe and Other Stories, originally published in the sixties and seventies, mainly translated by Judith Landry, but with contributions from E. R. Low and Cynthia Jolly.

Whether carefully selected or simply typical of Buzzati’s style, most of the stories do, indeed, end in some form of catastrophe. In the opening story, ‘The Collapse of the Baliverna’, the narrator expresses his guilt over the destruction of the building in question, “a huge, grim brick building put up outside the town during the seventeenth century by the monks of San Celso.” It was now “the home of a whole crowd of evacuees, homeless people who had been bombed out, of tramps, deadbeats, even a small group of Gypsies.” (In such documentary detail we see Buzzati the journalist). In attempting to climb the walls, the narrator pulls out a rusty iron spike, which in turn releases another, and then a slab of stone. Within moments the entire building collapses. This brief story might be said to contain a moral lesson, but it largely conveys a feeling; the panic of unintended consequences.

Similarly, ‘The Epidemic’, a political satire, is convincing precisely because of its psychological truth. Its central character, the Colonel, is persuaded that the flu epidemic which is emptying his office is actually a test of loyalty: “if you get influenza you’re against the government.” Naturally he continues to work on no matter how ill he feels:

“The Colonel would appear at the office at the usual time with the regularity of a robot, divide the work up among his juniors and then sit motionless at his desk, racked by burst of hollow coughing.”

In other stories the element of nightmare is at work even more strongly. In ‘Just the Very Thing They Wanted’ a holidaying couple, Antonio and Anna, first face problems when they cannot find a hotel which is not already full (while all appear quite empty). A visit to the public baths to cool off is no more successful as both must first present their identity card and Anna has misplaced hers. Their frustrations continue, eventually turning the village against them, with unexpectedly violent consequences which Buzzati makes all too believable. In ‘Seven Floors’ Giuseppe Corte is admitted to a sanatorium, the mildness of his condition placing him on the seventh floor:

“…the patients were housed on each floor according to the gravity of their state. The seventh – or top – floor was for extremely mild cases… On the first floor were the hopeless cases.”

When he is asked to move to the sixth floor, not for medical reasons but to accommodate anther patient, he reluctantly agrees – and one can see where the story in inevitably heading.

In ‘Catastrophe’ passengers find themselves on a train heading towards an unknown doom. The first warning occurs as the train leaves the station with the narrator watching a woman on the platform:

“But as the train passed her she didn’t even look in our direction… but turned her head to listen to a man who had come rushing up the lane and was shouting something which we, of course, couldn’t hear.”

As they travel on they see “men and women bending over parcels, closing suitcases”;

“A small boy with a bundle of newspapers tried to chase after us, waving one with great black headlines on the front page.”

In this, and other catastrophic stories, it’s difficult not to see the influence of the war, even if metaphorically in a story such as ‘And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door’ in which a wealthy family refuse to believe their house might be in danger from a storm:

“Just the usual peasant’s panics. The river’s very swollen, they say the house is in danger…”

Buzzati punctuates the story which unexplained noises which the family dismiss as thunder. Characters are also threatened in ‘The Scala Scare’ where those in the opera house fear an armed insurrection has taken place:

“The state of the besieged was becoming grotesque. Outside, the silent, empty streets had at least a semblance of peacefulness. Inside, on the other hand, there was the vision of total defeat: dozens of rich and highly respected, influential people were resignedly putting up with a humiliating situation for a danger that had still to be demonstrated.”

The later stories in the collection (stories are not individually dated so there is not way of knowing if they are, indeed, later stories) are closer to fable, particularly ‘The Egg’ and ‘The Enchanted Coat’, demonstrating Buzzati’s range and skill. This is a wonderful collection, and Buzzati is clearly a writer who deserves exploration beyond a single work.

The Communist

October 9, 2018

If ever there were to be a book of neglected writers, then surely Guido Morselli would deserve his place: his seven novels were only published after he died at his own hands, a suicide which was at least partly caused by the endless rejections from publishers. I first encountered Morselli via Jacqui’s review of Divertimento 1889, one of only two of his novels to have made it into English. I soon tracked down the other, Past Conditional, which tantalisingly suggested plans for further translations which never came to fruit. Coincidentally, however, Frederika Randall was translating Morselli’s fourth novel, The Communist, for New York Review of Books Classics around the same time.

The Communist is Morselli’s most realist novel (he was a writer who never settled to a single genre), set in 1950s Italy where communism is a popular political movement, associated with resistance to Mussolini’s fascists. Walter Ferranini, the communist of the title, is a life-long believer – his father was a railwayman and an anarchist – who left Italy in the thirties to fight against Franco in Spain. The Second World War prevented his return and he spent the war years in America instead. As the novel opens, he has recently been elected to parliament, a position to which is attached little in the way of power or responsibility. Not only has he not spoken once in the five months he has been there:

“He had been assigned to a committee that met rarely, the most pacific and least industrious committee in parliament, in which his silence was no more remarked upon than it was in the chamber. The party, too, asked little of him, perhaps because in Rome, where he had never set foot at party headquarters before his recent election, nobody knew him.”

He wishes to propose a bill which will protect workers from accidents at work but he is told, “Communists do not take part in the life of the parliament, they observe and remain outside.” This is perhaps the beginning of his political crisis of faith, though its roots are complex and many. He, first of all, sees corruption, or at least a love of comfort, among his peers, which perhaps reminds him of his own deviation from the party in America:

“I sank into a reified, dispossessed world that completely transformed me. It was the great crisis of my life… A betrayal.”

In America he also married, and the woman in question, Nancy, is still his wife. His lover, Nuccia, is also married though separated; her child looked after by her parents. Ferranini knows the party disapprove of their relationship, and, when an official goes to Nuccia with a request from her husband that they get back together, he points to their own guilt:

“We let ourselves be seen, Nuccia. We were visible. Something had to happen.”

Another factor is the party’s approach to dissent. He is sent by the party with colleagues to speak to a young man, Mazzola, who has broken from party discipline. Ferranini, being a worker rather than an intellectual, is there as an observer, the only one who feels any sympathy for Mazzola’s position, shaking his hand as he leaves “without saying anything. He would have liked to, but couldn’t find the words.” Later he publishes an article that puts him at odds with the party hierarchy concerning a doubt he has had since the beginning of the novel regarding labour:

“…the classics say labour will be reduced to a minimum once communism is established. But the way I see it, labour cannot be reduced, and certainly not abolished.”

The article, in turn, is commented on in the mainstream press:

“The article affirms that the enervation that comes with labour is not merely the consequence of alienation and exploitation but an intrinsic quality of work.”

Ferranini’s theorising relates directly to his concern for the workers, but the party censures him causing him to doubt his unquestioning devotion and take dramatic action. As with Morselli’s other novels, there is a philosophical intention – this is neither satire nor polemic, and Ferranini’s sincerity and seriousness are among his defining qualities. (If Morselli and his character might be criticised for one thing, it is a lack of humour).

The novel is also interesting for its feminism, voiced through the character of Nuccia (“the degree of liberty and progress in a society corresponds to the degree of evolution in the sexual domain”) and the appearance of Alberto Moravia discussing realism. Above all, though, the novel provides a historical snapshot, while at the same time exploring the possibility of political purity.

Tristana

October 7, 2018

The Spanish writer Benito Perez Galdos has never made the same impact in English as, for example, the great French realist, Emile Zola. Tristana, translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 2014, is the latest in a small number of translations of his novels which have appeared sporadically over the years. The title character is a young woman who lives with the ageing lothario Don Lope, though, as the novel opens, neighbours seem uncertain about their relationship:

“For a period of about two or three months, it was held to be the gospel truth that the young lady was Dom Lope’s niece. The contrary view – that she was his daughter – took hold… After which another opinion blew in, according to which she was none other than Don Lope’s legal wife.”

None of the above are true: she is, in fact, the daughter of a friend, whom Don Lope has helped out of debt on more than one occasion. When both her parents die, she comes to love with him, an arrangement which makes her part servant, part mistress. That the novel begins with attempts to define Tristana according to her relationship with a man is interesting, however, as her desire to create an identity which is not reliant on such a relationship is one of her driving forces:

“She felt restless, ambitious, although for quite what she didn’t know, for something very far off, very high up, which her eyes could not see.”

Her life changes when she falls in love with a painter, Horacio, and they set out on a relationship of smuggled letters and secret meetings. Both are presented by Galdos as entirely confident in their love, and even when Tristana confesses her relationship with Don Lope to him, Horacio dismisses any idea it will influence his feelings:

“I love you as much as I did before, no, more, always more.”

Don Lope suspects that she has “found romance” and we see he is more than a two-dimensional villain as his feelings are one moment angry, caring the next. When he plays the role of her father and rails about defending her honour, she scornfully reminds him she has none – “because you took it away from me, you ruined me.” His anger fades and it is clear that she has hurt him:

“My child, how it wounds me to hear you judge me like that, in such absolute terms… The truth is…Yes, you’re right…”

It is the complexity of the characters which makes Tristana such a rewarding read. Tristana, even in the raptures of love, still determines to become independent:

“It seems to me now that if I had been taught drawing when I was a child, I would be able to paint now and live independently, and earn my own living from my honest labours.”

Don Lope’s maid, Saturna tells her there are only three careers open to women: marriage, the theatre and prostitution, but throughout the novel Tristana remains determined to discover other talents.

Horacio and Tristana’s love seems likely to survive even their separation when Horacio must leave for the country with his aunt. Their letters to each other, which conduct the narrative at this point, suggest the strength of their affection, though in often irritating language (“lovekins”?). Perhaps there are signs of more than geographical distance, however, in their separate pursuits: while Tristana learns English, Horacio becomes a farmer.

When Tristana falls seriously ill, we are made to realise that with no formal relationship, Horacio cannot see her. His absence while she suffers gives the appearance of callousness, while Don Lope, in contrast, is caring. The novel itself becomes as morally complex as its characters, though in retrospect this has been clear from the beginning:

“The conscience of this warrior of love was…capable of shining forth like a bright star, but on other occasions, it revealed itself to be as horrible arid as a dead planet.”

Tristana’s feelings, too, have never been entirely set against Don Lope:

“The strange thing is that if this man were to understand I cannot love him, if he were to erase the word ‘love’ from our relationship and we could relate to each other in a different way, then I could love him, yes, I could, though I’m not sure how…”

Tristana is a reminder that the black and white reality we sometimes imagine we live in is, in fact, many shades of grey. It is realist in the sense that it falsifies neither a happy nor a tragic ending, but leaves us with the moral muddle we must so often accept in life.

Henri Duchemin and His Shadows

October 3, 2018

Moving from one neglected French writer (Violette Leduc) to another, Emmanuel Bove was born in 1898, publishing throughout the twenties and thirties. His first novel under his own name was My Friends in 1924, though he had previously been writing popular fiction using a pseudonym. He was unable to publish during the Occupation, and wrote his final novels after escaping to Algiers, only to die in 1945. A number of his novels have been translated into English but most are out of print; Henri Duchemin and His Shadows is a translation by Alyson Waters of a collection originally published in 1939, La Dernière Nuit.

The title of Bove’s first novel (to be reprinted by New York Review of Books Classics next March) seems indicative as many of the stories here also focus on friendship. In ‘Night Crime’, Henri Duchemin is poor and alone. His desire to end his loneliness is obvious from the opening pages where he offers to open his heart to a stranger in a café:

“He was so happy to be speaking that he seemed younger. He was sure he would be liked and this gave him confidence.”

Unfortunately the woman he addresses is unsympathetic: “Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re so unhappy, just kill yourself.” His need for companionship unrequited, he moves to an even more insalubrious bar, finding himself sitting by a sleeping man who, on waking, asks him:

“Do you want to be my friend? Like you, I wouldn’t mind having a lot of money.”

The stranger’s plan involves Duchemin going into the house of a wealthy banker, and killing him:

“You’ll enter his bedroom, the moon will light your way. You’ll just need to strike, and you’ll be rich.”

Although he does not want to commit the murder, he finds himself drawn into the plot. They go to the house and the stranger sends him into the banker’s bedroom with a hammer, but when he returns with the man’s wallet, his companion is gone. Even now his longing is for friendship, using his new-found wealth in a bar, throwing money to his “true friends”, only a moment later beginning to “sense that they did not like him…”

“The ugliness of life appeared to him. Until then, as long as they had been listening to him, he had been in a dream.”

Duchemin’s loneliness, rather than his poverty, seems to be at the root of his crime.

Loneliness is also at the heart of ‘Another Friend’ which also begins with the narrator meeting a stranger and striking up a friendship while feeding ducks in the park:

“For the first time in my life I was not embarrassed to meet someone. I was in such a perfect position to be liked that I could speak to anyone without being afraid.”

The stranger invites the narrator for lunch, declaring, “You have a friend in me. Every time I am able to make someone’s life a little less painful, I do so.” As the story goes on to demonstrate, however, friendship brings with it not only joy, but disappointment.

We see this, too, in ‘Night Visit’ which examines a more established friendship, the narrator interrupted at home one night by an old war comrade, Paul:

“Well, my friend, in the name of this unblemished friendship I am asking you to listen to me.”

The story examines the limits of friendship, the narrator, unable to resolve Paul’s problems, proposing to return to his home:

“Although my friendship for him was strong right then, it seemed ridiculous to spend a night consoling him.”

Friendship, it seems, is not to be relied on; and neither, if the stories in the second half of the book are anything to go by, is love. In ‘What I Saw’ the narrator is convinced he sees his girlfriend in a taxi kissing another man and is powerless before her denials. In ‘Is It a Lie?’ the wife stays out all night and her husband must decide whether to believe her story or not. In ‘The Story of a Madman’ the narrator tells all his loved ones that he does not wish to see them again. ‘The Child’s Return’ works in reverse: a narrator separated from his family is traveling to visit them, but the reunion is not as straight-forward as he had hoped.

Bove’s world is one in which no-one’s affection is reliable, and characters must either face up to this – a realisation which is often associated with suicide – or pretend to believe otherwise:

“…rather than losing everything, it would be better to suffer in silence in order to have the joy of living with the woman he loved and who had enough respect and fondness for him to go to the trouble of lying.”

Despite this cynicism, he evokes a sympathy for his characters which borders on affection. They are well worth accompanying on their sad journeys.

The Hothouse by the East River

September 30, 2018

Having toyed with the murder mystery (without murder or mystery) in Not to Disturb, Spark turned her hand to a different genre in The Hothouse by the East River: the ghost story. Once again, she subverts the reader’s expectations (Peter Kemp has described the novel as an “expectation-jarring parody”) by creating a ghost story in which the dead are haunted by the living.

Elsa, in her usual place in the titular New York apartment, sitting by the window gazing out at the river, tells her husband, Paul, that she met an old acquaintance while shopping for shoes: Helmut Kiel. Kiel was a German POW whom they met in England during the war working at The Compound, “a small outpost of British Intelligence in the heart of the countryside.” The only problem is they both believed Kiel to be dead. Later Elsa is dismissive – “The man can’t be Kiel, he’s young enough to be Kiel’s son” – but the idea has already taken root in Paul’s mind, his concern that the past has caught up with them exacerbated by his believe that Kiel and Elsa had an affair in 1944.

As the present becomes stranger and stranger – Paul believes he has spotted a coded message on the soles of her new boots – the past is presented as reliable and certain:

“In the summer of 1944…life was more vivid than it is now. Everything was more distinct.”

(Later Paul will declare, “Back in 1944 when people were normal and there was a world war on…”). Spark, in her conceit, captures the feeling of many that life during the war was somehow more ‘real’; it is ‘factual’ (and presumably partly autobiographical) as opposed to the ‘fictional’ world of present day New York. Part of that falseness is the American obsession with psychiatry. The city is described as:

“New York, home of the vivisectors of the mind, and of the mentally vivisected still to be reassembled, of those who live intact, habitually wondering about their states of sanity, and home of those whose minds have been dead, bearing the scars of resurrection.”

Paul cannot decide whether Elsa, whose sanity he believes to be precarious, is going mad:

“Is she sly and sophisticated, not mad after all?”

Spark places little faith in her psychiatrist, Garven, at one point reducing him to a more obviously servile role when he replaces Elsa’s maid. When Elsa says, “He’s looking for the cause and all I’m giving him are effects,” the comment seems playfully aimed at the reader too.

Meanwhile, Paul and Elsa’s son, Pierre, is staging Peter Pan using only geriatric actors. “To die,” Barrie suggests, “will be an awfully big adventure,” and Spark has used this as her starting point, stripping it of all sentimentality. That Paul and Elsa are not what they first appear is hinted at from the opening pages. Elsa’s shadow (another Pan reference) is frequently mentioned as casting in “the wrong direction”:

“He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be.”

In one scene, both amusing and grotesque, another colleague from The Compound, Princess Xavier, who has secreted silk worm eggs in her bosom, causes alarm when they hatch, giving her the appearance of a rotting corpse. The ‘hothouse’ itself is a purgatory, “the air quivers with central heating that cannot be turned off very far.”

If Elsa seems mad, it is in fact Paul who is deluded, believing that Elsa is a ghost he has summoned, telling her to:

“Go back, go back to the grave from where I called you.”

As Elsa reveals to him, however, he “died too… That’s one of the things you don’t realise, Paul.” (Perhaps it is significant that the river Lethe in Hades is usually pictured as the easternmost). In the near-farce of the novel’s final scenes, Paul and Elsa are chased by their dead colleagues through the streets of New York, city of the living dead, until they finally accept their fate.

The Hothouse by the East River is another sharp, satirical, subversive Spark novel, the abandon of its more surreal moments tempered by its serious intent.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

September 28, 2018

The Penguin European Writers series continues to bring neglected writers back into print with perhaps its most obscure entry yet, Violette Leduc. Leduc was born in France in 1907, publishing her first novel in 1942 with encouragement from Simone de Beauvoir. Many of her novels have been translated but most of are out of print, the exception being Thérèse and Isabelle, a novel about a lesbian love affair which was only published after her death. Her most famous book is probably her memoir, La Batarde, which appeared in 1964. (The most recent English-language edition is from Dalkey Archive in 2003). The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, a novella under a hundred pages, was published the year after.

If the title suggests wealth and comfort, our protagonist – starving, with only a few coins to her name – is living in a very different world. At sixty she “isn’t really old by today’s standards,” as Deborah Levy points out in her introduction, but she feels she has no future beyond her day-to-day existence, “detached from the world by her idleness and her age.” She manages her hunger and isolation with a routine which is counted in at the beginning of the first chapter:

“She had to hurry out to reach the station at exactly the same moment as the train itself.”

“The rules of habit were in charge again,” she tells herself, “Without the rules she would have weakened and stumbled.” Surrounded by food, she instead spends fifty-five francs on a Metro ticket, attracted to the crowds:

“…what she wanted was their warmth: she had deprived herself of bread, now they were to give her their warmth in its place.”

Her most valuable possession is a fox fur which she found one day in a dustbin:

“The fox had offered itself to the first comer and she had been stronger than all the others.”

Her love for the fox fur is physical, like that of a lover:

“She plunged her face into her little one’s naked groin and snuggled there.”

This also makes her possessive, unwilling to wear the fox fur in fear it may be taken from her; keeping it in a packing case and only taking it out at night to look at:

“She would squander a match for him on dark and moonless nights; she would move the flame to and fro along his length, enchanted at burning her fingers for his sake.”

Now, however, her fortunes are so low that she feels she must sell it. The fox-fur, however, is only of value to her, dismissed with a, “Aren’t you ashamed to come bothering people like this!” Exhausted, she slumps onto the pavement, but is woken when a man puts money in her hand:

“Having succeeded once, she tried it again. This time she formed her outstretched palm into a little hollow and stared down into it, absorbed by each dear wrinkle cutting across it.”

In her hopelessness she has found, in begging, an unexpected supply of money, and therefore food. Her thoughts of selling the fox fur seem like a betrayal she has been saved from.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is a simple story but told with the intensity of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It is beautifully written – take, for example, this description from the opening page:

“February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners.”

The narrative inhabits the world of the ‘lady’ so entirely it is difficult to resist the idea that the fox fur is a living companion. And, just when you are uncertain where Leduc may take us in the final pages, she provides an ending which is surely deliberate in its ambiguity. By this point many readers will be convinced, as Levy begins by telling us, Leduc’s novels are “works of genius and also a bit peculiar.”

Promise at Dawn

September 23, 2018

For a novelist who has won the Prix Goncourt twice (once under his own name and once using a pseudonym), Romain Gary has been rather shoddily treated in the English-speaking world, something that is made all the more shameful by the fact that he wrote a number of his novels in English and then translated them into French. Hopefully, this is changing, with a new translation of The Kites appearing from Penguin Classics this year, followed by a reprint of his autobiography, Promise at Dawn, in its 1961 translation by John Markham Beach. This neglect might suggest that Gary is a challenging or difficult writer, but on the evidence of these two books, he is quite the opposite: readable, entertaining and moreish.

Promise at Dawn is the story of his formation as writer, a story that is as much his mother’s as his own. Gary was born in 1914 in Vilnius which, at that time, was part of Russia. His mother was a Russian actress who, his father having left them, is presented throughout the book as a single parent whose only care is for her son (Gary also suggests that his father is not, in fact, the Jewish businessman whose surname he bears, but the actor and film star Ivan Mosjoukine). From Vilnius they move to Warsaw and later, when Gary is fourteen, to Nice in France, a country which has always been his mother’s desired destination, everywhere else regarded as:

“…’a temporary halt’, as my mother never failed to point out, on our way to France, a country where we were to make our permanent home, which was eagerly awaiting me, and where I would ‘grow up, study and become somebody.’”

Gary becoming ‘somebody’ is his mother’s obsession, an obsession he realises originates in the fact that his “mother’s own artistic ambitions had never been fulfilled, and she was dreaming for me of a career she had never know herself.”

“Yes, my mother had talent – and I have never recovered from it.”

His mother’s attempts to identify his talent do not begin with writing, which might even be described as something of a last resort. He tells of early efforts with a violin:

“All I remember today of the ‘Maestro’ is the expression of profound astonishment on his face each time I dutifully applied my bow to the strings; and I can still hear the cry ‘Ai, ai, ail’ he would utter, covering his ears with both hands as I was giving my best.”

Gary also fails to make the grade as a dancer, and painting is rejected as, in his mother’s eyes, “all painters were condemned to poverty, despair, disease and drunkenness.”

“And so, with music, dance and painting out of the way, we resigned ourselves to literature.”

This self-deprecating humour runs through the book, aimed at both Gary and his mother, though, it has to be said, without resentment. His mother’s self-sacrifice and devotion overrides any sense that she is pushing him too hard. Momentarily prosperous, his mother’s business collapses when she devotes herself instead to caring for Gary when he falls seriously ill, and, finding herself bankrupt, they leave for Warsaw, still aiming for France. There they live hand to mouth (“She turned her hand to a hundred and one things to keep us afloat.”) but Gary remains the priority:

“…every morning at ten, she turned up punctually with her Thermos flask of hot chocolate and her bread and butter.”

Eventually they reach Nice where their precarious existence continues, supported at times by mysterious money orders which we assume come from Gary’s father. Gary develops his own survival instincts, at one point pawning their furniture, and on another occasion making the most of a wealthy lodger who is taken with his mother.

Beyond his relationship with his mother, the book is probably more interesting as a historical document than as the diary of a developing writer as a result of Gary’s participation in the Second World War. Though denied an officer’s rank in the French Air Force (a result, he feels, of his status as a foreigner and a Jew), he determines to get to England to continue fighting after France’s surrender. It is during his stay in England that he writes his first novel, A European Education, but he reveals little about his writing process beyond his determination to succeed for his mother’s sake.

Promise at Dawn is a captivating autobiography, and I would challenge any reader to leave its pages without falling at least a little in love with Gary. It’s the smaller stories which make it such a delight, like that of the neighbour, Mr Piekielny, who believed his mother’s claim that Gary would one day be French Ambassador, and asked only that he be mentioned when Gary met the rich and famous:

“Then something happened in me. I could almost see the little man jumping up and down, stamping his feet and tearing at his goatee in a desperate attempt to attract my attention and remind me of my promise… I heard myself announce to the Queen in a loud and perfectly audible voice:
‘At number 16, Grand Pohulanka, in the town of Vilna, there lived a certain Mr Piekielny…’”

Hopefully Gary’s works continue to return to print as I, for one, would like to read them all.

And the Wind Sees All

September 18, 2018

Peirene Press’ final novella of 2018, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All, is the story of an Icelandic village. The novel takes us on a tour of the village streets and houses, revealing the secret histories of its inhabitants. Such omnipotence is presumably explained by the fact that the narrator is, as the title suggests, the wind, addressing us in a brief opening chapter:

“I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.”

The numerous chapters which follow are connected by Kata, the choir mistress, as she bicycles to the village hall where the choir will perform that night. After the first chapter, which is devoted to her, she appears, albeit briefly, in all the others:

“From the window he sees Kata Choir gliding past on her bike, her forehead wrinkled in concentration, wearing a white dress with blue polkas dots.”

The polka dot dress not only ensure she is visible as she passes, but is linked to the past she, like the other characters, carries with her:

“She was wearing the white dress with the blue polka dots the day she was loved.”

We discover that Kata (the only character who is not Icelandic having arrived in the village, via various countries, from Slovakia) was once almost engaged to Andreas. Much of the chapter describes what would have happened, but clearly didn’t: “She would have been loved.” Her past may be tragic, but it’s difficult not to see her as a joyful presence in the novel, not simply because of the image she creates but as a result of the many friendly greetings she receives. The Reverend Saemundur believes she is “as beautiful as the life force itself.” She hasn’t worn the dress since the day she lost Andreas, which suggests that this evening, and perhaps her recognised place in village life, represents a happiness which allows her to face the past. That the entire novella takes place during her journey also makes clear that we are witnessing but one moment in the village’s life.

Each short chapter which follows introduces us to further characters from the village, some of whom, of course, are related. In most cases the narrative also divulges elements of their past creating a cumulative impression of the sadness on which our lives are built. Arno, for example, has returned to the village after a successful career because he “had to get away”:

“Everybody knew he was guilty of something.”

Gudjon and Sveinsina sit together in their house but are immersed in entirely different thoughts: his of bird-watching, hers of her previous husband who killed himself. Teddi, Sveinsina’s son, is approaching the harbour in a fishing boat, but was once a singer:

“The village remembers the wreck you were when you returned home with shattered dreams.”

Svenni remembers being abused as a child:

“Then hand moved further up. Svenni didn’t know what to do to get rid of it, whether he should move away.”

The Reverend Saemundur has an online gambling addiction. Lalli Puffin remembers telling his wife, as she lies dying, about an affair he had with Emilia, “even expecting a visit from some young person saying: You are my father.” We already know, however, that the child, died.

If this makes the book sound bleak, that is not the impression it makes on the reader. There are first of all, happy memories as well: both Kalli and Josa, for example, although long separated, fondly remember making love in a church. Both Arni and Teddi have, in different ways, saved themselves by returning to the village. Teddi reflects:

“As you make for harbour, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.”

In a sense it is the village which is the beacon, and Thorsson seems to find hope in village life, in the resilience of his characters and of Iceland itself (the financial crash also features at points). And the Wind Sees All may not be a twenty-four hour Ulysses, but it similarly fills its minutes with vibrant, messy, tragic, glorious life.

Moving Parts

September 13, 2018

When Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was was published last year it became one of the first Thai books to appear in English. Now the same publisher (Tilted Axis Press) and translator (Mui Poopopsakul) offer a second collection of Yoon’s stories, Moving Parts. The reappearance of ‘part’ in the title is coincidental to say the least, but here refers to the physical parts of the body. It is in this sense that each story is introduced as Part 1, Part 2, and so on – though discreet in plot and character, they combine, Frankenstein-like, the various parts of the body, from the finger of the first story through tongue, feet, hand, until we reach the end (the appropriately titled ‘Butt Plug’).

A strain of surrealism runs throughout most of the stories. In ‘Yucking Finger’, the protagonist, Maekee, is possessed of a finger which expresses its disgust by voicing the word ‘Yuck’, first heard when he is unable to complete a Maths equation for his teacher:

“From that moment on, whatever Maekee held or touched appeared tip be source of dissatisfaction for the finger, particularly if the situation involved an important matter in his life.”

Most of the stories focus on one scene, but ‘Yucking Finger’ follows Maekee through his life with the finger commenting in disgust at every moment of happiness: his marriage, his career as an architect, the house he designs and builds to live in with his wife. It is also unusual in having a more traditional, punchy ending as Yoon’s stories tend to avoid the need for a twist, reading instead like a scene extracted from a life which otherwise continues.

Elements of the surreal feature in two stories which focus on the rear. In ‘Mock Tail’ we encounter, with no explanation, a society in which it is normal to have a tail – so much so that when Shamada is born without one her father goes to great lengths so that no-one knows, buying a series of false or ‘mock’ tails as she grows older. Now she has reached a point in her relationship with her boyfriend, Komtal, where she has decided to sleep with him:

“For an average girl, the apprehension over losing her virginity couldn’t stray far from a certain body part that would be invaded and explored for the first time. But Shamada had a different body part that had been causing her distress deep inside for a long time… Shamada had no tail!”

Yoon juxtaposes Shamada’s thoughts on how she will tell her boyfriend (and how he will react) with Komtal watching ‘mock tail’ porn with a room-mate. In this way the story becomes a commentary on our attitudes towards sex and body shape. There is further social commentary in ‘Butt Plug’, where Paan suddenly witnesses a naked body falling past his window. When he looks down he sees the body but “not one single person was paying attention to this death.” He goes down to investigate, meeting two young women in the lift who seem upset. When he asks them if they are aware of the death they tell him their emotional state is the result of another matter entirely:

“My butt plug is no longer functioning, that’s what the doctor says.”

In the world of the story this is immediately accepted as matter of great distress. Yoon has deliberately picked something ridiculous to emphasise his point, made earlier:

“Each person’s attention meandered only within a small radius around him or her.”

‘Long Heart’ is technically a science fiction story, but, like all of Yoon’s work, is so grounded in the everyday that such a genre label is misleading. Its central character, BC, works for a company which has created an artificial heart which can prolong life. The story begins with him being dropped in the now derelict area where he was brought up. As a representative of technology and the future, he contrasts not only with his surroundings, but also with his background as his father was an antique dealer. In a sense the two men are connected – one preserves objects, the other people – but BC feels their view of life is very different:

“A clock that can no longer tell time has no use, of course, but what I helped build, it boosts the quality of life; it gives someone like me the opportunity to invent new things, to continue helping to develop the world for hundreds of years longer.”

In other stories it is physical deformities which are central – both for the man with dark glasses in ‘Eye Spy: a One-Act Play’ and the man in room seventeen in ‘Destiny’s a Dick’. In both, the story tells of the discovery of what is unusual about them by a young woman, though these are not stories of revelation where characters suddenly develop insight. Yoon’s characters are generally ordinary people who are not looking to examine their lives too closely.

Moving Parts is a collection of short stories which is at once playful and serious. It uncovers the everyday lives of its characters from strange angles in a way that is at once distinctive and recognisable. Tilted Axis and Mui Poopopsakul should be congratulated on bring this writer to an English-speaking audience.