Cove

June 17, 2018

Welsh writer Cynan Jones’ novel Cove, with its short blocks of text probing the blankness of its pages, may look to the casual browser like poetry, but it is as tense as any thriller, as taut as a sail in storm. Most of its action takes place at sea, where its narrator finds himself lost, injured in a lightning strike, and with no clear memory of who he is or why he is there. It begins, however, in the second person, as a pregnant woman walks along the shore. From the first lines the novel walks a tightrope between life and death, the child inside her immediately juxtaposed with a missing child reported by a passing boat. As the men search they miss a doll washed onto the shore: every small thing seems portentous and important. Only later will we discover that this prelude is a coda.

The unborn child’s father is the narrator of the rest of the story, having taken his kayak out to sea to fish and to scatter the ashes of his father. While at sea he is struck by lightning, knocking him unconscious:

“He wakes floating on his back, caught on a cleat by the elastic toggle of his wetsuit shoe. Around him hailstones melt and sink. They are scattered on the kayak, roll off as it bobs on the slight waves. There is a hissing sound. The hailstones melting in the water.”

From this point on Cove is a story of survival: he cannot move his arms, one of his eyes won’t open:

“It hurt to breathe because his whole body hurt. As if he had suffered a massive fall.”

He also no longer knows in which direction land lies: there is a “complete horizon” – a “horizon everywhere around and no point of it seemed closer than another.” He has not told anyone where he is – leaving only a note that said ‘Pick salad x’ – and knows that rescue is unlikely. One might say the narrator is pitted against the elements, but instead it is suggested nature is capricious, it’s actions arbitrary. We see this in two small incidents seemingly unrelated to the main story: the woman’s discovery of a dead pigeon, killed, she thinks, by a peregrine; and the man’s memory of a wren caught by a cat:

“The bird vibrated briefly when he picked it up, a shudder of life. Then flew away.”

(A wren’s feather will be his good luck charm). It is these connections across the pages which suggest the novel has been created with the precision of a jeweller. On the first page the woman thinks she feels a kick from the baby; later, when the kayak jumps over a wave the man feels “a kick under his hand, the ocean of her stomach.” When she first sees something on the shore she thinks it’s a wetsuit shoe (“and the world tips”), and discovering the pigeon she feels “a strange sense of horror”:

“That it knew before being struck. Of it trying to get home. Of something throwing it off course.”

Jones is an exquisite writer, again and again finding exactly the right words. When the narrator has spent a night on the water he feels:

“The night he had come through seemed tangible, as if it hung around him.”

He describes the kayak with words as unexpected as they are accurate:

“Scales of mackerel decal the inside, here and there a zip of dried blood.”

These phrases enhance rather dilute the urgency of the narrative, but allow Jones to create his own pace. Cove is a quite wonderful piece of writing, powerfully reminding us of life and of death, and of the feather’s breadth between.

Advertisements

Football in Sun and Shadow

June 14, 2018

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most famous voices, was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lover of football. Though when we think of South American World Cup winners Brazil, with five victories, outstrips every other team, and Argentina, with two wins and four finals, is likely to be our next thought, Uruguay was, of course, the very first winner of the World Cup in 1930. Perhaps they would have been even more successful if they hadn’t refused to defend their title in 1934 in protest at Italy’s decision not to travel to Uruguay for the initial tournament. They won again in 1950, and, though that was their last appearance in a final, they have since finished fourth three times, most recently in 2010 – a record England might envy, and Scotland can only dream of.

If such facts are to your liking, you will find them in Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow (translated by Mark Fried), originally published in 1995, but since updated to 2010 (and recently reissued by Penguin Classics). However, one does not read Galeano simply for the facts (meticulously researched though his work is – there are nine pages of sources) but for the poetry. Eusebio was “long legs, dangling arms, sad eyes”; of Jimmy Greaves he says, “They would see him land, but they never saw him take off”; Pele “climbed into the air as if it were a staircase.”

The book begins with a history of football, its origins, the development of its rules in England (and the discovery, in Scotland, that everyone chasing the ball wasn’t the most effective way to play), and the spread to South America via its ports. Until the 1930 World Cup, the book is very much focussed on South America; from that point on it is largely a history of the World Cup rather than football. Each World Cup is introduced with an outline of world events at that time; this being Galeano these sketches are truly international, with 1930, for example, covering an earthquake in Italy, Marlene Dietrich, Mayakovsky’s suicide, Mahatma Ghandi in India, and August Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua. After Castro’s revolution in Cuba he inserts the following every four years:

“Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.”

At each World Cup he picks out the key moments and players, including the most memorable goals (I can’t resist offering his take on Archie Gemmill in 1978, Scotland’s only World Cup mention):

“The Netherlands, which was doing well, was playing Scotland, which was doing poorly. Scottish player Archie Gemmill got the ball from his countryman Hartford and kindly asked the Dutch to dance to the tune of a lone bagpiper. Wildschut was the first to fall, his head spinning, at Gemmill’s feet. Then Gemmill left Suurbier reeling in the dust. Krol had it worst: Gemmill put it between his legs. And when the keeper Jongbloed came at him, the Scot lobbed the ball over his head.”

The main attraction of Football in Sun and Shadow, however, is its international perspective on the game itself: we are frequently treated to stories of Scottish and English football in our media, but rarely is it proportionate to our place in the world (like so much else): here England only feature for Charlton’s goal against Argentina in 1962, Stanley Matthews, and their 1966 win.

Even in a book about football, politics will never be absent with Galeano. He outlines football’s early racism in South America, with Chile in 1916 demanding that a 4-0 defeat by Uruguay be disallowed as Uruguay had two ‘Africans’ in the team. Italy’s’ victory in 1938 is greeted by the Italian press as “the triumph of Italic intelligence over the brute force of the Negroes.” More recently, Galeano reminds us that that when France won in 1998:

“Nearly all the players wearing blue shorts and singing ‘La Marseille’ before each match were immigrants or the children of immigrants.”

Though a lover of football, Galeano is not admirer of the men who control it. He begins by describing the story of football as a “sad voyage from beauty to duty.” Joao Havelange, who became head of FIFA in 1974, is an “old-style monarch.” Another chapter is titled ‘The Telecracy’ – “television rules,” and he also covers a number of corruption scandals. He points out that players, for all their celebrity, have little say:

“Up to now the stars of the show have been blindingly absent from the structures of power where decisions are made.”

Still, he ends at the place we all hope to be – placing a sign on his door which says ‘Closed for football’ only to be taken down once the tournament is over.

Football in Sun and Shadow is a perfect World Cup book. Galeano has a knack for including everything that is important while still finding space for the unexpected fact. It is also delivered in short, bite-size chapters, ideal for devouring when the ball goes out of play.

Fish Soup

June 11, 2018

Fish Soup, the Columbian writer Margarita Garcia Robayo’s first appearance in English, is a pungent blend of two novellas and a collection of short stories beautifully translated by Charlotte Coombe. As the title suggests, ‘beauty’ may not be the first word readers reach for when her work is discussed; instead her stories are more likely to attract adjectives such as ‘honest’ (the characters are poor) and ‘raw’ (the characters have sex). Hers is a poetry of exhaustion and desire, in which characters cling to each other but do not love.

The first novella, ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, is full of tired, desperate hope, its narrator dreaming only of escape:

“At first you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead.”

Even her sex life is predicated on escape. Her attraction to local fisherman Gustavo stems not only from her first encounter with him as a young girl (“he stroked me down there”) but the possibility that he might be Italian and his stories of travel:

“That’s why I left. First to Peru then to Ecuador and so on up, until I reached the Caribbean, where you turn left to carry on north.”

Making love to her first boyfriend, Tony, she imagines “he was Gustavo and we were in Venice.” As they have sex on the beach she stares at the sky, eventually she becomes an air hostess in her dream of escape:

“Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.”

Air hostesses also come back, however, “doomed to come and go, come and go, and that was the same as never leaving.” Her attempts to scam US residency, sleeping with the Captain in the hope of becoming pregnant, are fruitless (he’s sterile). The story is suffused with sad reminders of her failure, from her picture of a possible life with Tony (“we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come”) to a letter from a long lost friend: “She presumed I had probably moved.”

Robayo’s characters are always tired and often sick, yet they rarely give up without a fight. Ines, in ‘Like a Pariah’, dying of cancer, telling her son she’s “perfectly alright,” neglecting her regime of vitamins and exercises in favour of alcohol and parties. Titi in ‘Worse Things’, his obesity “progressive and, by that point, uncontrollable,” escapes his room and lies gazing up at the clouds. The violent dreams of Aldo Villafora in ‘Fish Soup’, show him raging against the dying of the light. Often sex is used as an anchor to life, complex and uncertain, rarely loving.

Ines finds herself drunk and molested:

“Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain: he jerked himself off with his other hand.”

In Villafora’s dreams his wife is “violently penetrated” by a sailor, “lost in an expression of pleasure that Villafora had never seen her make.” In ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ the narrator returns again and again to the man who abused her as a child. Robayo seems determined to challenge our views of sex, its use and abuse. ‘Something We Never Were’ sets out directly to explore the limits and limitations of a relationship:

“When Salvador asked Eileen to be his girlfriend, she said no. She was having none of that boyfriend and girlfriend crap; what she was interested in was questioning certain paradigms.”

The second novella, ‘Sexual Education’, explores its topic through the eyes of adolescents, contrasting the education they receive in their Catholic girls’ school with their experience outside. The story focuses not on their relationships with boys, but on how these affect relationships among themselves. It’s also the funniest story in the book: for their teacher’s outlining of the dangers of desire (“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties”); for its unerotic descriptions of sex (“…she pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”); and for the girl who believes the Virgin talks to her (and tells her anal sex is allowed).

Fish Soup is invigorating, animating, and possibly emetic. It reeks of despair but leaves an after-taste of hope, as fresh and as old as the sea. Charco Press continues to deliver the writers we need.

Break.up

June 3, 2018

Joanna Walsh’s short story collections, Vertigo and Worlds from the Word’s End, demonstrated a writer whose use of language delighted in its inventiveness and wit while always seeming at the service of seeing life more clearly. Her first novel, Break.up, exhibits similarly vibrant wordplay and determined truth-seeking, only bigger – though not necessarily better.

Break.up is a love story which begins, against type, at the end: “A love story only comes after the end of love,” Walsh tells us, “whether it ends one way, or the other…” The end itself is obscured – no angry recriminations, no walking out; this is an online love of text and chat and email:

“We were together in Real Life for hardly more days than a working week.”

The feelings involved are similarly undefined, indistinct:

“We never named our connection to each other – it wasn’t friendly, barely even erotic – but nor was it denied.”

What seems clear is that the narrator felt more strongly than the lover she addresses. This inequality is perhaps best demonstrated in a scene where he asks her to undress:

“You moved away, as far as you could to the corner of out little room, where you sat down on its only chair, and looked and, for a while, nothing happened.”

The undressing is not reciprocated, and is simply the most visual example of her lover’s sense of superiority and indifference.

To escape her heartbreak, the narrator travels – from London to Paris, Nice, Milan, Rome, Athens… – though she admits “you-not-being-here accompanies me wherever I go.” Much of the novel is travelogue, her observations as she moves from country to country, accompanied by photographs which are deliberately not tourist photographs (she shares her rules) and look a little like the camera has slipped upwards, as if taken while falling. Travelling is, perhaps, like being in love. “It’s better to travel than to arrive,” she says, and:

“Nowhere is so beautiful as when it’s left.”

Walsh’s writing style involves riffing on a particular phrase or image. For example her lover’s comment that he wasted time with her, leads to the conclusion that:

“I was happiest in these wastes of time; it was the wastes, not the destinations, that I remember.”

Another banal phrase, ‘How long is a piece of string?’, causes her to imagine time being ‘looped’ around the carriage of the tube train she is traveling in, “the spooling spew of an old cassette tape”, an image which Walsh pursues down the page (“If I rode all day, could I wear out the magnetic tape, overwrite you, score out the line?”) until we arrive at:

“Love is not a cassette tape.
Love is not analog, it’s digital.”

The sense that this is a digital affair is central to the novel, the cover suggesting that Break.up is as much about a loss of signal as the end of the relationship. (The full stop, literally breaking up the word, is a wonderful touch). At one point she writes:

“And your telepresence is fragmenting: when I type its first few letters into the menu bar, my computer no longer turns up your name like an unlucky card.”

Walsh also interrupts the text with quotations from books the narrator has taken with her on her journey. This certainly breaks up the flow of the novel, forcing the reader to make choices about what is read when, and suggesting that the thoughts and experiences of others, while relevant, cannot be seamlessly absorbed. What is more difficult to know is whether it is intended to satirise the intellectual milieu of the narrator, or to be taken at face value. In either case, the cleverness of this, and the cleverness of the prose in general, becomes wearing after a while: what is thrilling in the short form is exhausting over a longer space, like a three minute song stretched over hours. Tonally, the novel barely changes. “Sometimes I‘m bored with my own dreary story,” the narrator tells us; we understand.

Walsh is a wonderful writer, but any talent can also be a handicap. Not only does she seem compelled to make every page feel written, but she cannot keep writing out of it:

“Everything comes down to the words.”

Towards the end, the narrator will tell us, “All these words, and I still don’t know how to make art of love,” a confession which applies to the relationship as much as the novel. Every page is worth reading but, as a whole, it does not convince.

Territory of Light

May 30, 2018

Yuko Tsushima’s 1979 novel Territory of Light, now translated by Geraldine Harcourt, tells the story of a young woman who is separated from her husband and living alone with her two-year-old daughter. Its optimistic title reflects the new life she begins in her own apartment:

“I crowed to myself that this was the apartment for me. The red floor blazed in the setting sun. The long-closed, empty rooms pulsed with light.”

Even when the apartment floods as the result of a leak in the building’s water tower, it creates something magical in the eyes of the narrator and her daughter:

“Where there should have been a perfectly dry roof, water rippled and sparkled. A great expanse of clear water… That night, I took off my shoes and had a high old time in the roof-top ‘sea’ with my daughter.”

However, the territory of light also suggests an emptiness and her life is far from easy. Loneliness in particular afflicts her. When, looking for her daughter in the park, she comes across another mother she recognises from her daughter’s day-care, begins to imagine a scenario where the two children play together:

“’This is fun, don’t you think?’ the woman would ask me, dropping her voice, and I’d nod vigorously…”

On her daughter’s third birthday her idea of inviting people over, only results in a couple of hurried phone calls on the day to distant friends who have other plans. Once her daughter is asleep, her loneliness drives her to a bar where she gets drunk with another woman, returning home to find her husband waiting for her, appalled at her behaviour. (The other woman’s apartment is later burned down; in a novel where living space is important, this seems a commentary on her inability to provide a home, a fear which haunts the narrator). A homeless woman they greet on the way to the day-care centre also provides a potential future.

Later her loneliness will later see her sleep with one of the fathers from the day-care centre. When, having invited him to her apartment, she spills some ice, she is momentarily angry (“Did it never occur to you to give me a hand?”) but when he goes to leave she pleads with him, “Don’t leave like that. Please stay…” Her need for company is also demonstrated when Sugiyama, a young man her husband tutored, becomes a frequent visitor:

“Considering his age, though, there was always the worry that we’d seen the last of him, that he’d never give those Sundays at my apartment another thought.”

She invitees him to stay with her (“Think of it as communal living”) and when he tells her he is not interested and, embarrassed by her request, hangs up the phone, she continues to talk to him while her daughter listens.

Her husband, Fujino, is a frequent if indistinct presence in the novel. The narrator seems torn between wanting their relationship to resume and feeling an anger she finds difficult to repress when she sees or hears from him. Initially she wonders, “Wasn’t there still a chance I’d hear him laugh it all off as a joke tomorrow?” When he phones her at work, however, “I tensed, determined to blame it all on Fujino.” She denies him access to his daughter, arguing that she needs to first adjust to her new life, but:

“What I was really thinking, deep down, was that with time she might forget her father and he might get over it.”

At times, they confront each other physically, as when he finds her drunk having left her daughter in the apartment:

“I scratched his face, pulled his hair, tried to throttle him. I was quickly flung off. Again I hurled myself on top of him and again I was sent flying.”

Yuko makes it difficult for the reader to form a judgement: we are given little indication of why the couple have split up (though there is reference to Fujino living with another woman), and each of them seem to vacillate between reason and rage. Rather than being a novel of taking sides, Yuko’s focus is the year the narrator needs to move on with her life; it is a novel of transition.

Her journey is unconscious as well as conscious, and the narrator’s dreams are an important part of her story:

“In my sleep, I wandered into some dunes. The wind – so strong I couldn’t keep my eyes open – was blasting my whole body with sand. There I was surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see, and all I could do was marvel at the vastness of the dunes.”

There is a temptation to interpret every dream she describes, but this is dangerously reductive. More importantly, her lack of autonomy in her dreams reflects the loss of control she feels in her life, creating a pervasive anxiety which characterises the novel’s atmosphere. Yuko is particularly successful at blending the narrator’s dreamscape into what is a largely domestic novel.

As we are told at the beginning, the novel ends when she moves out of her apartment one year later. The apartment is the transitional year between marriage and divorce, between one identity and another. (That the narrator’s married name is also the name of the owner, and therefore the building, emphasises this connection). Territory of Light is an excellent short novel which captures the movement between one life and another with unvarnished precision, the ‘muddling through’ the year-long ‘epiphany,’ that is typical of lived experience.

The Cost of Living

May 23, 2018

The opening pages of Deborah Levy’s memoir, The Cost of Living, are perhaps the least personal. In them she is the observer, the narrator of another woman’s story, as she watches a young woman approached by an older man. When the young woman tells him a story of surfacing from a scuba-dive to discover a storm, his only reaction is to say, “You talk a lot don’t you.”

“It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

Levy uses this seemingly incidental anecdote throughout to make sense of the experience she undergoes as her marriage ends:

“My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.”

When she discusses her situation with a friend, he tells her, “It seems to me you would be better off finding another way to live.” The Cost of Living details Levy’s search for another way to live. (Every time I hear the title I unconsciously add two words from James Kennaway’s final novel, The Cost of Living Like This, which, beyond the commonplace that live itself demands a price, suggests that there are different ways to live, and choices to be made).

Just as Levy uses her initial observation to frame her story, so too the ordinary facts of her own life encapsulate moments in her emotional journey. She moves into a flat in North London with her two daughters; her furniture – the fridge, the bed, the sofa – is too large for the smaller space:

“It was futile to try to fit an old life into a new life.”

The kitchen is infested with moths – “like something out of a Garcia Marquez novel” – and these too become linked to her attempt to move on:

“I battled with the moths and various griefs and the past, all of which returned every day to torment me…”

The story of Levy’s life is also the story of her writing – the cost of living entails earning a living. In her small flat she has nowhere to write, but luckily a friend allows her to work in her shed (A Shed of One’s Own, perhaps). This is just as lacking in luxury as it sounds:

“The day I moved into the shed, it was snowing. The freezer wheezed its cold vapours. There were spiderwebs on the roof, dust on everything, leaves and mud on the floor. How was I to make a viable space to write in winter?”

Other writers populate Levy’s thoughts frequently – Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras in particular – but also vitally: she converses with them rather than simply quoting. Unsurprisingly she reflects on her new life in relation to her gender:

“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end… It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?”

It is a theme she returns to again at the end:

“When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse. These are the jewels reserved for her in patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking. There are plenty of tears but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.”

The bravery and determination needed to venture into the unknown in search of a freer life (a “vague destination, no one knows what it looks like when we get there”) is likened to her writing: writing a novel, she says, is “like a long-haul flight, final destination unknown.” This memoir, too, feels like an exploration; amid the daily turmoil (Levy also has to cope with her mother’s death in the year or so the book covers) Levy continues to probe and question, which is perhaps what makes her work so quotable. The Cost of Living is worth every penny.

To the Back of Beyond

May 20, 2018

Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond (not a literal translation of Weit uber das Land but an astute appropriation of the common English phrase denoting a distant but vague destination by Stamm’s usual translator Michael Hofmann) tells the story of Thomas and Astrid, a married couple with two children (Konrad and Ella) who are separated when Thomas leaves one night. Rather than focus on Astrid or on Thomas, Stamm details the experience of both in alternating sections, revealing that his interest lies not in Thomas’ desertion or in Astrid’s survival but in the relationship itself .

Thomas’ walkout is a surprise to both of them: they have just returned from a family holiday and there is no tension or animosity in the relationship. His departure is occasioned by “less a thought than a vision”, that is a vision of the next day, the day after their return. Even as he leaves, having made no preparations, he has no clear sense of what he is doing:

“Even though he was stone cold sober, he had a sense of moving like a drunk, slowly and self-consciously.”

Despite this, he has an unconscious desire not simply to leave but to disappear:

“I’ll be safer in the woods, Thomas thought, I need to get off this road. He still wasn’t being sought, presumably Astrid wouldn’t have remarked his disappearance yet, but he didn’t want to run into anyone who would remember him later.”

Meanwhile Astrid is initially uncertain of Thomas’ whereabouts:

“Astrid tried to think whether Thomas had said anything about some apportionment or something, but by then the children were getting up, and she needed to see they didn’t forget anything.”

Even when Thomas does not appear for lunch, as is his usual routine, Astrid is convinced “There was bound to be some perfectly ordinary explanation for his absence.” When he does not return that night, however, she becomes concerned, but her first instinct is to cover for him, lying to her children and Thomas’ office:

“She was surprised at the way Konrad, at the way everyone, seemed to accept her crude lies without a murmur. She seemed to be the only one who actually registered the fact that Thomas had disappeared.”

In the novel’s middle section Astrid attempts to find Thomas, both on her own and with the help of the police; his use of their credit card in a shop selling outdoor clothes and equipment allows her to get close to him but he has already headed into the mountains. Here, Stamm uses elements of the thriller, ending one section with Thomas falling (“For a moment he had the sensation of flying”) and the next with the police appearing at Astrid’s door to tell her, “We’ve found him.” In fact, the police have found evidence suggesting Thomas has fallen to his death.

There is an element of flatness to Stamm’s writing, and his characters; that is, we struggle to see much more than what is there at that point, at that page. Though he reveals characters’ feelings of the moment the reader generally has little access to any thoughts regarding past and future. Appropriately, Thomas has no plans for the future, and Astrid cannot make any. Yet the lack of a past can make Thomas’ motives seem obscure. There is no suggestion he no longer loves Astrid, saying at one point that “their love seemed as strong now as in the first months of their relationship.” If anything, he is rejecting routine:

“What as it all for? In the course of their daily exertions, there was never a moment when they could ask themselves such questions: maybe they were scared of them, or they had understood that such questions were impossible to answer and hence should not be asked at all.”

In his vision of the next day which drives him to leave Thomas mentions that, by the time he got home for lunch, “the newspapers and the wineglasses would have been whisked away.” Stamm returns to this later when Astrid leaves the newspaper and half-empty wine glass:

“She left them both outside, as though that were way of keeping time from moving forward.”

Her routine, too, has been disrupted, a disruption that by the novel’s end we are encouraged to see differently, not as a rejection but as an affirmation. Though To the Back of Beyond is about separation, it is, above all, a love story, Stamm, as so often, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, and back again.

Death in Spring

May 11, 2018

Death in Spring is not my first exposure to Merce Rodoreda’s work, but neither her Spanish Civil War novel, In Diamond Square, nor the wider historical sweep of A Broken Mirror, had prepared me for the intense otherness of this late novel, published posthumously in 1986 (here in a translation by Martha Tennent originally published in the US in 2009). On the opening page its adolescent narrator lowers himself into a river, a descent into cold water which mirrored my own feelings as I read. A few pages later he tells of the cave from which the villagers gather a red fungus to mix with water and paint their houses pink:

“We lowered ourselves into the damp, black well; it was streaked with veins that would glisten in the sun, then slowly extinguish as we moved deeper, and darkness fell, swallowing everything. Through the well we entered the cave, which was like the mouth of the infirm: red and damp.”

This reverse birth, which the narrator will later undertake with his stepmother, similarly foreshadows something of the emotional experience of the reader. The insidious idyll of the opening gives little indication of the disconcerting glimpses of village life which Rodoreda will drip-feed into the pages which follow. The picturesque pink of the houses will quickly come to suggest blood-washed walls, just like the ivy on the Senyor’s house “that on late afternoons looked like a wave of blood.” Every year the ivy is beaten from the walls, part of the destructive cycle of village life which includes sending a man through the river which runs under the village in fear that one day it will be washed away:

“…every year a man entered the water on the upper side and came out on the lower side. Sometimes dead. Sometimes without a face because it had been ripped away when the desperate water hurled him against the rocks which supported the village.”

Rodoreda’s village exists on the debatable land between everyday life and nightmare. The villagers believe that the soul leaves the body at the point of death and therefore fill the mouths of the dying with cement. Their bodies are then entombed in the hollowed trunk of a tree. The narrator witnesses his father opening up a tree and then walking backwards into it before sealing himself in: presumably an attempt to avoid having cement poured down his throat. When the villager discover this they pull him from the trunk:

“He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man.”

Later, the Senyor, a figure of distant aristocracy, will also attempt to resist the cement ceremony, suggesting perhaps, that the old life cannot carry on unchallenged and unchanged, while brutally demonstrating the futility of rebellion. And yet, despite this, I immediately recollected the villages of Jean Giono’s early novels. The customs may seem unearthly, but Rodoreda embellishes them with a vibrant natural landscape, and the villagers’ behaviour – pettiness, vindictiveness, suspicion – is all too recognisable.

The novel’s second part focuses on the developing relationship between the narrator and his stepmother, who is only a few years older. Rodoreda deftly paints a picture of their tenderness:

“She told me her feet were cold and asked if I wanted to warm them. I don’t know how she was sitting, but she put her feet in my lap and I took hold of them. They were freezing and, as I held them, I must have fallen asleep.”

The relationship is disapproved of by the village – the village children pelt them with stones – and they take to sleeping in the cave where the red dust is found. Throwing the dust in the river is the first of a number of rebellious acts they undertake: hiding the paintbrushes used to paint the houses and removing bones from the trees. But if this section ends optimistically with the birth of a daughter, its brief moment of hope is not in keeping with the novel as a whole – as Orson Wells said, a happy ending depends on where you stop your story.

The novel’s atmosphere, where fable wrestles with an earthy realism, reminded me of Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, and it is difficult not to speculate that Repila may have been influenced by his predecessor. It is not only the preponderance of wells and human cruelty which unite the novels, Death in Spring also features a caged prisoner whose message is echoed in the later novel:

“Man is made of water lives with earth and air. He lives imprisoned. All men. …they all said he was a prisoner, but he wasn’t a prisoner, he said, he lived differently from others, only that.”

Where Repila’s work is anguished anger, however, Rodoreda is closer to despair.

Death in Spring is an auspicious start to Penguin’s European Writers series – a truly vital work, the vision of a great artist, to be embraced.

The Girls of Slender Means

May 8, 2018

“Long ago in 1945,” begins and ends Muriel Spark’s 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Spark’s seventh novel is set squarely in the post-war period, beginning with the VE Day celebrations in May, and ending with VJ Day in August, but, as Norman Page points out, it opens with a “phrase that seems to blend the precision of history with the romantic vagueness of a fairy-tale.” The end of the war is recognised as a time of change:

“The next day everyone began to consider where they personally stood in the new order of things.”

As a fellow poet quoting Cavafy to Nicholas Farringdon wonders, “What will become of us without Barbarians?” Things will certainly change considerably for Farringdon over the course of the novel, which tells the story of his conversion, but, as Spark typically cuts between past and present, his death is reported in the first few pages:

“Do you remember Nicholas Farringdon?… he’s been martyred… Martyred in Haiti. Killed. Remember he became a Brother – ”

In 1945 Farringdon has yet to meet the girls of slender means, the girls of the May of Teck Club, a hostel which “exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” He is introduced to the Club by Jane, a publisher’s assistant, who has been assigned him and his book, The Sabbath Notebooks , by her employer, George (at least that is the latest in a number of names he has answered to over the years).

“After a year George allowed he to do some of the detective work on new authors, which he was convinced was essential to the publishing trade, and to find out their financial circumstances and psychological weak spots so that he could deal with them to a publisher’s best advantage… She had now been given Nicholas Farringdon to work on.”

Like the Colonel, Farringdon “seemed to be in love with the entire club, Selina being the centre and practical focus of his feelings in this respect.” He is particularly admiring of Selina’s poise – she is described as “stepping ahead of him into the evening light like a racer into the paddock, with a high disregard of all surrounding noises” – and sets out to seduce her:

“All through the first three weeks of July Nicholas wooed Selina and at the same time cultivated Jane and others of the May of Teck Club.”

Selina is also at the centre of Farringdon’s conversion, a climax which Spark carefully prepares the reader for through a number of seemingly comic incidents: Greggie’s “suspicion that there was a second bomb that didn’t go off” when explaining the hollow in the garden; the Schiaparelli dress which the girls swap amongst themselves; and the bathroom window which allows access to the roof through which only a few of the (slenderest) girls can squeeze:

“Among the top floor members only Selina Redwood and Ann Baberton could manage to wriggle through the lavatory window, and Anne only managed it naked, having made her body slippery with margarine.”

It is on the roof that Farringdon will make love to Selina, and later “witness that act of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntary to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.”

As usual, Spark’s extensive cast are portrayed with minimalist perfection. Joanna Childe, a rector’s daughter who teaches elocution, is characterised as:

“…the poetic essence of all tall, fair rector’s daughters who never used a scrap of make-up, who had served tirelessly day and night in parish welfare… who before that had been Head Girl and who never wept that anyone knew or could imagine, being stoical by nature.”

Jane is “fat but intellectually glamorous” using her ‘brain work’ as an excuse to indulge her appetite. (“She ate a square of chocolate to keep her brain going till supper time.”) A minor character, Pauline Fox, leaves every night to have dinner with Jack Buchanan; in fact, she simply circles the park in a taxi. When she is discovered returning early she exclaims, “Oh! Don’t talk to me. We’ve had a row.” Like a great caricaturist, Spark can sketch a distinct and recognisable figure with only a few lines.

Lest we forget, however, amid the comedy we find frequent references to the cost of living, to getting by (Jane’s infallible method of getting rid of unwanted intrusions is to ask for a loan of 15 shillings). In contrast, the text is littered with the lines of poetry Joanna recites to her pupils, each random recitation eerily apposite on closer consideration. And slowly, unnoticeably, Spark tightens the tension towards the novel’s violent epiphany. It is a novel which feels so perfectly formed, a word out of place might change it; so perfectly formed we might even forgive the author for rewarding the wicked and punishing the good.

Very Short Classics

May 4, 2018

One of the most surprising aspects of the development of the eBook market is that it has largely competed with physical books on their own terms as an ‘alternative’. While this highlights some advantages – eBooks are easier to store and carry, and often cheaper – there has been little attempt to do anything that physical books are not already doing, or even cannot do. And yet there are (at least) two obvious market gaps: one is in bonus content (something physical books have only occasionally flirted with in a rather perfunctory way with, for example, book club questions; eBooks, on the other hand, can include audio and video extras); and the other is out of print books. Even with print on demand, there is always going to be a limited number of books physically available – a much wider range can easily be ready to access in electronic format. Very Short Classics is a new venture which seeks to return to print some long lost texts, releasing eBook only novellas at the very reasonable price of 99p.

Two of their first three releases are translated texts: The Four Devils by Herman Bang, and Childless by Ignat Herrmann. Danish writer Bang’s only other representation in English is two novels published Dedalus; Czech author Herrmann is nowhere to be found – his Wikipedia page suggests only this and one other story have ever been translated, adding rather pointedly, “There are also a handful of Esperanto translations.”

The Four Devils  (translated by Marie Ottilie Heyl) is a tragic love story. The Four Devils – brothers Fritz and Adolf, sisters Aimee and Louise – are trapeze artists. It is clear from the beginning that Aimee’s affection for Fritz has developed beyond friendship. She lies awake at night worrying that his affection for her, on the other hand, is waning:

“One thing kept going through her mind: that Fritz’s eyes never met hers any more when he powdered her arms.”

In fact, Fritz’s eyes are elsewhere, on a wealthy, married woman who is regularly to be found in the audience, as can be observed when they are performing:

“…his eyes were glued on the tier of boxes that glowed and swayed far below them like the border of a many-coloured flower bed.”

Fritz waits night after night for this rich woman to acknowledge him, but, though he is sure her slow departure is “all for his benefit”, he pretends not to see her. When she eventually speaks to him, she asks, “Are you afraid of me?” and he vows not to see her again. The intensity of his feelings is reminiscent of Stefan Zweig:

“At night he lay for hours in silent wrath. And his desire took root during those first sleepless nights, took root in his despair, that he had never lain sleepless before.”

At the moment Aimee realises that Fritz has fallen in love with another, Bang takes us back to their first meeting, as children, when Fritz and Adolf, orphaned, are ‘adopted’ by the circus. The story may be based on a very traditional love triangle, but the circus setting adds a layer of danger: Aimee and Fritz’s lives are literally in each other’s hands. When Fritz finally spends the night with his rich admirer he finds his strength sapped the next day, feeing “the impotence of his weakened muscles.” Aimee is similarly weakened from her sleepless night. There emotions find release on the trapeze:

“Simultaneously the same rage flared up in both. Screaming they clutched each other, embracing wildly… They no longer met, grasped, embraced; they wrestled rather, and seized one another like animals.”

While the tragic denouement may be inevitable, the story burns with the intensity of Fritz and Aimee’s emotions. Bang is also convincing on circus life, from the adrenalin of performance to the boredom of waiting.

If The Four Devils is like a hot coal of rage and desire, then Childless (translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick) takes a softer tone. It tells the story of Ivan Hron who, despite a political ‘indiscretion’ leading to a curtailment of his time at university and estrangement from his father, finds success through hard work:

“He had his carriage, he was rarely seen on foot; his wife was still a beautiful woman, his salary increased from year to year; he lived in his own handsome villa, travelled for six weeks in the year, and had no children.”

He, however, does not count his childlessness as being part of his good fortune, being unable to “get rid of the old fashioned feeling that that life is perfect only when it is blessed with children.”

Hron’s relationship with his wife Magda, we learn, was at first entirely one-sided. He meets her on a holiday in Dresden, but when he later visits her at home to request her hand in marriage he is refused. Only a change in her father’s fortunes, which encourages him to renew his entreaties, leads to his proposal being accepted. This is important later, both in establishing the sincerity of his love and in relation to a revelation midway through the story. Apart from the absence of a child, husband and wife now seem quite contented; until, that is, Hron arrives home early to find Magda with a letter: “Every drop of blood ebbed from her face…”

As the story progresses, its events are somewhat sign-posted, and some of the drama has been lost over time as our definition of ‘morality’ has changed, but that doesn’t prevent Childless from being a pleasurable read. Both of these Very Short Classics are well worth your (limited) investment of time and money and I am eager to discover what which neglected authors will next be returned to print.