Archive for December, 2015

Mona Lisa

December 20, 2015

mona lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therein lies its beauty, and its danger.

The Vegetarian

December 14, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Looking-Glass Sisters

December 10, 2015

looking glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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