Archive for June, 2016

Past Conditional

June 26, 2016


What better time than now to contemplate the role of chance in history, and the way in which one moment might change everything. Italian novelist Guido Morselli first came to my attention thanks to Jacqui’s review of Divertimento 1889 over at JacquiWine’s JournalNot only did the novel sound interesting, but so did the novelist, his work only published after his suicide in 1973, and with each novel seemingly quite different to the one before. Only two have been translated into English (both by Hugh Shankland): Divertimento 1889 and Past Conditional (the latter contains a rather sad announcement that both Roma senza papa and Dissipatio H G will also be translated – sad, because it didn’t happen).

Past Conditional is a counterfactual novel – that is, it proposes an alternate history. The most famous counterfactual novel remains Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which depicts a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have won the Second World War. Morselli’s novel takes us in the opposite direction, proposing an outcome to the First World War which renders the Second obsolete. The story begins in 1910 when an Austrian soldier, Major von Allman, discovers a disused mine known locally as the Tunnel. It transpires that this dates back to a plan in the 1870s to construct a railway line joining Austria and Italy through the mountain, as an old man who worked on the project tells him:

“Months and months had been wasted exploring the Roschenen valley, opening up new paths, surveying the passes, and he had been on the other side as well, the Italian side.”

Von Allman later mentions it to the War Minister, only to have his idea dismissed:

“Take it from me, trains are all very fine for troop-carrying purposes and supplying your rear lines… In the strategic phase and context they cease to serve any useful purpose. A single charge of dynamite will put the best railway in the world out of action.”

As the reader is aware that we are only a few years away from the outbreak of the First World War (in which Austro-Hungary and Italy were on opposite sides) and that the novel will not stick to historical events (its subtitle is ‘A Retrospective Hypothesis’) he or she can be forgiven for being certain that, at some point, von Allman’s plan will be put into action. (Whether the plan was ever proposed in reality I do not know). In the meantime, Morselli is at pains to emphasise the role of luck in its eventual adoption. (It is eventually acted on because it is in the right pocket at the right time).

Morselli writes the novel in the style of a history book with a focus on dates and a large cast whose characters are sketched in the manner of a popular historian. Though von Allman features at both the beginning and end, it is not his story, nor does Morselli have much interest in how he might have changed – history is his subject. In fact, I was just beginning to think there was little of the flair or imagination suggested by his oeuvre when, one hundred pages in, we find inserted a conversation between Morselli and his publisher anticipating any criticisms which might be entering the reader’s mind:

“Do you honestly claim that this blatantly apocryphal version of contemporary history which you have submitted, so full of questionable theses and so short on appeal from every angle, can go by the name of a novel?”

Morselli’s style also comes in for some abuse:

“People on the staff who have seen the book find it has a ponderous style. Some have spoken of a ‘bureaucratic style.’… Your story seems not only to run counter to past history, but what is worse, to present-day narrative fashion.”

Of course, pre-empting criticism does not invalidate it, but it does demonstrate that these aspects of the text are intentional. The conversation takes on a less comic note when you know Morselli killed himself after years of failing to get published, and there is the added sadness that it enhances the sense that an appreciation of his work demands acquaintance with all of it – one novel is not representative. What Morselli does demonstrate is a thorough understanding of the period –and of how wars are fought, and politics played.

Nazis winning the war will always be the sexier side of counterfactual fiction, but there is a place for more peaceable outcomes too. Morselli hints at what his small change has achieved by the end of the war when von Allmen, a keen painter, meets Adolf Hitler:

“I volunteered in the war because it was the only way to make politics at the time. My political credo is Germanism in its full might and universality. Today Germanism has won… Therefore I can now pursue my second vocation. Painting.”

Anyone interested in the politics of 20th century Europe – and what might have been – should read this book.

Anna Edes

June 19, 2016

anna edes

Anna Edes by Dezso Kosztolanyi immediately immerses us in the politics of post-war Hungary (that is post World War One – the novel was written in 1926). Having entered the war as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, defeat led to disintegration, and turmoil within the various nation-states which resulted. Hungary experienced first a socialist revolution (it had, of course, been a monarchy) and then a Communist revolution. Anna Edes begins as that period ends thanks to the intervention of the Romanian army; in its first line, Communist leader Bela Kun is pictured “fleeing the country in an aeroplane.” This scene is portrayed rather comically:

“His pockets were stuffed with sweet pastry. He carried jewels, relics of the church and precious stones that had once belonged to well-disposed and generous aristocratic women… Great gold chains hung from his arms.”

Despite living through these uncertain times, Kosztolanyi presents a detached, sardonic view of the political ups and downs, viewed initially from the Vizy household, a middle-aged couple who have suffered under the rule of the proletariat. There’s an element of farce about the way in which their caretaker, Ficsor, his short stint of superiority over, is eager to impress upon the Vizys his willingness to resume his former deference. What better way to re-establish class relationships than to offer Mrs Vizy a maid?

“The woman was positively excited. She had long dreamed of finding a maid privately, but a peasant girl! No one had come up with anything as good as this.”

Mrs Vizy is, after all, a woman obsessed with the problem of finding decent servants, unhappy as she is with her present maid, Katica:

“’All they do is gobble,’ she lamented. ‘Enough for two. And fool around with the soldiers.’”

When Anna finally appears, almost fifty pages into the novel, Kosztolanyi is at pains to stress her innocence (“She wore a neat checked gingham frock under which her small childish breasts swelled out”) and vulnerability (“If she did raise her eyes at all it was no more than enough to allow her to see Mrs Vizy’s shoes and stockings”). She has no expectations beyond a life of labour: when asked if she would like the job she shrugs:

“She had simply meant she didn’t mind. Wherever she went she had to work.”

Anna turns out to be an excellent servant:

“The maid had already aired and mopped the rooms. How could she? It was impossible. She would have had to get up at four and work so quietly that no-one heard her.”

This doesn’t, of course, elicit praise from Mrs Vizy – praise, after all, spoils a servant – but instead simply makes her fear that she will lose Anna. (Later, when Anna is offered the opportunity to marry, Mrs Vizy ‘falls ill’ and tells her “don’t waste your youth.”) Perhaps the best example of Anna’s treatment by the Vizys is when she receives as a Christmas present a gift the previous servant had disdained to take with her when dismissed.

Mrs Vizy’s attitude towards Anna is echoed in a more physical form by her son, Jancsi, when he returns home. Cleverly, Kosztolanyi does not immediately place him in the cad category, with some evidence that the feelings he develops for Anna are not entirely faked. Translator Georges Szitres has some trouble replicating the formal / informal versions of ‘you’ which are an important facet of their relationship:

“She was reflecting on the immense distance this one little word could bridge.”

Of course, as the novel has already demonstrated, it is a distance that cannot be bridged – there are already warning signs when Jancsi tells his friend that the woman he is seeing is an actress called Marianne, and is then surprised when he doesn’t recognise Anna from his description.

Kosztolanyi’s sympathies lie entirely with Anna, yet he neither romanticises her nor treats her as a ventriloquist’s dummy. In fact, she remains almost as unknowable to the reader as she does to the Vizys, making her later actions all the more shocking. The mocking tone used elsewhere never alights on her, creating a powerful political statement in a novel which seems so dismissive of politics. Anna’s exploitation shows that the real issue is how we treat each other, which is probably why the novel feels just as relevant today as ever.

Natural Novel

June 12, 2016

natural novel

Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was recently short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award, but the first of his novels to appear in English was Natural Novel over ten years ago in 2005 (translated by Zornitsa Hristova), having originally appeared in Bulgaria in 1999. Reading reviews of The Physics of Sorrow only reminded me what a strange and unsettling novel Natural Novel had been, and the suggestion by Mytwostotinki that June be Bulgarian Literature Month seemed the perfect excuse to dig it out and read it again.

The novel is a series of fifty short chapters which occasionally coincide in terms of plot or topic. An Editor’s note (presented as the third chapter rather than an introduction) explains that the ‘novel’ was found in a notebook “stashed in a self-made envelope” addressed to the editor:

“A certain man was trying to talk about his failed marriage and the novel (I don’t know why exactly I decided it was a novel) was based on the impossibility of relating this failure. In fact the novel itself could hardly be summarised.”

The writer is called Georgi Gospodiniv – and so is the editor. When the editor finds the writer he is homeless, having saved only an old wicker chair from his previous existence (we later hear the story of the chair’s purchase). By the time the editor has arrange for the novel’s publication he has lost track of the writer:

“I told myself maybe it all turned out okay. The man pulled himself together, maybe the publication in my newspaper got him out of his chair and off to work somewhere, maybe he even started writing again… Finally I took out the publishing contact and did the last thing I could do for my namesake. I signed it.”

The rest of the novel, we assume, is made up of the contents of the notebooks. Some chapters tell the story of the narrator’s wife leaving him, having fallen pregnant to another man (echoing the confused ‘parentage’ of the novel). In other chapters he ruminates on the kind of novel he would like to write, if, indeed, a novel can be written anymore:

“How can a novel even be possible these days when we no longer have a sense of the tragic? How can even the idea of a novel be possible when the sublime is gone and all we have is everyday life?”

A natural novel is one which coalesces naturally from its beginnings – at one point Gospodinov uses the beginnings of other famous novels as his starting point for this process. However, Gospodinov is not only using the word ‘natural’ in the sense of growing naturally, but also in reference to natural functions, hence a scattered selection of chapters on the toilet ( I was pleased to see that Trainspotting got as mention), which leads later to a natural history of flies, which in turn returns us to the novel:

“The fragmentation used by some novelists as a literary device is in fact borrowed from the fly’s eyes.”

Gospodinov has a lively intelligence and a restless imagination. When his apartment is broken into, he immediately creates a story of a woman who refuses to allow burglars to take her television as she is watching a soap. Other short stories appear throughout, and at one point another narrative, Notes of a Naturalist, is inserted. He also has a sharp sense of humour: a series of chapters entitled A List of Pleasures in the 19—s ends in the 1980s with, “I can’t remember any pleasures.”

However, overall, the novel never seemed in danger of becoming more than the sum of its parts, or indeed, the sum of its parts. It lack the cumulative power of, for example, David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Despite the recurrent divorce proceedings, the reader’s emotional investment is slim, and though there are flashes of humour, wry smiles rather than tearful laughter is more likely: I would certainly dispute the claim displayed on the back cover that it is “insanely funny and moving.” On the other hand, it demonstrates a writer prepared to take risks, and for every chapter which misfires there is another where every word hits the mark.


June 8, 2016


As Elizabeth Taylor wrote her final novel, Blaming, she knew she was dying. Unsurprisingly, then, death features prominently, though it’s a novel more concerned with coping with death than with dying: its deaths are sudden and unexpected, and it is the living who are left behind, grasping for feelings, uncertain of their new lives.

Amy and Nick are on a cruise, a continuation of Nick’s recuperation from a serious illness. Amy is determined to be patient with her husband, though her kindness leads him to suspect she knows his recovery is only temporary – “The gentler she was, the more his suspicions rose.” They are befriended by Martha, an American novelist who lives in England, and is pleased to discover fellow English-speakers as she “was greatly taken up with her own language, but could not come to grips with any other.” Taylor uses Martha to poke fun at her own expense:

“They seemed devoted to each other – it was probably always said of them – as were so many childless, middle-aged couples she had observed; to learn later of a son and grandchildren was an annoyance, for those did not enter into her picture.”

Taylor, however, remains an astute observer of human behaviour; take, for example, this brief moment when Martha catches sight of Amy after Nick has died suddenly in the night:

“Martha, seeing her, panicked; did not know how to behave. For a moment, Amy lifted her swollen face, and Martha, as she passed by, found herself unable to completely ostracise this grief. She put her hand on Amy’s shoulder, and was surprised that Amy’s gloved hand came up and touched hers in acknowledgement, and then was at once withdrawn and folded with the other in her lap.”

Rather than continue with the cruise, Martha stays to help Amy, and the novel becomes the story of their relationship. In their final conversation, Nick had observed that Amy didn’t like Martha, and Martha is unable to give any reason for this apart from, “At home, she wouldn’t be one of our friends.” Once she returns home, Amy is torn between her gratitude towards Martha and the fact she doesn’t’ particularly want to see her again:

“She re-read the letter for the third time, wondering how she could decently prevent Martha from coming… but she knew she could not decently prevent her, after all she had done… Perhaps delay her, though.”

The repetition of “decently” (she also refers to not writing to Martha as “the very worst behaviour of her life”) conveys the tension between two aspects of Amy’s conventionality: the need for good manners versus the desire to avoid the unconventional.

Martha is not the only eccentric character in the novel; Amy’s servant Ernie would also surely qualify, though, of course, Amy can tolerate this more easily in an inferior. That most of his first conversation with Amy on her return revolves around his cancelled appointment to have teeth removed tells you everything you need to know about both his hypochondria and self-absorption. Though never intentionally funny, he provides comic relief and sandwiches throughout. Martha’s ability to develop more of a relationship with him in a few hours when she does come to stay than Amy has over years, suggests another reason why Amy cannot take to her. She is similarly more able to handle Amy’s granddaughter, Isobel.

Blaming reminds me of Muriel Spark more than any other Taylor novel I have read – the intrusion of a confident, unconventional character into the comfortable, safe existence of another. (It also has some wonderful Spark-like lines, such as: “ ‘I hate this bloody country,’ Amy thought, who was to hate it more.”) The difference is that Amy steadfastly resists both Martha’s glamour and her kindness (for example when she gifts her a painting of Nick’s she has sourced).

Blaming is a devastating portrait of Amy, the kind of person who would typically be summed up by the bland (and blameless) ‘nice’, but who in fact, demonstrates a ruthless streak of selfishness, and is noticeably absent when Martha requires the support that she once offered. Even at the end, when she is offered a chance at redemption, taking the blame where she was not at fault, she cannot do it. Taylor’s unforgiving eye was as accurate as a knife-point until the end.

The Chain of Chance

June 5, 2016

chain of chance

Although The Chain of Chance retains some of the science fiction elements we associate with Stanislaw Lem’s fiction, it is, in essence, a detective novel – or, perhaps we should say, Lem’s exploitation of the detective novel to his own ends. Whereas the genre traditionally begins with a murder, and therefore a murderer to be discovered, the investigation in The Chain of Chance is a result of a series of mysterious deaths, where numerous coincidences lead to the assumption of a murderer. These coincidences become the investigation as, when the novel opens, our narrator is attempting to mimic their pattern as he recreates the journey of one of the victims:

“I should actually have felt relieved knowing that by tomorrow I would be shedding my false skin, because not for a moment did I believe I was tempting fate by sleeping in Adams’ pajamas, shaving with his razor, and retracing his steps around the bay. Nor was I expecting an ambush along the way – no harm had come to him on the highway – and during my one night in Rome I was to be given special protection.”

This, naturally, creates tension as he attempts to decipher the random events which occur around him – for example a woman fainting (“The more convinced I became the fainting spell was real, the less sure I was of it”) – and re-enact the random events of Adams’ journey – like changing a tyre. As he later explains:

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle… a puzzle consisting of numerous pieces; each of them is distinct enough on its own but when fitted together they make for an indistinct whole.”

Poison is suspected as the victims demonstrate a violent change in personality before dying, often at their own hands. They are generally of a certain type: middle-aged men, athletic – but not in the condition they once were – balding, suffering from hay-fever, with links to a particular health clinic. It reads like the work of a serial killer – though I suspect this genre was largely unknown in 1975 – but the mentality of a policeman is not what is need to solve this case:

“That mentality is alright for prosecuting criminals but not for proving whether in fact a criminal exists.”

Lem also includes another form of murder in the novel – a terrorist attack on an airport (lest we forget, terrorism was well-known in Europe in the 1970s). This takes place at a new terminal specifically designed to thwart such attacks – Lem is making the point that nothing is fool proof in the face of chance. Though the narrator senses what is about to happen, he fails to prevent the explosion, but saves a young girl as he knocks her from the automated walkway, following immediately behind, onto the ‘floor’ below:

“I encountered something soft and wet which gave way under me like foam until I landed in a freezing liquid… It must have been a tank designed to soften the impact of a shock wave.”

Lem’s description of this technology demonstrates that his imagination can sometimes overwhelm narrative necessity, but the intention to contrast the two types of ‘murder’ is clear, the terrorist attack being:

“The classic example of a modern crime. Premeditated and at the same time accidental.”

Though it is planned, its victims are random; in the case of the deaths being investigated it is the other way round: the victims seem ‘chosen’ but the invetigators cannot fathom a ‘plan’ behind the killings.

The Chain of Chance doesn’t display the imaginative bravura of The Cyberiad, but it does make for an engrossing mystery, and one which, when the solution is revealed, makes Lem’s philosophical point without breaking the rules (i.e. the clues presented in the narrative are clues). The translation, by Louis Iribane, leans heavily on American vernacular at times, which is at least better suited to the detective genre than science fiction, though the line “displayed on the poster was an enormous fanny” did make me wonder if I had accidentally wandered into Trainspotting. What is clear in any language is Lem’s restless inventiveness and his refusal to be constricted by whatever genre he writes in.