Archive for August, 2016

The Street Kids

August 31, 2016

street kids

Pier Paolo Pasolini is perhaps best known as a film director, but he also wrote a number of novels, as well as poetry and plays. The Street Kids is a new translation, by Anne Goldstein, of his first novel, Ragazza di vita, originally published in 1955 and previously translated as The Ragazzi. It’s a story of adolescents and young men struggling to survive in post-war Rome which caused a scandal on publication for its honest portrayal of the ‘underclass’ – the Trainspotting of its day.

It also shares with Trainspotting its episodic nature. Riccetto is the unifying character, with others coming and going, and not all surviving until the novel’s conclusion. The first chapter provides a good example of this. Chronologically first – it begins with mention of Riccetto’s first communion – it presents us with a picture of a country with little to offer where survival day-to-day:

“At the market there was nothing, not even a cabbage stalk. The crowd began to move through the warehouses, under the shed roofs, into the stores, because it wouldn’t stand for coming away empty-handed.”

Finding a cellar with tyres, tarpaulins and cheeses, the crowd surge through the door, Riccetto and his friend Marcello included, “swallowed up by the suck of the crowd and their feet barely touching the ground.” Marcelo manages to stuff some tyres in a sack – jumping over the corpse of a woman killed in the crush – but loses them later to the police. This struggle to stay alive by any means possible, however, is contrasted (as it is throughout) with the joy of youth: one moment they are stealing a manhole cover, the next swimming and bathing in the sun. The chapter ends with the boys on a boat which they have somehow raised the money to rent. Riccetto spots a swallow thrashing in the water and dives in to rescue it:

“’It’s all wet,’ he said after a while, ‘Let’s wait for it to dry off.’ It didn’t take long; in five minutes it was flying off among its companions, over the Tiber, and Riccetto could no longer distinguish it from the others.”

It is this lyrical ending which gives the chapter the shape of a short story, and also indicates that Pasolini will present his characters in three dimensions, not simply as hard men and hooligans.

Money is a constant obsession, and what can be done with it is measured exactly:

“Riccetto had just a few cents left, enough to buy two or three cigarettes and take the tram.”

At one point he uses the last of his money to buy a tram ticket so he can steal a woman’s purse form her bag. With money in his pocket he feels like a king:

“Riccetto sang… at the top of his lungs, completely reconciled with life, full of great plans for the near future, and touching the cash in his pocket: cash which is the source of every pleasure and every satisfaction in this filthy world.”

As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, poverty means every coin is counted and every moment of sufficiency regarded as great wealth.

Though Riccetto grows older, this is not a coming of age story, or one where character development is Pasolini’s primary concern: in a sense his characters have must survive first, and develop later. Even when Riccetto becomes engaged it is suggested that his maturity is to some extent superficial, “content to play the part of a serious youth,” though perhaps also indicating a longing to do more than simply live of the streets. Life, however, is precarious, as is perhaps best demonstrated by the final chapter when another boy, Genesio decides to swim across a river, but gets into difficulties on the return journey:

“Genesio no longer put up any resistance, poor boy, and flung his arms around, still not asking for help. Every so often he sank under the surface of the current and then re-emerged a little further down.”

From the woman killed in the crush to find food to the boy swept away by the current, the novel’s characters live their lives under threat, knowing that one wrong step might mean the end.

The Street Kids is not only a vivid historical document, but a valuable reminder that war and its aftermath are merciless, and that we should be careful not to condemn its survivors. At the same time, it also radiates a love of life, a joy in simple pleasures, which we might also learn from.

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Moderato Cantabile

August 27, 2016

moderato

Marguerite Duras’ short novel Moderato Cantabile (translated in 1960 by Richard Seaver) is neither ‘moderate’ nor ‘melodious’; just as her son refuses the instructions of his music teacher to play in such a style, so too does Anne Desbaresdes attempt to rebel against the strictures of her own quiet life. The music teacher, striking “the keyboard a third time, so hard that the pencil broke right next to the child’s hands,” has no effect. The stand-off is interrupted by a scream, “a long, drawn-out scream, so shrill it overwhelmed the sound of the sea. “ The boy begins to play, but as he does so it becomes increasingly clear that something serious has occurred below – a woman has been shot. Anne leaves in time to witness the aftermath:

“At the far end of the café, in the semi-darkness of the back room, a woman was lying motionless on the floor. A man was crouched over her, clutching her shoulders and saying quietly:
‘Darling. My darling.’”

Anne becomes fascinated by the crime, returning to the café the next day where she strikes up a conversation with another customer, Chauvin, on the subject, pretending that she was unaware of the murder:

“Perhaps they had problems, what they call emotional problems.”

Chauvin, it transpires, already knows who she is:

“You have a beautiful house at the end of the Boulevard de la Mer. A big walled garden.”

WITmonth

Anne’s visits to the cafe become daily, each time meeting Chauvin and discussing the murder. Duras hints that their relationship echoes that which so recently ended in death:

“They met by chance in cafe, perhaps even here, they both used to come here. And they began to talk to each other about this and that.”

The man, having mentioned Anne’s house the first time they spoke, proceeds to describe it in more detail, as if he is drawing closer to her:

“Isn’t there a long hallway on the second floor, a very long hallway onto which your room and everyone else’s opens, so that you’re together and separated at the same time?”

The conversation continues at cross-purposes, her insistent probing of the reasons for the woman’s death – a death, it is suggested, she chose; he describing her own life to her. He returns time and again to the workers of the company her husband manages walking beneath her window, sometimes heard, sometimes observed, as predictable as the tide:

“Whether you were asleep or awake, dressed or naked, they passed outside the pale of your existence.”

Their appearance at the cafe, at the end of the day, acts as a sign for her to leave. The man, it seems was once such a worker, remembering a visit to her home, “you were standing…on the steps, ready to receive us, the workers from the foundries.” We are given the impression he has loved her since that moment; what is less certain is how she feels about him, perhaps seeing him as an escape from a life she finds intolerable. What is without question is that their intense feelings charge every scene, with Duras able to encapsulate enormous passion in a moment such as when he lays his hand next to hers. Slowly their discussion of the murder becomes a discussion of their own relationship:

“He had never dreamt, before meeting her, that he would one day want anything so badly.”

Very little happens in Moderato Cantabile: like the sea, which is so often referenced, it is what lies beneath the surface which is most powerful and dangerous. Duras beautifully conveys the repressed feelings of her protagonists to create a love story unlike any other.

Panty

August 16, 2016

panty

An unnamed woman enters a flat she has fled to (without clothes or belongings). We do not know why she is there or where she has come from. She asks the man who owns the flat (her lover?), “How long am I allowed to stay in this flat?” He comes and goes, dropping her off, phoning. She has no plans, though surgery, which she may or may not have, is mentioned. On her first night she finds a “crumpled panty”:

“Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was.”

Later, without clothes of her own to change into, she wears it:

“What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.
I slipped into her womanhood.
Her sexuality, her love.
I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.”

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This is not a novel, however, about a transformative piece of clothing, instead it is about the many facets of womanhood, a theme reflected in the novel’s unusual style. A series of disconnected chapters – those disconnections emphasised by seemingly random chapter numbers – tell the woman’s story, some clearly referring to the same character, but others allowing for the possibility that this is about more than one woman. Even the manner of their telling changes: opening in the first person, the second and third person are also freely used. The reader is often cast in the role of lover via the use of ‘you’ though the woman may be ‘I’ or ‘she’:

“She fell silent. You said, ‘Hello? Hello?’ a couple of times then hung up.”

“Your breath against my face was impossibly heavy. My whole body throbbed.”

This prevents the novel being about one woman’s experience (though it may be) and reflects instead the experience of women. The novel’s exploration of sexuality created problems for both Bandyopadhyay and her translator Arunva Sinha in their native India. It demonstrates the sexual exploitation of women in a dream of childhood when the woman is shown pornographic pictures by a man:

“The man had pursued her ever since clutching the book with the green cover.”

Later, when a similar scene is re-enacted by dogs – “Chasing for pure sex. Only sex. Nothing else.” – the woman feels only desire. Her desire, however, is shown to be in conflict with her role as mother in a horrifying story she tells of her son burning to death “on an afternoon when I was far away, lying beneath a man I barely knew.” Trapped in the house, he phones her:

“He was coughing, choking. But I could still hear the hurt in his voice as he asked, ‘Why did you go away, Maa, why did you leave me?’”

This perhaps explains her flight, and the attention she pays to a homeless family she observes from her balcony, often taking the child food:

“At such times I long to take her away, to teach her to read and write. To give her a full meal. To give her brushes and paints.”

In the bedroom of the flat, one wall is painted dark brown, but beneath the paint the woman can see a couple making love:

“I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were in the wall. The one which was painted dark brown.”

Later we learn this was painted by the owner of the leopard skin panty – the woman whose suicide is described at one point? – raising the possibility that some of the previous chapters are hers, or that it doesn’t, in fact, matter:

“I couldn’t picture myself at your side. Instead, I found her taking my place… Then I couldn’t tell whether it was I who said it or she, ‘We will be married one day…’”

Panty is a fascinating novel: like a jigsaw the reader must piece it together, but I suspect every reader’s, and every reading’s, finished picture will be different.

Mildew

August 11, 2016

mildew

Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is a modern Metamorphosis – and by that I refer not to Kafka’s story but its classical antecedents in Ovid’s tales. It begins with a spot:

“I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched it but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.”

The spot is the start of a transformation which occurs the day before her daughter, Agustina’s, wedding, but her mind is on her niece and namesake Constanza, who has been sleeping with her husband, Felipe. In her studio, where she goes to add the finishing touches to the wedding dress, she sees her niece reflected in the mirrors:

“I walked across the room without looking in the mirrors that still contained the image of Constanza trying on dresses, lifting her skirt, lowering her neckline, and Felipe behind her whispering the same word over and over: ‘Shorter.’”

The affair is particularly bitter for the narrator as she has raised her sister’s daughter alongside her own children. The two Constanzas are also tied together by a secret – the abortion which the narrator arranged for her niece when she fell pregnant as a teenager, an unborn child which she continues to see around the house:

“I held him in my shaking hand: he was as heavy as an apple and felt warm. This tiny body died twenty years ago, I thought. And I knew that I had crossed a terrible barrier and that it was going to be very hard to return from the other side of who knows where.”

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In this novella, women are torn between their roles as mother and lover. The abandoned child is the guilt with which women must live when they reject motherhood. The fathers quickly desert both Constanza and her mother, Flor, leaving them to make the decision to abort, or leave the child with their family. Constanza resents her aunt for not being her mother and uses her role as lover as a weapon against her, deliberately undressing before the narrator after admitting the affair:

“She wanted he eyes on my body, she was removing her clothes to show me the ground where she had won the battle I didn’t know we were fighting.”

Macbeth is quickly referenced (“Out, damned spot”), Lady Macbeth having so graphically rejected motherhood for love of her husband. (Interestingly, the narrator echoes Lady Macbeth at one point when she complains of Constanza, “I never had the power over her that all mothers have: the power of death”). The spot is, of course, blood, the blood which Lady Macbeth thinks can be washed away (“a little water clears us of this deed”), but in fact represents the couple’s guilt, and which her sleepwalking soliloquy reveals cannot be easily extinguished. Just as her inner life usurps Lady Macbeth’s sleep, so the narrator’s body is overwhelmed by a growth that one assumes reflects internal turmoil. As it spreads, she becomes strangely accepting:

“The mildew might not be a curse. It might be an exit.”

We might be reminded that Daphne was changed to a tree to avoid the amorous pursuit of Apollo, and that such a transformation can be viewed as an escape from the roles enforced on women by men – in this there is an echo of The Vegetarian.

In Mildew the ordinary story of a tawdry affair is itself transformed by writing grounded in, but unrestrained by, reality. The narrator’s transformation enhances rather than overwhelms the narrative, Jonguitud’s structure ensuring that dramatic tension is as much a driver as magical realism, creating a story which will continue to grow within the reader, ever changing.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool

August 8, 2016

70%

Don’t be fooled by the Italian origin of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool – the narrative voice greets the reader like a cold shower: icy, unfriendly, unexpected – yet invigorating. Its topic is, appropriately, not the Italian sunshine but the English winter:

“One day it was still December. Especially in Leeds where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.”

The narrator is Camelia, a young Italian woman whose life has been placed on pause since the death of her father. Her studies abandoned, she has returned to care for her mother, who no longer leaves the house, or talks, shaken both by her husband’s death, and the manner of it, in flagrante (that, at least, is Italian) with another woman while his car veers off road into a ditch:

“My mother was ready to be, in a word, thrown away. Yes, I know that’s two words, but it’s better that way: one for her and one for me, because if I have to throw her away, I won’t be far behind.”

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The novel’s opening is set in a frozen time, emphasised by the idea of an eternal winter, until she finds badly-made clothes in a dumpster – “Each piece had some kind of defect” – which she begins to wear. The disfigured clothing clearly connects to the damaged life she now leads, but also leads her, fairy-tale fashion, to a young Chinese man, Wen, from whose shop the clothes originated. His offer to teach her Chinese – the subject she had abandoned at university – seems a sign that she can rebuild her life. Now she is able to both talk and leave the house, but her adoption of this new dress code suggests her recovery is fragile:

“I started going out dressed in the dumpster clothes… I paraded all that obscene irregularly on the streets, the sleeves on the seat of my pants, the underarm buttons, errors of a sort that no human being could have made, and thus divine errors.”

Soon she begins to alter her own clothes in a similar way:

“I cut out all the sequins as if they were malignant tumours and replaced them with zig-zag miscarriages from my pajamas. Then I punished the pockets with some canvas patches cut from my backpack. I continued, wounding every pair of pants I owned with patches of red canvas, more or less where blood would run down your leg if you were an Italian journalist and you were fucking an English woman and you died in a ditch.”

Just as she attacks her clothes, so she sabotages her own life by sleeping with Wen’s brother when Wen rebuffs her advances. Di Grado brilliantly portrays the ups and downs of depression, Camelia’s high hopes frequently swooping down to despair again. What carries the novel forward on a fierce tide of emotion is her savage wit, descriptive phrases like “Leeds was immobilized in an orthopaedic back brace of snow”; bitter ironies as when she buys her silent mother a parrot; and the sharp wit which leads to this account of sex, drawn from her job as a translator of washing machine instructions:

“Remove clothes. End of cycle. The water will drain.”

70% Acrylic 30% Wool would perhaps be unbearable without this voice, though conversely it brings us closer to Camelia and therefore more pained by every blow she takes. This is important because the final pages may test the reader’s resolve. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is an unflinching portrayal of a woman in crisis, the kind of book which makes you want to reach into its pages before, in its final line, we are shut out completely.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

August 3, 2016

baba yaga

Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of Cannongate’s Myths series, where they asked contemporary writers to offer their version of an ancient story. The series began in 2006 and (I think) ended in 2014, featuring a stellar cast of international writers including Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Victor Pelevin, David Grossman…and Dubravka Ugresic. Ugresic’s take on the legend of Baba Yaga is typically idiosyncratic, divided into three discreet sections, each a completely different genre of writing – the first autobiographical, the second fiction, and the third academic – all exploring women in old age.

The first section focuses on Ugresic’s relationship with her mother. Her mother has a ‘cobweb’ in her brain:

“By ’cobweb’ she meant metastases to the brain, which had appeared seventeen years after a bout of breast cancer had been discovered in time and treated successfully.”

This makes it difficult for her recall certain common words causing strain in their relationship: “Some daughter if you can’t remember the bread spread stuff!” Ugresic also feels her mother is in denial about getting older and approaching death. She puts away all photographs of dead relatives – “I’d rather be in the company of the living” – and feels disappointed by the ageing of her friends:

“’She got so old,’ she said tersely a little later, as if spitting out a bitter morsel. Her friend was almost a year older than she was.”

Ugresic agrees to go to Varna, the city of her mother’s youth, with a Bulgarian academic and admirer of her work, Aba, who has also befriended her mother. Ugresic makes no attempt to portray herself in a good light as she becomes increasingly irritated by Aba who does not seem to able to organise anything to her satisfaction, and annoys her with knowing references to her writing:

“I snorted. Her use of the plural infuriated me. And her ‘we need to pick up a map of the city’ grated on my ear. Wasn’t she at home here? Why would she need a map?!”

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Almost everything has changed since her mother was a child and the trip is a disappointment: “I had brought back nothing from my pilgrimage and received nothing in return.” It is perhaps for this reason that, in the second part of the book, Ugresic tells of three elderly women, Pupa, Beba and Kukla, taking a last trip to the Grand Hotel (Pupa, we know, is her mother’s housebound friend). These unlikely guests are determined to have the time of their lives, becoming involved in a number of comic adventures with a supporting male cast including American entrepreneur/conman Mr Shaker, and a young Bosnian with a permanent erection who is pretending to be a Turk under the name of Suleiman. Again the focus is on ageing: Shaker sells food supplements and Suleiman works at a Wellness clinic run by Dr Topolanek:

“In the first capitalist commotion, Topolanek realised that the easiest way to make money was out of human vanity.”

Shaker meanwhile, on the other side of the world, is “the king of an industry of magical powders and potions…what Mr Shaker actually sold was ideological hot air.” Pupa offers her own advice:

“Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!”

Ugresic is very good, again, on the effects of ageing on the body:

“Beba and her body lived in state of mutual intolerance. She could not remember exactly when the first hostile incident occurred.”

Of course, the book contains references to Baba Yaga throughout – but there is no need for me to comment on these as the third and final section does exactly this in a letter from Aba to the book’s editor, who has requested an expert opinion:

“As far as I gather from your accompanying letter, your author undertook to provide a text based on the myth of Baba Yaga. By the way, I was touched by your admission that you ‘don’t have a clue’ about Baba Yaga yourself.”

The analysis is exhaustive, to say the least – as Aba says herself, “I’m sure you won’t mind admitting that there was too much of everything. In fact, you were afraid at one point that I would never stop.” While such awareness of the reader’s reaction is amusing, I did find the final section trying – and, in fact, preferred the autobiographical opening to the story of Pupa, Beba and Kolka. This had the effect deteriorating enjoyment, though, of course, all the sections coexist as parts of a whole, and Ugresic is such a wonderful, witty writer that even when she is imitating dullness there is still pleasure to be had. Ugresic cleverly uses the myth of Baba Yaga as the starting point for a meditation of old age in women in a book that is funny, insightful, and, at times, moving.

The Fires of Autumn

August 2, 2016

fires of autumn

Although Irene Nemirovsky only features on my blog once (The Dogs and the Wolves way back in 2010), she is, in fact, a writer whose work I have steadily devoured as it has been translated into English (largely by Sandra Smith). The Fires of Autumn is (as far as I know) her final book – both in terms of translation (published in 2014, nothing has appeared since, and I suspect all her major work is now available in English) and also her final completed novel, written around the same time as Suite Francois and published posthumously in 1957.

The Fires of Autumn is a novel of two world wars. In her first chapter Nemirovsky skilfully introduces all her characters in a pleasant domestic setting, a Sunday meal followed by a stroll, representing the comfortable life before the First World War. Both Therese and Bernard are at the point where they are beginning to leave their childhoods behind:

“Since Therese had just turned fifteen a few days ago, she had put her curls up in a chignon, but her silky hair was not yet used to the style she tried to hold in place with hairpins, so it was escaping all over the place, which made Therese unhappy.”

“Bernard did not reply because at the age of fifteen, the company of adults still intimidated him. He was still in short trousers. (But this was the last year…)”

Therese is destined, however, for the twenty-seven-year-old Martial Brun, who is training to be a doctor. We also meet his friend, the charismatic Raymond Detang, and Madame Humbert and her daughter Renee, who survive by selling hats since Monsieur Humbert died and left them penniless. These are the middle classes: not poor, but not rich enough to put money out of their minds.

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War changes everything. Even before he enlists, Bernard is aware that the experience will change him:

“’They aren’t really like us’, thought Bernard as he recalled the soldiers he’d seen when they’d returned from the front. They were different, unusual.”

Martial’s father, Adolphe, is also aware of the change:

“There was something about all this that frightened him: he no longer recognised the French. Its people spoke a new language… The most sacred words – ‘Frugality…Marital fidelity…Virginity…’ – had gradually become old-fashioned, almost laughable.”

Bernard scandalises his own father when he loses five thousand francs gambling when on leave. Nemirovsky identifies the First World War with a collapse in middle class values, a loss of morals which she dramatises by polarising her characters between those who embrace this and those who stay ‘honest’. Detang, who has already offered Bernard work during the war in America buying equipment for the army while being sure to feather his own nest, best exemplifies the new attitude:

“There was an enormous fairground where anyone who wanted to could get in; it wasn’t even necessary to hide your background like in the good old days: they were living in a cynical world which glorified the sludge from which a man had risen.”

Nemirovsky is not suggesting that corruption entered French society with the war, but that it infected the middle classes who had previously been excluded both by snobbery and a sense of propriety. Bernard is torn between the morality of the past and the attraction of easily acquired wealth, as we see in his love for Therese and his affair with Detang’s wife, Renee. This allows Nemirovsky to demonstrate these tensions using the relationships, for example when he invites Therese and her mother to his (luxurious) home only to fail to appear.

In Nemirovsky’s eyes, it is this collapse in the moral fabric of society which leads to France’s defeat in the Second World War. She demonstrates this in practical terms in a plotline which echoes All My Sons (which was, of course, based on a true story). This is, naturally, simplistic, and Nemirovsky’s morality can seem a little dated now: whereas men become corrupted by greed, for women it is only sexual morality which matters, hence Renee is Therese’s nemesis. However, Bernard’s corruption reflects an attitude we continue to see damaging society in the way which Nemirovsky suggests: why be honest when others achieve success through dishonesty? Nemirovsky also has something to tell us about corrupt politicians:

“[Detang] was not even cynical about himself, except for very rare moments when he felt depressed. He honestly considered himself an eminent statement who exists solely for the good of the people.”

Nemirovsky, of course, did not survive the Second World War and was therefore tasked with concluding her story before reality had concluded its. The title comes from Madam Pain’s comment that “these are the autumn fires; they purify the land; they prepare it for new seeds.” In many ways, for Western Europe at least, this is what happened; in the UK the lives of ordinary people were vastly improved after World War Two. As we begin to undo these improvements, the warnings of Nemirovsky’s novel become more relevant.