Archive for April, 2020

The Sweet Indifference of the World

April 25, 2020

Peter Stamm has always been interested in the decisions which define our lives, and, in that sense, the shape those lives take. Often his novels involve a character instinctively breaking from the life they are leading without any obvious plan – see, for example, Thomas leaving his family at the beginning of To the Back of Beyond, or Andreas abandoning his life as a teacher in Paris in On a Day Like This. The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by the ever-dependable Michael Hofmann) also has at its heart such a decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena, but on this occasion Stamm explores not only Christoph and Magadalena’s lives but those of an alternate couple who seem to be following in their footsteps years later, Chris and Lena.

The story is told by Christoph to Lena as he tries to convince her that her life with Chris echoes is own:

“The scenes look different, even the words can be changed or cut, but the action follows its unvarying course.”

Christoph is a writer with one successful book behind him – written after his relationship with Magdalena ended. He first encounters Chris when he returns to his home town for an event in the local bookshop, working as a night porter in the hotel where he is staying:

“I saw his face next to the reflection of my own but not until he held the door open for me did I realise that he was me.”

The “younger version of myself” apparently notices no such similarity, but Christoph is not only struck by the physical resemblance but the fact that he, too, once worked as a night porter:

“It was as though a playmate had copied my every word when I was a child, copied every movement, which used to put me in a seething rage.”

Christoph’s feelings about Chris are confused. On the one hand he sees this alternate version of himself as a chance to avoid the mistakes he feels he has made:

“I wanted to live in the illusion that I was young again and could give my life a different turn.”

However, at points he feels that Chris has taken his life from him: “It was as though he was stealing my life from me by living it himself.” This is particularly true when he speaks to Chris, telling him about the novel he has written, and Chris can find no trace of the book:

“If the book didn’t exist, what else about my story and my memories could possibly be true.”

He also becomes angry when Chris and Lena’s life diverges from his own, for example when Chris writes his novel without breaking up with Lena. This is partly because he sees these two defining events as inextricably linked; that is, he was only able to write his novel by giving up Magdalena. As Lean tells him:

“The question is, are you prepared to allow him a better life… or do you want to wreck it just like you wrecked your own?”

Chris and Lean’s lives become a story Christoph is writing – exactly what had happened previously with Magdalena: “…as though the written Magdalena was more important to me than the living woman.” Magdalena, we feel, is not understood by Christoph as an individual:

“The fictive Magdalena had covered the real one, as a mask covers a face.”

Both Magdalena and Lena are actors and this further obfuscates Christoph’s ability to see Magdalena clearly: “sometimes I had the sense that she was playing part.” Mainly, however, he is so focused on his story that he does not notice the stories of others unless they are connected, hence, perhaps, his desire to make Chris’ story his own. He is also, despite more than once pointing out the difference between fiction and reality, frequently tempted to interpret his life as though it were fiction, “as though my life were a story.” This, in turn, affects the way we remember our past, as he tells Lena when it transpires the story of his first meeting with Magdalena is not the whole truth:

“Looking back, you believe that kind of thing when you find your narrative.”

The Sweet Indifference of the World is cleverly constructed so that the two stories are told concurrently though not necessarily chronologically. Stamm does not offer us any easy answers as to the veracity of Christoph’s claims – in fact, even in the final pages he introduces further mysteries, leaving us to question what influence Christoph may have had on Chris’ life, and even whether Christoph is who he claims to be. More pointedly, this vital, provocative writer questions our relationship with fiction and with fate, and our refusal to accept the sweet indifference of the world.


April 20, 2020

Henri Bosco is French writer, famous enough in his time to be nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize, who has largely been forgotten in English. Though some of his work was translated in the 1950s, these translations have never been reprinted, and there have been no new translations – until now. Thanks to Joyce Zonana, we can now enjoy Bosco’s 1948 novel, Malicroix, without having to first learn the language it was written in.

Malicroix is an adventure novel without much adventuring. It begins when our narrator, Martial de Megremut, is declared heir to a great uncle he has never met. The catch is that, in order to inherit, he must first stay for three months in the solitary residence of his relative on an isolated island with only the company of his great uncle’s taciturn servant, Balandran, and his dog, Brequillet. As well as withstanding the loneliness and hostile climate of the island, he must also outfox the machinations of his great uncle’s notary, Dromiols, who seems less than keen that Martial should inherit. Even should he manage to last the allotted time, there is a further action he must undertake in a codicil which he will only discover at that point.

Mood, rather than action, is to the fore, as Bosco creates breath-holding tension merely by relaying Martial’s impression of the landscape. Crossing to the island he feels “as if we were floating on a shadow lake, itself adrift through the night’s dark.” Once there he tells us:

“My nerves were on edge, and nothing could escape me that might reach my senses.”

From the moment of Martial’s arrival, there is a sense of foreboding and threat, though the danger is always on the periphery of our vision, hinted at rather than revealed. Martial himself is torn between a determination to stay for the three months, and a desire to leave as “I was in territory foreign to my natural life.” The novel’s title is reflective of the question it asks: whether Martial is, indeed, a Malicroix. This is frequently discussed in terms of the landscape, for example in his wariness of rivers:

“As a man raised in the hills, I like to look at them from afar and from a high vantage point…But now I was in the lowlands, surrounded on all sides by waters…”

Also with reference to the difference in climate, as he recalls the land he is used to:

“Even in winter, the brisk wind does not harm the orchards, protected from above by small rose-coloured cliffs and from below by hedges of reeds over which cypress trees bend when the wind blows.”

The island, on the other hand, is prone to storms which keep him unable to venture outside for days at a time. To emphasise the point, we learn that Martial’s main occupation is as a horticulturalist, someone used to the greenhouse rather than the wilds. He even uses such imagery when he describes himself:

“You are a hothouse plant, a friend to fruits and flowers, a scholar.”

As Dromiols is quick to point out to him: “I imagine you must find yourself quite out of your element here.” At one point he sends Martial a cutting from an exotic plant as a reminder of his promise to return home.

This conflict is also played out in blood – not through violence, but through the blood of the two families which Martial feels flowing in his veins. Speaking to Dromiol he senses:

“…he probably judged me insignificant and malleable, even as I, for the first time in my life, sensed a darker blood flowing into my peaceful heart, a bitter blood that warmed me.”

This blood is the Malicroix blood, in competition with the gentler, Megremut blood:

“This blood, the last of the line, a Malicroix blood—strong, warm, brisk, wild—but whose strength, warmth, briskness, and wildness within me had evaporated.”

Much of the narrative tension is therefore created by the ebbing and flowing of Martial’s determination to last the three months. This is exacerbated by his isolation, both on the island and in the sense he seems to have no allies (“Did I have a friend? No, not a single one…”). Yet Balandran treats him kindly – he awakes on his first morning to find he has laid his coat over him as he slept. Dromiol’s servant, Uncle Rat, also offers him advice which seems to go against his master’s intentions. And when he is ill, a woman nurses him. In each case, however, Bosco makes the intentions of the other characters ambiguous, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

For some reason, the novel reminded me a little of Robert Louis Stevenson, particularly his Scottish novels such as Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston. This was not simply the result of a similarity of climate (and Bosco does enjoy describing the weather at length) but perhaps can be more generally ascribed to a strong sense of place (something Bosco does of course share with that other Provencal writer, Jean Giono). Master of Ballantrae is, of course, all about inheritance, and in Weir of Hermiston Archie must leave Edinburgh and his family to live in the relatively wild Borders. Both writers are adept at creating tension and threat, and Dromiol in particular felt like a character Stevenson could have written, though no doubt his version of Martial’s story would have been a little more action-packed.

Malicroix is a novel which keeps the reader on high alert from beginning to end, even when Bosco spends pages describing a storm, or we find ourselves alone with Martial and his thoughts. The success of its execution (and translation) is evident in the growing feeling that you are not simply reading his story, but are living on that island alongside him.

A Voyage to Arcturus

April 17, 2020

David Lindsay was another writer affected by the First World War. Prior to the war he was an insurance clerk with Lloyd’s of London, after being unable to take up a scholarship to university, but afterwards he moved to Cornwall with his family to write. A Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, was his first novel, famously unsuccessful though influential (on, for example, C S Lewis). He continued to write throughout the twenties, including two novels (The Violet Apple and The Witch) which were not published until thirty years after his death, in the seventies. Despite this, A Voyage to Arcturus has rarely fallen out of print and is frequently included in lists of important science fiction or fantasy novels.

A Voyage to Arcturus begins with a séance (also popular in the aftermath of World War One) but unusually almost all the characters introduced in this conventional opening are irrelevant to the novel. Only three, all strangely named and uninvited, will be seen again: Maskull, Nightspore and Krag. Maskull and Nightspore appear together, though we are told nothing of their relationship:

“The two strangers remained standing by the door, which was closed quietly behind them. They seemed to be waiting for the mild sensation caused by their appearance to subside before advancing into the room.”

Krag appears (“the door burst open violently”) after the séance has begun and a “phantom body” has appeared:

“Before anyone realised what he was doing he encircled the soft white neck of the materialised shape with his hairy hands and, with a double turn, twisted it completely round. A faint unearthly shriek sounded, and the body fell in a heap to the floor.”

Such sudden and inexplicable acts of violence, so shocking here, are commonplace throughout the novel which, from this point, challenges conventional notions of morality. Afterwards Krag claims that the apparition came from Tormance, the one inhabited planet orbiting Arcturus, and tells Maskull that he can take him there. Maskull and Nightspore arrange to meet Krag at his observatory in the north of Scotland, at Starkness, where they will undertake the trip from the top of a tower. If this sounds unlikely that is because Lindsay is not interested in the science of space travel; instead we have a bottle labelled ‘Arcturian Back Rays’ and a tower which, the further you climb, the more intense the gravity. The journey itself is covered only briefly:

“The torpedo glided gently from its platform, and passed rather slowly away from the tower seaward… Krag then released the speed valve, and the car sped on its way with a velocity more nearly approaching that of thought than of light.”

The idea of travelling at the speed of thought indicates that, for Lindsay, this is a journey of the mind.

When Maskull awakes he is alone, and, again, Lindsay is happy to drop characters from the narrative as it suits him. This will be a repeated pattern as Maskull travels across Tormance where he will meet an inhabitant who, once Lindsay has exhausted their philosophical potential, will disappear or die, sometimes at Maskull’s hands. Also typically, Maskull finds he has physically changed on arrival:

“He felt something hard on his forehead. Putting his hand up, he discovered there a fleshy protuberance, the size of a small plum, having a cavity on the middle, of which he could not feel the bottom. Then he also became aware of a large knob on each side of his neck, an inch below the ear. From the region of his heart, a tentacle had budded.”

This is one aspect of the great originality of the novel: not only do the different characters of Tormance display different physical attributes, but Maskull adopts these too. These extra organs are often related to communication, as is the case with the first person he meets, Joiwind, who speaks in “an inaudible language”:

“This time he discovered that the sense of what she said was received by his brain through the organ on his forehead.”

Joiwind is the most peaceful and harmless person he meets on his travels, drinking only water as, “We don’t eat living things. The thought is horrible to us.” However not all of Tormance is so gentle, the next person he meets, Oceaxe, telling him:

“…animals were made to be eaten, and simple natures made to be absorbed.”

Thus he will encounter the philosophies of those he meets, not unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, albeit there is no overriding dogma to create a clear sense of revelation. Maskull’s meeting with Oceaxe is also the first indication of Lindsay’s preoccupation with gender, with the suggestion that Maskull’s new organs make him more female than male.

And so the novel continues in this vein, no doubt becoming tiresome for some readers who look for more in the way of plot and character. Its great strength is its originality, both in terms of the worlds which Lindsay creates and in his uncompromising attitude to his readership – at times it feels more like a vision than a fiction. While this means it is unlikely ever to be best seller, for the same reason it will continue to make an impression on those who read it.


April 13, 2020

When Karen and Simon chose 1920 as the next year for their biannual book club, they could have little idea of the circumstances in which we would be reading those books from a hundred years ago, in the face of a global disaster the repercussions of which can only be guessed at. The authors, however, would know something of that sort having just emerged from the First World War, many of them having participated in that conflict. Though Hermann Hesse is widely regarded as a pacifist, he attempted to enlist in 1914 and, having been found unfit for the front line, instead found a role looking after prisoners of war. In 1920 he published two books: Klingsor’s Last Summer, reflecting his growing love of painting, and Wandering, a collection of notes and poems on travelling, with his own illustrations scattered throughout.

Wandering (the translation is by James Wright from 1972) begins with Hesse’s antipathy to borders (though he had volunteered for his country, he was consistent in rejecting nationalism):

“If there were many people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptable than borders.”

This abstract reference to war is a reminder that his journey would not have been possible even two years before. Generally the war sits behinds the stories he tells, an implicit contrast, though in one chapter, where he crosses a bridge he also crossed in war-time, it is mentioned explicitly:

“But this was all nothing, my love for the sagging wet bushes was just sentimental, and reality was something else, it was the war, and it rang through the general’s mouth, the sergeant’s mouth, and I had to run, and out of all the valleys of the world thousands of others had to run with me, and a great time had dawned.”

For the most part, though, Hesse is interested in the experience of wandering, describing himself as a “nomad”: “I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic.” Rather than root his love in what he knows, he applies it to what he sees as he travels:

“We separate love from its object, love alone is enough for us, in the same way that, in wandering, we don’t look for a goal, we only look for the happiness of wandering, only the wandering.”

We find a similar conviction in the poem ‘Glorious World’:

“A mountain range in the night,
On the balcony a silent woman,
A white street in the moonlight curving gently away
That tears my heart with longing out of my body.”

This is not to say Hesse has no doubts about his wandering. At times he longs for the more settled life of home:

“Like the day between morning and evening, my life falls between my urge to travel and my homesickness.”

In one chapter he speculates at length about a possible life as a priest on sight of a rectory:

“How wonderful it would be for a man like me to make his home here, to be a priest!”

In the end, however, he decides he would not be able to change, “I would only be the same inconstant, harmless wanderer, the same man I am now.” Rather than adopt a single role, Hesse enjoys the freedom of imagining himself living different lives:

“I want my soul to be a wandering thing, able to move back into a hundred forms. I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and tress.”

In this imaginative wandering we see the mind of the writer.

Wandering is not relentlessly optimistic, however. In the chapter ‘Rainy Weather’, for example, Hesse talks about “how meanly and maliciously the clouds hang on the mountains” leading him to feel:

“How stupid and comfortless everything is, everything that comes into my mind.”

These moods are discussed later when he refers to “the dark waves in my life, which I fear, come also with certain regularity.” It is this honesty, of course, which makes Hesse worth reading, the sense that we are being allowed access to his thoughts rather than a censored version recollected later.

Wandering is a slight collection of under a hundred pages – and many of these taken up with illustrations – but it is a tonic for our times, a hymn of praise for journeys with no purpose in our new utilitarian world.

“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”

Untold Night and Day

April 10, 2020

Untold Night and Day is the fifth of Bae Suah’s novels to be translated into English (and the fourth to be translated by Deborah Smith) but the first to be published in the UK. It is strange and wonderful, and difficult to reduce to a few words – its four connected sections tell parts of the same story, as well as different, complementary, contradictory (it can be hard to tell the difference), stories, while echoes of what we’ve heard before and after bubble to the surface, often word for word.

It begins simply enough with Ayami, once an actress, now the usher at an audio theatre, where those who are blind come to listen to stories. Her life is at a crossroads as the theatre is closing and she has little idea what she will do next – beyond a promise to her German language teacher to meet a visiting poet at the airport. Bae Suah develops a sense of the uncanny through a series of apparently everyday encounters, firstly with a couple Ayami observes passing the theatre. Nothing unusual in this apart from Ayami’s speculation, “Might they be my parents?” Ayami’s parentage will be returned to at the end of the novel, but beyond its place in the plot it also creates a feeling that she uncertain of her identity, as, indeed, is the reader. Next a man approaches, “standing with both hands pressed against the glass.” The man becomes distressed, attempting to enter the closed theatre, and has to be taken away. “Might I know him after all?” Ayami wonders,

“Ayami no longer trusted her own memory.”

Even the conversation with the director of the theatre which follows, in a restaurant which is completely without light, takes a strange turn as he jokes about naming her when she was a baby, and Ayami later unsettles herself commenting, “No, you haven’t told me you were none other than my father, who was a fruit hawker.”

“Ah, do I know this man? Ayami was struck with a feeling of vertigo.”

This sense of being aware of a past but uncertain of its relationship to the present is echoed, for the reader, in repeated sections of text, often the descriptions of characters:

“Her skirt fluttered like an old dishcloth in the alley’s still air, exposing a pair of skinny calves corded with stringy muscle, pathetically small feet, and shoes that gleamed like new yet looked like cast-offs.”

This description of the woman Ayami sees passing on page 14 is repeated as a description of Ayami on page 49, and reappears again on three other occasions. Like other repeated phrases it is beautifully rendered by Smith as the banal details come together in a poetic unity; it is noticeable for the way it describes rather than what it describes. Scattered throughout the text, theses repeated phrases create a feeling that there is a layer of connection lying beneath the plot only occasionally glimpsed in the words themselves.

The second section seems to veer away from Ayami though connections soon appear. It tells of Buha who falls for a poet woman after seeing a black and white photograph in a newspaper. Years later we discovering him delivering medicine to Ayami’s German language teacher; seeing Ayami enter, he identifies her as the poet woman (“…she was learning German”) and often returns to watch her:

“Buha enjoyed deviating from his fixed route to watch the poet woman.”

He later identifies the poet woman’s voice as Yeoni’s, the German language teacher, which he knows from a phoning a sex line. At the end of this section the scene with the man pressing against the door of the audio theatre is repeated from the other side of the door; Buha is the man.

Just before this Buha comments, thinking of his past:

“It seemed to him that he had ended up walking between two simultaneously existing worlds.”

The reader may also share this suspicion. In particular, there are numerous suggestions that Ayami and Yeoni are uncannily similar or, indeed, the same person. Not only does Buha mistake Ayami for Yeoni, so does the poet (in fact a crime writer, Wolfi) she sends her to meet (though he says he ash never seen Yeoni). Photographs at an exhibition taken years before seem to show Ayami much more recently; as Wolfi observes:

“…every photograph is a unique proof of identity, firmly declaring that human beings are ghosts.”

Later on a television programme a woman called Ayami is reunited with her mother:

“Your adoptive parents called you Ayami…but your real name is Yeoni.”

Of course the novel does not end neatly in this way as the television Ayami denies the truth of this, while Ayami watching tells Wolfi she was acting in a film. What begins as a novel of a young woman in search of her identity, ends with the feeling that she does not want to know who she is.

Untold Night and Day is a bewitching, elusive novel which rewards a second reading. Not only is it strongly suggested that its characters are haunted (take, for example, Wolfi’s description of his novel where “readers later realise that the female protagonist is the ghost of the woman who had been murdered many years ago”) but its readers, too, will find the novel’s elements playing across their minds in its afterlife.

The Promise

April 6, 2020

“Can one write a novel without a plot?” asks a character in Silvina Ocampo’s only novel, The Promise, now translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell.

“Naturally. One could write forever about their feelings.”

The Promise is not, of course, entirely without a plot, but neither is it a novel for those who long for the fast pace of narrative events. Its central conceit is that its narrator, en route to Capetown, falls into the ocean and can only watch the ship “calmly moving away.” If she survives, she promises to write what she calls “this dictionary of memories” while at the same time admitting:

“I don’t have a life of my own: I have only feelings. My experiences were never important – not during the course of my life or even on the threshold of death. Instead the lives of others have become mine.”

Just as she is left floating on the ocean, an observer of the ship’s continuing voyage beyond the horizon, so too she characterises herself as an observer of others, floating through events she bears little influence on. What she remembers instead are the people she has known:

“I began my itinerary of memories with names and even biographical descriptions, down to the last detail, of people I had known in my life. Naturally, they didn’t emerge from my memory in chronological order or in the pecking order of my feelings for them, but instead appeared in a capricious way…”

What follows is a series of character vignettes, generally headed by the name of the character. Some are only mentioned once, while others reappear. Of most importance are Irene, her daughter Gabriela, and Irene (and the narrator’s) lover, Leandro. Irene and Gabriela’s characters are very different: Irene is a romantic, at the mercy of her emotions; Gabriela is analytical, forensic. Whereas Irene “upon discovery of love…believed in its fleeting salvation,” “what [Gabriela] desired most in the universe of her curiosity was to see a man and a woman doing it.” We first meet Gabriela left waiting in the street while Irene and Leandro make love. This distance between them is also echoed in Gabriela’s feelings for her mother:

“Gabriela loved Irene more than anyone else in the world. Nevertheless, she had spent the happiest days of her life far away from her…”

The narrator’s relationship to these characters remains undefined. At points, as she remembers them, she becomes them:

“I felt Irene’s heartbeat through Gabriela’s breast; I felt the sweat from Gabriela’s hair on Irene’s breast.”

As she later says:

“I’m inhabited now by infinite people who disturb my memory.”

We find a similar situation with Leandro, the character who most often recurs:

“Everything he told me now feels like it happened to me.”

Leandro is a trainee doctor – and a womaniser: “Everyone fell in love with him.” He may even be a composite character: “Leandro has infinite faces,” and “It was as if he were several men” suggest as much. In his relationship with Irene it is clear he does not return her love quite as enthusiastically as she might hope. Later he falls for another woman, Victoria, when he finds pages from her novel on the street. Interestingly, the word ‘promise’ is also used with reference to this writing too:

“These pages were the promise of something new.”

Stories of Leandro ensure that much of the novel is focused on the theme of love, but it is primarily about memory. Ocampo continued to write the novel (begun in the sixties) until the years before her death in 1993, and it is difficult not to see elements of it as a response to approaching mortality. The disappearing ship is the sense that life is leaving her behind, the stories an attempt to ward off death, as she admits:

“I told stories to death so that it would spare my life…”

which later becomes:

“I don’t know what to do so as not to die, so as not to fall apart, lose my identity completely and forget everything else.”

This gives the novel a poignancy which goes beyond the memories collected:

“Now I just float on top of the water, my name, my face, my identity forgotten.”

There is perhaps a certain irony that only now is Ocampo being recognised as the important writer she is.