Archive for February, 2022

McGrotty and Ludmilla

February 25, 2022

Last February I read Alasdair Gray’s The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the novella which followed his first two novels. Five years later he published another novella based on a radio play, McGrotty and Ludmilla, partly, one suspects, as a favour to new Glasgow publishers, Dog and Bone Press – Gray also provided the cover art for another release (there was perhaps only two), Archie Roy’s A Sense of Something Strange. As with The Fall of Kelvin Walker, McGrotty and Ludmilla is a satire concerning a Scotsman’s encounter with establishment London and featuring a love story of a kind where the hapless and naïve hero falls for a stronger and more cynical woman. It is similarly both dated (in parts) and as accurate as ever (in others).

Its satirical intent is clear from the opening sentence which describes the Ministry of Social Stability (where, we will discover, McGrotty works) as having been created to “counteract the damage done by the spread of literacy and the granting of the vote to all male householders.” If we feel we recognise something of out current leaders in this attitude we will find the opening remarks of Arthur Shots even more prescient:

“Every organisation needs a great deal of corruption, of course, to stop it becoming rigid, callous and inefficient.”

Shots, one of the civil servants who actually runs things (Gray explicitly points out that the story predates Yes, Minister), is worried about the publication of the Harbinger Report, Harbinger having been tasked with investigating corruption at all levels of government. Harbinger himself is reluctant to complete the report:

“I’m distressed by my report. It incriminates many decent, public-spirited necessary people. Famous people. Some of the highest and best loved names in Britain.”

Shots is wondering what to do when he encounters McGrotty – or rather when McGrotty tramples on Shots’ foot in the corridor. Shots soon hatches a plan which involves getting McGrotty to steal the report for him. He first of all befriends McGrotty after concocting a story that McGrotty’s father saved his life during the war – a war his father never returned from thus making the Shots’ declared debt impossible to disprove. Shots makes sure McGrotty is promoted (on the premise he is a ‘rough diamond’) and is portrayed by Gray, both visually and in prose, as a spider, aided by his secretary to “weave a fine web which only they perceived…”

“It was invisible to the human flies trapped therein.”

As with Kelvin Walker, Gray demonstrates that social mobility occurs only when it is useful to the established order. As Gray says:

“My novella is certainly a caricature, though it caricatures nothing but the ability of the British rich to enlist awkward or threatening outsiders.”

Shots’ plans are accidently upset by Ludmilla, however. The daughter of a Minister, her first impression of McGrotty, like Shots’, is that he is entirely out of place: “Why do your wear that terrible tie?” McGrotty, on the other hand, is immediately smitten:

“He wished to grovel before her but did not know how to start.”

When McGrotty attempts to enact Shots’ plan to retrieve the report from the Minister’s safe, Ludmillla reappears and McGrotty is so thrown by his inability to interact calmly with her (like virtually all of Gray’s male protagonists) he runs away, throwing Shots into a panic:

“What could a fool like McGrotty be trusted not to do when he stopped doing what he was told?”

Unfortunately for Shots, McGrotty has now developed the ‘low animal cunning’ he thought he lacked, and, now demands Ludmilla as the price for telling Shots where the report is – or at least Shots’ help in turning him into the “kind of man she’s keen on – suave, popular, the life and soul of Royal Garden Parties.” McGrotty now schemes for power and influence in the same way as Shots and Ludmilla: only by accepting the rules of the establishment can one becomes part of it.

McGrotty and Ludmilla was originally submitted as a play for television – part of a series based on fairy tales. Gray took Aladdin as his inspiration, with McGrotty as Aladdin, Shots as the sorcerer (pretending to be his father’s friend rather than his brother) and the Harbinger Report as the lamp. This creates a slightly more playful story than The Fall of Kelvin Walker, but one which nevertheless identifies the institutionalised inequalities which exist to this day. It is another entertaining miniature in the midst of Gray’s longer works.

Marzahn, Mon Amour

February 20, 2022

Marzahn, Mon Amour is German writer Katja Oskamp’s third novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Jo Heinrich, her first literary translation). While the title is a playful reference to Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it is ultimately meant sincerely, however unlikely that may be given that Marzahn is housing estate of 1970s prefabricated concrete buildings on the outskirts of East Berlin. Yet the novel is exactly about finding joy in the most unlikely of places, and from the most unlikely of jobs.

The narrator is a writer in middle-aged crisis:

“You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re headed for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming.”

But before we decide that yet another author wracked with mid-life doubt is the last thing we need, it is her reaction to the rejection of her latest novella that sets this apart from other novels of this type: a course in chiropody:

“None of us had taken a direct path; all of us were on the rebound, stranded or bogged down. We knew what failure felt like.”

“From writer to chiropodist – what a spectacular comedown” – or, at least, that is how it would be conventionally viewed. Yet, as the chapters which follow reveal, the narrator has no regrets, finding happiness in the simple act of helping others.

Her customers are the elderly and the frail. Frau Guse is a survivor of breast cancer who repeats the same stories on every visit – “Frau Guse and I could even swap lines; I certainly know both parts off by heart, and we have exactly the same conversation every six weeks.” Herr Paulke has also suffered from cancer:

“…he had a fatalistic sense of humour and humility in the face of the havoc old age was wreaking.”

These are qualities the narrator shares, describing another client, Frau Blumeier, “in her racy electric wheelchair, her upper body bent forward like a cyclist and her hair swept back from her forehead by the wind.” In Frau Bulmeier’s case it is polio which has led to her disability – “Only my legs, not in my head!” Erwin Fritzsche tells her he has had a heart attack and a stroke:

“His eyes tell me he has just about managed to remember these words, but that every trace of their meaning is gone.”

In the face of this, the narrator’s clients generally tend to look on the bright side. Frau Blumeier is defined by her “high spirits”. Frau Frenzel finds happiness in her dogs: when her treatment is finished and she returns to them “a shared joy erupts.” The salon is a place they are treated kindly – the narrator tells us her secret resolution is “to have every client leave happier than when they arrived.” The chair they sit in is frequently referred to as the ‘throne’. Taking ordinary pleasure in life, even when life is difficult, is a theme which runs throughout the novel, and can be seen not only in the clientele but in staff. The longest chapter describes a spa break the three beauticians take together, a trip which leads the narrator to declare (after a few drinks):

“I am overcome with love and I start eulogizing about the three of us, how we may have our quirks but we all have our hearts in the right place…”

That she is interrupted by Tiffy, who thinks she is “taking the piss”, also demonstrates the balance which Oskamp retains throughout – any danger of tipping into sentimentally is quickly averted, even if only by descriptions of the clients often grotesque feet.

The novel is much more than quirky character sketches, though. The elderly nature of the customers, who relate their life stories while being treated, creates a sociological portrait of East Germany. Nowhere is this more evident than with Herr Pietsch who was once “not only politically and ideologically on the right side, but also on the high ground, to his mind at least.” Now he is a more sympathetic figure, saving money in envelopes to get by. Things also get more difficult after reunification for less important people – Frau Janusch tells of how her husband’s furniture business collapsed:

“The easterners paid. But the westerners didn’t. That’s the way they were – who has the biggest debts?”

Her Paulke, on the other hand, has been glad to have been able to travel – “He could talk about the Norwegian fjords, the palm trees in Ticino and the pubs in Dublin.” The novel allows the characters to tell these stories without judgement; there is no sense of authorial irony overhanging their tales. This is a novel of ordinary people, a paean to everyday kindness and the dignity of work:

“The love I have inside me has turned into liquid and now runs in the most unlikely places.”

The New Adventures of Helen

February 17, 2022

The brutality of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories can be seen in the titles of her previous collections such as There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself. Even here, however, we can see the influence of the fairy tale, and, in her latest collection, The New Adventures of Helen (translated by Jane Bugaeva) she takes this one step further, leaving behind the frequently distressing realism that has characterised her work to write a series of ‘magical tales’.

The title story, for example, concerns the return to earth of Helen of Troy which, according to Petrushevskaya, happens once every thousand years. Fearing that “Helen’s rebirth was always followed by long, brutal wars, not to mention unpleasantries like the annihilation of entire nations” a wizard has crafted a magic mirror which renders any user invisible. Like a number of the stories, while it may not exactly be ‘feminist’, it certainly contains a commentary on the way women are viewed both in fiction and society. This begins when Helen, shortly after stepping from the sea like Aphrodite, decides that a prostitute she encounters is “the epitome of beauty,” going as far as using a piece of foil to replicate her gold tooth. The wizard, meanwhile, has planted the mirror at the market because:

“For a woman not to be drawn to a market was inconceivable.”

Naturally, he is correct, and Helen soon makes her way to the market where her beauty has every stall owner chasing after her – until, that is, she looks in the mirror:

“And instantly the golden light went out, and everyone lost interest in her.”

But, as Helen soon discovers, while “being beautiful wasn’t easy,”

“…being completely unnoticed was no picnic either.”

The story ends happily for Helen, who finds love without starting a war, just as it does for Nina, the protagonist of ‘Nose Girl’. Like Helen, Nina is very beautiful – apart from her large nose. She begs a wizard to rectify this, which he does at the price of her thumb. The way she is treated instantly changes, as evidenced on the train journey home:

“…she was offered a bottom bunk and gifted lemonade, bouquets of roses and several boxes of chocolates.”

But all she can think about is the young man she met on the train on her way to the wizard, so much so that she loses another digit asking the wizard to locate him, only to discover he is dying (and you will soon guess the price for saving his life…). Both Helen and Nina may be vain, but they are also resourceful and good hearted. The same is true of the (seventeen-year-old) queen in ‘The Prince with the Golden Hair’ who finds herself expelled from the palace because her son is born unexpectedly blonde. His hair is, of course, real gold, and also glows in the dark, qualities which, alongside her own quick wits, allow her to survive a series of adventures including a sea journey, a traveling circus, and a prison break.

The elderly Queen Lir (from the story of the same title) also undertakes, more voluntarily, a series of adventures. Here, more than ever, Petrushevskaya places her fairy tale characters in a contemporary setting, with cardboard pasta boxes, garbage trucks and walkie-talkies all mentioned on the opening pages. The Queen has no practical skills or knowledge having, for example, never cooked anything in her life, and asking at one point for “a phone that can make calls.” The comedy is, at times, slap stick, as when she decides to keep her clothes on when washing so they are washed too, and then proceeds to tip the wrong bucket (one she has been using as a toilet) over herself. Yet, although she is obviously the butt of the joke on this occasion, it feels as if Petrushevskaya admires her ability to survive against the odds – a trait that all her female characters share, including the sisters in ‘Nettle and Raspberry,’ who are rivals in love, and ‘Two Sisters’, who find themselves transformed from elderly women into children.

The final story, ‘The Story of an Artist’, initially feels a little out of place as it tells the tale of a penniless painter “so poor he couldn’t afford pencils or paper, let alone paint or brushes.” Here there is a genuine pathos to the poverty as the artist lives in “a small corner under the stairs” (a cupboard) having been swindled out of his apartment, and is harassed daily for the rent he owes for this tiny space. Petrushevskaya describes his existence with a detail that feels earned:

“The artist wandered the streets, resting on random stoops and retreating into stores for warmth…”

Here, too, though, an element of magic will come to his aid with echoes of the opening story as he discovers that what he paints immediately disappears.

The stories in The New Adventures of Helen are thoroughly entertaining, often funny, but still retain a vein of darkness (like all good fairy tales). While the contrast between her royal characters and the poverty of their subjects is generally used for comic effect it is also accusatory. Her heroines are far from paragons, but they are always admirable in their determination to survive and prosper. Above all, it is a treat to have more of her work available in English.

A Guardian Angel Recalls

February 10, 2022

Willem Frederik Hermans, one of the great Dutch writers of the 20th century, has remained stubbornly unknown in English, even when both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles were translated by Ina Rilke in 2006 and 2007 respectively. (Hermans may himself be partly to blame as, according to Michael Pye, “He was convinced translators betrayed him and he resisted being published outside the Netherlands in case his Dutch enemies laughed at the sales figures.”) Now, however, Pushkin Press, perhaps noting their success with Gerard Reve, have not only brought these two novels back into print, but issued new translations by David Colmer of An Untouched House (2018) and A Guardian Angel Recalls.

A Guardian Angel Recalls is the story of Dutch prosecutor Bert Alberegt in the days before and during the German invasion of the Netherlands. It is, indeed, told by his guardian angel:

“He had stopped believing in God and no longer knew me. Still, I had kept my eye on him all that time. His whole life. I was his guardian angel.”

The novel opens as he says goodbye to Sysy, a young woman he has fallen in love with, a Jewish German refugee who is leaving for America. He worries that he will never see her again, and that the relationship (he is thirty-eight, she is twenty-five) was simply one of necessity on her part:

“In her position, going to bed with her rescuer and doing everything he asked of her was nothing short of unavoidable.”

He even considers having her arrested on the ship so she can be returned to him, but as the guardian angel points out: “It was the voice of the devil that whispered.” This highlights the moral ambiguity of Alberegt’s character, which is, indeed, best exemplified as a dialectic between his ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ as he reasons his actions, though noticeably always in his own best interests. This will be seen even more forcibly in the crime which will haunt him throughout the novel: a young child he knocks down and kills as he returns from the docks when he drives the wrong way along a deserted country road. What should he do?

“There was nobody else in sight. Nowhere any indication or suspicion that someone might be watching him from some hidden vantage point.”

He throws the child’s body into the undergrowth – “like holding a puppy by the loose skin over its backbone” – and continues on his way. The accident is the most dramatic form (unless we count the war) of Hermans’ intention to demonstrate the randomness of life. Alberegt may feel he is purposeful in his choices but, like everyone else, those choices are influenced by events he has no control over -to the point that we question whether they are choices in any meaningful way. This perhaps explains the ‘angel’ and ‘devil’, a well-worn symbol of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ choices which Hermans steadily undermines.

Another clear example of the lottery of life in the novel is the discovery of the name R. Alberegt on a list of Dutch nationals the Gestapo intend to arrest on arrival in Holland. Could it be Alberegt’s brother, Rense, an abstract painter whose work is only of importance to himself? Or perhaps the ‘R’ is in fact a ‘B’ and Alberegt himself is in danger. Is this simply an excuse to get to England, or a valid reason? Is he motivated by the danger, his desire to reunite with Sysy, or his guilt?

Beyond Alberegt’s personal dilemmas, the novel also gives us a dramatic picture of the invasion of the Netherlands, which began on the 10th of May 1940 and ended four days later with the Dutch surrender. This is foreshadowed early in the novel as Alberegt asks himself:

“Who in the world believed that the Netherlands had even the slightest hope of holding firm if Germany really invaded?”

Later, in a bar, he overhears an airman say that the Dutch air force only have fourteen fully armed planes.

The invasion itself is portrayed at ground level, with competing stories of what is happening (and Alberegt always at a disadvantage due to his erratic car radio). Rumours of German paratroopers in Dutch uniforms, “traitors everywhere” leaflets promising ‘liberation’ – at one point Rense thinks that the water has been poisoned. Civilians are asked to say ‘Scheveningen’ to prove they are Dutch (as Germans can’t pronounce it). The rumours are punctuated by sudden acts of violence such as when Alberegt sees the courthouse bombed:

“It was the section with his own office. He had a clear view of his desk, chairs, and bookcases, like in a doll’s house with a hinged front you can swing open. And then he saw the floor of his office break off like a piece of biscuit.”

Meanwhile Alberegt vacillates between resignation and attempting to flee to England.

A Guardian Angel Recalls is as tense as a thriller, but it is a novel without heroes. Our sympathy for Alberegt is based, like that of his guardian angel, on proximity, and the increasing sense that his attempts to rationalise what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ only complicates his life. It is great war novel which, at the same time, transcends the war.

Wilder Winds

February 4, 2022

Wilder Winds, a collection of short stories from Catalan writer Bel OIid (translated by Laura McGloughlin), may be small but it is fierce. Although under a hundred pages, it contains sixteen forceful stories lined up like a series of fiery shots, intoxicating and unforgettable.

Memory is often at the heart if these stories, nowhere more evident than in ‘Anna, Anne, Anna’:

“There are memories that shine like a brand new coin on the pavement when touched by the midday sun and you, walking with your head bowed, looking at the ground, wake up suddenly, pick it up and feel you are very lucky.”

In this particular story the memory is of finding a book lying on the street as a child, a book that turns out to be The Diary of Anne Frank. Later the book disappears but the narrator, Anna, decides not to read it again when older and instead preserve the memory intact. Childhood memories are also at the heart of ‘Static’ as the narrator, returning home as an adult, remembers how she

“…used to sit with her younger brother Toni in front of the TV and watch the grey, white and black screen that meant it wasn’t tuned in to any channel.”

Despite a difficult relationship with her mother, when she arrives home “the white noise of happiness surrounds everything, even if only for a moment” – the memory gives her comfort. In ‘She’s a Woman’ a memory suggests the narrator’s awakening sexuality as she finds herself playing with the master’s daughter, Helena, while her aunt visits her dying mother in hospital. Helena leans over her – “her breath, so close, smelled of fruit” – and, confused, she retreats to the toilet, only to find Helena’s mother, naked, shaving her armpit. These experiences become interlinked in her mind, alongside her mother’s death, perhaps creating a fear of her own desire, as, at the story’s conclusion, she refuses an invitation to stay night with Helena and returns home with her aunt.

Compassion is also key to many of the stories. In ‘Anna, Anne. Anna’ the narrator tells us:

“I felt bad leaving her there, alone in that attic, not knowing what would become of her.”

This empathy is not unusual in Olid’s characters. In ‘Sea of Maimuna’, a visit to a refugee camp by Margie leaves her endlessly thinking, “I am here and they are there,” a statement which she particularly applies to the young girl of around the same age, Maimuna, whom she meets there. It is a feeling she only overcomes when she takes Maimuna to the sea in a story that, like ‘She’s a Woman’, is also about the awakening of desire:

“The water was dark and warm, like a cave, like a uterus, like the desire sharpening their fragile happiness.”

Action against injustice, such as Margie’s, is highlighted in other stories, some more overtly political. In ‘Baba Luba’, set in Ukraine, the title character lives a comfortable life as an old woman, “alone and contented, cradled in her daily routine.” But when she sees soldiers set upon protestors in Independence Square she becomes restless, eventually attending a protest herself armed with a mirror. This is soon copied buy other protestors, and, even though she knows “no one will know she was the first to carry the mirror that wanted to reflect humanity” she feels companionship. Other stories feature revolutions in Portugal and Lithuania, the latter told from the point of view of four characters: the mother of one of the protestors, one of the protestors themselves, a journalist at the occupied television studio, and a child at school.

Other stories are political in a different sense, as, for example, ‘Linda’, where a young woman “kills two men for some poisoned catcalls” (as a newspaper describes it). This is how the story opens, in Venezuela, with her friend asking her:

“Girl, why did you kill them? Their saying that they greeted you, maybe said something to you, nothing out of the ordinary.”

Her action inspires women in Spain and America to different acts of protest, but the story is unusual in feeling forced, a little too determined it make its point. Far more successful is ‘Invisible’ a two-page tale of a woman’s daily life, beginning at 5.40am. Only at the story’s end, slamming her hand against the train window “for a moment it’s as if I truly existed in that city where every day so many live without living.” The daily toll of work, physical and emotional, is also visited in ‘Three’ where the narrator, who works with children whose mothers are prisoners, tells us:

“If she could have avoided it, she wouldn’t even have learned their names.”

The story cleverly alternates between her children and the children in the unit, demonstrating how difficult it is to keep a distance.

This concern for the ordinary – ordinary people, ordinary jobs – gives the collection a cumulative power, as if its characters, for a moment “truly exist”. Yet, at the same time, Olid demonstrates a remarkable versatility, with stories set throughout Europe, with characters of all ages, and with one venturing into the far future. Don’t be deceived by the slenderness of the volume – this a writer of real breadth.