Archive for the ‘Lost Books’ Category

Lost Books – The Revolt

June 23, 2019

Nina Berberova’s The Revolt begins with the separation of two lovers – no doubt one of many separations which took place in Paris during September 1939. Einar has decide to return to his native, neutral Sweden as war breaks across Europe, leaving behind Russian émigré, Olga. The scene is described in some detail as she accompanies him to the Gare du Nord, the “night not black, rather a kind of green…”

“The entire city, and the sky up above, and the river, and the inside of the bus – everything was dark green, bottle green: our faces and the faces of the other passengers, and the Grand Palais, which we rumbled past, were all the same colour.”

The city itself seems to have physically changed, and later Olga wonders, “Was this not an underwater kingdom? Had we not drowned?” as the landscape embodies the change of state taking place in their relationship. The war itself is visible in the “crowd of recruits marching in the utter darkness,” their future, like Olga’s, now suddenly obscured. The scene is almost melodramatic were it not for Olga’s awareness (and, of course, Berberova’s too) of the potential clichés inherent in the scene she is experiencing:

“I pressed my face to the pane, the way they used to write in novels.”

The journey towards Einar’s departure is ironically interrupted with stories of promised trips together – to Stockholm, to Brazil, to Russia – an early indication of Einar’s unreliability. It is seven years before they see each other again; two letters she sends to him are returned marked ‘address unknown’. When she is eventually invited to Stockholm it is not by Einar, but by a publisher who wishes her to write a book about her uncle, Dmitrii Georgievich:

“It all came down to three questions: Is he alive? Will I ever see him again? Does he still love me?”

When she is finally reunited with Einar, however, it is to discover he is married:

“Einar’s wife was a blue-eyed giantess with light brown hair, big round cheeks that puffed out a little, bringing to mind a chubby angel or, if you prefer, an angel blowing a trumpet.”

Though she stays with Einar and his wife, Emma, for four days, Emma is careful that they are never left alone, something Olga finds harder to accept than the marriage:

“No, there was nothing to explain, and no point in belabouring the past, but maybe we could have spent a little time together?… In that moment, in powerless and bitter despair, I felt as if I were burning up with hatred, grief and outrage.”

She returns to Paris, but she will see Einar again when Emma invites her to holiday with them in Italy. “I felt like some sort of trap had been set for me,” she reflects, and certainly Emma’s intentions seem different as Einar and Olga are frequently left alone.

This is the third of Berberova’s novels I have read, and each of them deals with love, though all in a different manner, in a way that suggests a deep understanding both of her protagonists’ emotions and the dynamics of their lives. Here she cleverly begins by describing the novel’s final scene at the same time as its first:

“In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a ‘perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed…”

She also speaks of what she calls a person’s ‘no man’s land’:

“…a domain that is his and his alone. The life everyone sees is one thing; the other belongs to the individual, and it is none of anyone else’s business.”

This, she says, is where she and Einar met, suggesting the closeness of their relationship, but, at the same time, this does not make love more important. As she says in the novel’s final pages, in reference to Dmitrii Georgievich’s fate:

“…if you allow anyone to arrange your no man’s land, then in the end, reasoning logically, it will reach the point where they put you in a luxurious suite of a luxurious hotel and burn your books and drive away everyone you ever loved.”

The Revolt has been recently review by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings who described it as “a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind”, and by Max at Pechorin’s Journal who ended his review by saying “very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.” Hopefully this revival of interest in Berberova’s work will attract the attention of publishers as she deserves to be both back in print and more widely known.

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Lost Books – Hospital of the Transfiguration

June 16, 2019

Hospital of the Transfiguration was Stanislaw Lem’s first novel, written in 1948 but only later published in his native Poland. Its English translation, by William Brand, did not appear until 1988. Though Lem is best known as a writer of science fiction, Hospital of the Transfiguration is set in Poland shortly after the German invasion of 1939. Lem signposts this immediately when its central character, Stefan, arrives at Nieczawy for a family funeral to discovers a memorial to Poland’s ‘Sons’, “Faithful to Her Until the Hour of Their Death” with a September 1939 date. He thinks of this again later when the family gather for a meal after the burial:

“The memory was triggered because unanimity in the family was rare, usually forthcoming only after funerals, and although nobody had died last Christmas, the intensity of shared sorrow had been similar – the occasion was the burial of the fatherland.”

This is perhaps one reason why, when he meets Staszek, whom he knows from their time in medical school together, he gives some consideration to the idea that he might join him on the staff of the asylum where he works:

“It’s like being outside the Occupation, in fact it’s even like being outside the world!”

It is the fact he is unable to board the overflowing train back home, however, which finally makes up his mind to join Staszek on his “tiny island in a really weird sea.”

Much of the novel goes on to describe life in the asylum. Stefan, unsurprisingly, finds this unsettling at first, especially when he is initially placed on the women’s wing. Lem is particularly good at illustrating the erratic behaviour of the inhabitants which Stefan finds difficult to interpret:

“The naked woman inside was throwing her body against the padded walls as if it were a sack. Her eyes met Stefan’s and she froze. For an instant she was a normal human being. “

“The nurses,” according to Staszek, “are completely unqualified, so they are a little callous, a little brutal. In fact, they do some pretty rotten things.” The staff too – as is traditional in any novel set in an asylum – have their own versions of ‘normal’, and there are also complex internal politics at play:

“Webs of intrigue were spread throughout the hospital, discreetly awaiting any newcomer’s first misstep.”

Lem was, of course, a doctor (though he did not, to my knowledge, work in an asylum) and the hospital scenes are vivid to the point of grotesque, particularly one of an operation to remove a brain tumour:

“He was drawing a needle across the cortex. The brain was deeply open and there was more and more necrotic mass, fusing with the spirals and convolutions. Stefan looked at the wound, which gaped like an open mouth.”

For conversation, Stefan is increasingly drawn to Sekulowski, an inmate who suffers from literature rather than madness. It seems highly likely that Sekulowski is, to some, extent, a mouthpiece for Lem, producing a series of wonderful aphorisms regarding writing, for example:

“The only writers who have any peace of mind are the ones who don’t write.”

And:

“For the reader it is an attempt at escape. For the creator, an attempt at redemption.”

The Occupation is not entirely forgotten as Stefan befriends a couple of workers at a nearby power station who are rumoured to be hiding weapons. One in particular, Woch, he fails to warn when he fears he may be in danger, and we have an early indication of the threat the Germans pose:

“He figured he had the German all wrapped up, but the German is a fox, too, and came at night and took him away like a chicken.”

Eventually the Germans (with Ukrainian troops) come to the asylum with their own solution to the psychological problems of the patients:

“Every nation is like an organism. Sometimes the body’s sick cells need to be excised.”

The moral problem this creates for the doctors might remind us that Stefan was earlier reading Lord Jim.

Hospital of the Transfiguration is, of course, an interesting curio for Lem’s admirers (at one point, for example, Sekulowski tells Stefan, “I’ve been dreaming of writing the history of the world from the point of view of another planetary system”) but it also an accomplished novel in itself. It demonstrates our powerlessness in the face of insanity, both inside and outside the asylum; in that sense it is as relevant as ever.

Lost Books – Positions

June 4, 2019

Although The Years did not win the Man Booker International Prize, its short-listing is one example of the rapturous response which Ernaux’s work has recently received in the UK, a reception which has already seen her begin to return to print. Though the scope of The Years is very different to what she has written before, the method is not entirely new, and something she touches on in Positions when she decides to write about her father’s life:

“If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something ‘moving’ or ‘gripping’.”

Positions, translated by Tanya Leslie, was published by Quartet Books in 1991, its title varying from the same translation in the US where A Man’s Place was chosen to convey the French original, La Place. The variation is interesting as, whereas the American publishers placed the focus on gender (and perhaps also as a counterpoint to A Woman’s Story), in the UK the emphasis is on class (presumably the French title conveys both). The word appears only once (meaning social class) in reference to the customers of her father’s café:

“It was a café of regulars, habitual drinkers who dropped in before or after work, whose place was sacred: gangs from the building site, as well as a few customers whose position meant they could have chosen a less proletarian establishment.”

Social class is, however, at the book’s heart. It begins as Ernaux qualifies as a teacher, perhaps the point at which she feels her class has irrevocably changed. When her father dies shortly after, even the funeral is described in terms of class:

“In distinguished society grief at the loss of a loved one is expressed by tears, silence and dignity. The social conventions observed by my mother, and for that matter the rest of the neighbourhood, had nothing to do with dignity.”

Unlike Edouard Louis, who escaped his poverty in one bound, Ernaux’s parents’ act, to some extent, as bridge between their working-class origins and her middle class existence. From working-class origins they rise to run their own business, a shop and café, leaving her father “both worker and shop keeper.” This leaves them to some extent alienated from both the class they have left and the class they have not yet entered:

“Behind their backs, they were referred to as the rich, which was the worst possible insult.”

It also leaves them with a fear of returning to poverty, “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty.” Her father’s greatest fear, however, is of embarrassment:

“He was always afraid of being ashamed or out of place.”

Ernaux reports, “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.’” One area of possible ‘shame’ is language:

“My father saw patois as something old and ugly, a sign of inferiority. He was proud to have stopped using certain idioms.”

This was something I immediately recognised from my own childhood, where the language my father used at work was different to the one my mother taught us to speak at home (and then was surprised later when there were words or expressions I didn’t know which she knew from her own parents). Ernaux goes as far as to say “anything to do with language was a source of resentment, far more than the subject of money.” It’s an important reminder that class is not simply a matter of income but a more subtle sense of confidence and agency – one reason why, on meeting Ernaux’s future husband, “all they asked from the boy was that he had good manners.” Ernaux understands the difficulty of escaping from the class one is born into:

“Now I often say ‘we’ because I shared his way of thinking for a long time and I can’t remember when I stopped doing so.”

Again, I recognise the difficulty (which she, as a successful writer has managed much better than I) as I still don’t entirely feel I belong in middle class settings (such as, ironically, book festivals). She also admits to the difficulty class creates in writing about her past:

“As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a lifestyle generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it… I am constantly wavering between the two.”

It is Ernaux’s ability to analyse her own responses, as well as penetrate the thoughts and motivations of the characters she writes about, that make her such a rewarding writer, somehow both subjective and objective, both emotional and analytical, at the same time – exactly those qualities which made The Years such a success.

Lost Books – Emily L

June 1, 2019

How good a writer was Marguerite Duras? Certainly good enough to have most of her work translated into English, but, twenty-three years after her death, very little of that remains in print, with only The Lover apparently impervious to fashion. Of course, she wrote so much and for so long, mainly novellas, slight and intense, and, I suspect, repetitive. There is perhaps a clue to her process, and therefore her legacy, at the end of Emily L, a late novel from 1987 which was quickly translated by Barbara Bray:

“…one ought to write without making corrections, not necessarily at full tilt, no, but at one’s own pace and in accordance with what one is experiencing at the time; one ought to eject what one writes, manhandle it almost, yes, treat it roughly, not try to trim profusion but let it be part of the whole, and not tone down anything either, whether its speed or its slowness, just leave everything as it is when it appears.”

That the novel ends at this point reminds us that it is as much about writing as anything else. Its narrator, we assume, is Duras herself, sitting with her lover (addressed as ‘you’ throughout) in a bar overlooking the Seine. “One day,” he tells her, “it’ll all be in a book – the square, the heat, the river,” and she acknowledges:

“I was going to write the story of the affair we’d had together, the one that was still there and taking forever to die.”

Instead they watch another couple in the bar, an English couple (much of their dialogue is in English in the original) who have arrived by boat. He is quickly designated the Captain, and she, later, Emily L. The narrator observes that their relationship, too, is coming to an end:

“It was clear it was all over, and at the same time she was still there.”

This idea becoming conflated with another ending, death:

“And they’re at the end of the last voyage, the end of life.”

Emily, in particular, is seen as a living momento mori:

“Her body, hidden before, is now visible. Visible in its mortality. Her body is dressed like a girl’s, in the worn-out clothes of youth; on her fingers the diamonds and gold of her people in Devon. But under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…”

Already the narrator is reading her story into what she sees and, as the novel progresses, she will create Emily’s narrative from her observation, which will also be her own story, having decided “to write it all directly – no, that’s all over, I couldn’t do it now.” Emily, too, we are told, was once a writer, writing poetry – an act which the Captain finds unbearable:

“The Captain suffered. Suffered tortures. As if she’d betrayed him, as if she’d led another life at the same time as the one he thought she’d been living in the apartment over the boathouse. A life that was secret, hidden, incomprehensible, perhaps even shameful, and more painful to him than if she’d been unfaithful to him with her body.”

It is the first poem she begins writing after she has lost a child which the Captain destroys; when she cannot find her unfinished work she does not write again. It is at this point that they begin to travel: “All other uses for their love were rejected.”

This ends the first part of Emily’s story, but the narrator begins it again, introducing the character of the caretaker of Emily’s family home for whom Emily has an unfulfilled longing, something the narrator’s lover immediately connects to her:

“…you wanted to have one absolute perfect love, and at the same time to have another, to help out.”

The divergence in their lives is that the narrator has continued to write, an activity which allows her some control:

“…when it takes possession of your whole life long… It’s as if it protected you from some kind of fear.”

In contrast she wonders whether Emily “every evening of every day…with the languishing gentleness, the incredible tact of the English, she’d asked to be allowed to die.” The narrator’s own fear is referenced in the novel’s opening line – “It began with the fear” – and strangely represented by a group of Koreans.

In the retelling it seems very much as if one character (the narrator) is telling the story of another character (Emily), but the novel is far more subtle than this, with the stories bleeding into each other, not only in their parallels but in their telling, and, of course, Emily existing in the world of the narrator. This makes for an enigmatic narrative (sometimes too enigmatic: “They were so alone in the world, they’d forgotten what solitude was”) which focuses on seeing (“We must have looked at them first without seeing them, and then all of a sudden have seen them”) with the suspicion that in looking too closely we see only ourselves, or, closer still, “under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…” A novel of so many surfaces we can no longer tell the depth.

Lost Books – The Lie

April 22, 2019

Writing in the Guardian of his admiration for the now largely neglected (in the UK at least) Italian writer Alberto Moravia in 2011 (“It’s hard to think of a writer who has been more perceptive about the disappointments of conventional sex and marriage”), John Burnside describes his first encounter with Moravia’s work – a lurid 1970s Panther edition of The Lie, originally written in 1965 and translated by Angus Davidson a year later. Sadly, The Lie does not seem to have been reprinted since, and so it was the very same edition that I read when I discovered that 1965 was the chosen year for Karen and Simon’s biannual book club.

Though the novel’s title is singular, it applies in numerous ways, beginning, perhaps, with the lie on which the narrator, Francesco, bases his marriage to a working-class woman, Cora, believing that her origins make her more ‘genuine’:

“…a myth had taken shape in my mind, the myth of the working-class as the sole depository of all that was genuine in the world.”

He marries Cora when she is reluctant to move in with him, becoming step-father to her young daughter, Baba. After a few years together, however, he finds his feelings for Cora have changed:

“Not merely did I no longer desire Cora, not merely did I no longer find anything attractive or significant in those working-class characteristics which had made me fall in love with her; but I also felt an unreasoning aversion which expressed itself mainly in an uncontrollable, acutely painful, spasmodic uncommunicativeness.”

He withdraws from Cora and Baba’s life completely, aided by his work as a journalist which requires he visit other countries for months at a time, “living in my own home like a stranger who rents a room.” It is only a number of years later, as the novel proper begins (what has happened previously is told in a Prologue) that he decides to “go from non-involvement to involvement” again after receiving a letter which claims that Cora is a procuress. He initially confronts Baba, now twenty-two, with this allegation, who not only confirms it is true but goes on to tell him that her mother attempted to prostitute her when she was fourteen. She is able to tell him the story as she feels as if it happened to a different person:

“The Baba of fourteen years who was led by the hand by Cora to her house was a different Baba from the one who, let us suppose, sat her school-leaving certificate two years ago.”

At the end of this conversation Baba makes Francesco promise that they will live as a family again – not only will he act as father to her but as a husband to Cora:

“I mean that during meals you’ll talk to her naturally and kindly, and that, apart from meals, you won’t avoid her and you’ll show yourself affectionate.”

Much of the novel is concerned with Francesco’s investigation into Cora’s other life, and, in particular, the events surrounding Baba when she was fourteen. He is suited to this role as his conversation generally consists of a relentless series of questions – perhaps as a result of his background as a journalist. However, he is also to some extent investigating his own past, and what he knew about Cora when he married her. Moravia is sometimes regarded as out-dated because of the attitudes of his male characters to women, but it is clear that Francesco cannot simply be read as a mouthpiece for Moravia as, though he is (sometimes pompously) reflective, he also lacks self-knowledge.

The novel is also driven by the tension of Francesco’s attraction to Baba, an attraction which both is and is not incestuous. Francesco is aware that his desire is partly created by his role as father-figure, and this is what makes it unreliable:

“…at the very source of your feelings for Baba, and of the physical relationship you might have with her, there is nothing frank or genuine, but something unreal, false, non-genuine in fact, and that is the idea of paternity. This idea is an illusion, but you have need of it in order to love Baba…”

It is such forensic examinations of sex and sexuality which make Moravia both an unfashionable and interesting writer. We can also see here that Francesco and Baba create a lie with their relationship, of which they can only afford to be half-aware.

Lying is also tackled in the form of the novel itself, which is presented as a diary which “has been kept that it may afterwards be used for creating a novel.” We learn that Francesco wrote a previous novel which he destroyed because if its “unmistakeable air of falseness, of unreality, of artificiality.” The diary is intended to allow Francesco to write from reality, though it also influences his behaviour: at one point, referring to his attraction to Baba, he says:

“The temptation is strong, almost irresistible, but each time I manage to control myself in this way: I think of my diary.”

Yet at the same time Moravia makes it clear we cannot trust the diary as Francesco admits on more than one occasion to inventing passages, firstly when he claims to find a copy of Oedipus Rex by his bedside after speaking to Baba on the night he read the letter:

“It’s not true, in fact, that when I woke up suddenly during the night after my conversation with Baba I found Oedipus Rex in a popular translation on my bedside table, opened it haphazardly and lit upon some lines that seemed to me to be adapted to my situation.”

Later he will create entire scenes for the diary, including a seduction of Baba. Though these are admitted to, it is clear that the diary cannot be regarded as truth:

“So, in some cases, I amputate or disguise or actually supress; in others, I develop, I dilate, I reconstruct…”

The Lie is not Moravia’s best novel, but, driven by both Francesco and Moravia’s compulsion, it is an intense, compelling affair deserving of rediscovery. As John Burnside lamented eight years ago:

“Moravia is neglected nowadays, which is a great pity, for this rare combination of moral purpose and artistic integrity once placed him among Europe’s finest writers.”

Though there have been some US publication of his work, most recently by New York Review of Books Classics imprint, his last UK publication seems to have been in 1993, and he is long overdue a revival.

Lost Books – The Accompanist

February 15, 2019

I first discovered Nina Berberova’s work a year ago when I read The Book of Happiness which told the story of a young woman, Vera, who lived through the Russian Revolution before eventually leaving Russia for France – a story not unlike Berberova’s own (though hers eventually ended in the USA where she arrived in 1950 with very little money and, within ten years, was professor of Russian Literature at Yale). While New Directions have been her main publisher in English, I recently came across a UK paperback (the now extinct Flamingo imprint) of her short novel, The Accompanist, translated by Marian Schwartz in 1987, though originally written in 1936.

The Accompanist is an intense novel, not simply by nature of its brevity, but as a result of the relationship it describes between the singer, Maria Travina, and the young accompanist of the title, Sonechka. Taking the form of Sonechka’s diary, it is presented as having been sold to a friend of the author by a junk dealer, an early comment on Sonechka’s sense that she has been side-lined by life. The difficulties of Sonechka’s life begin even before she is born as her mother, a music teacher, falls pregnant to one of her students and must leave in order to have the child:

“I realised that my mama was my disgrace, just as I was hers. And our whole life was one irreparable shame.”

Despite their difficulties (her mother loses most of her students when it is discovered she has an illegitimate child), Sonechka is able to train as a pianist at the Conservatory and is offered the position of accompanist to Maria Travina, a famous singer, at eighteen years old. The year is 1919 and work is scarce; Sunechka and her mother are living in poverty:

“My boots were made from a rug, my dress from a tablecloth, my winter cloak from mama’s cloak, my hat from some gold-embroidered sofa cushions.”

Sonechka can now define her feelings of inferiority with reference to Maria and her “wild, inaccessible perfection”:

“She is ten years older than I and of course does not hide the fact, because she is beautiful and I am not. She is tall and has a relaxed, strong, healthy body. I’m small, tense, sickly looking… She has smooth black hair, tied in a knot at her nape; my hair is fair and lifeless…”

This infatuation develops in her a need to balance their relationship by requiring Maria to be indebted to her, for example for keeping a secret. When a man calls on Maria she feels she has a chance to demonstrate her loyalty and is disappointed when Mara tells her husband.

“I have to earn her trust… I have to earn it, so that later, when the time comes, out of the blue, I can shield her from some misfortune, rescue her suddenly, serve her so slavishly that she doesn’t even know it’s me.”

Sonechka is hampered by her sense inferiority, unable, for example, to make anything of the more sophisticated company she now keeps:

“The majority of them I knew, but it seemed impolite of me to talk with them, and anyway I had nothing to say.”

Over time her admiration of Maria becomes a determination to discover an imperfection:

“But right now I dreamed of only one thing – finding that strong woman’s weak spot, finding a chink for when remaining her shadow became unbearable – and then dealing with her life.”

When Maria tells her to give up her boyfriend as “he’s very silly”, we sense the bitterness in her thought that “compared to her, all people were pitiful and silly.” Still, she does not see him again, even though they had plans for marriage, placing Maria’s life before her own once more as they go abroad:

“Suddenly I realised that my romance with him was a digression from the main plot line I had picked up back in Petersburg.”

She does, of course, eventually discover Maria’s weakness, which is, just as expectedly, a man she is seeing in Paris behind her husband’s back, a long term love affair which dates back to a letter Maria asked Sonechka to post shortly after they met. Sonechka comes to resent Maria’s ability to hide her emotional turmoil:

“Perhaps if during those weeks Maria Nikolaevna had changed, body and soul, had suffered – so that everybody could tell, including me – if she had fallen ill or lost her voice – I don’t know, maybe then I would have been satisfied.”

The only question which remains is whether Sonechka will step out from the wings to direct the novel’s tragic conclusion, or stay in the shadows, the replaceable accompanist, forever.

The Accompanist is a sharp, sad novel which views fame from the side-lines. Maria is never cruel to Sonechka but does take her inferiority, her unimportance, for granted. Post-revolution Russia is not the dramatic background it was in The Book of Happiness, in keeping with Maria’s position centre stage, but it makes the occasional unheralded appearance with references to her husband’s friends (“some had been executed; others were in prison; most had fled”) and their journey out of Russia (”fated to pick lice of ourselves, to be robbed down to our last kopek”). In both Maria and (perhaps ironically) Sonechka, Berberova creates memorable characters who both win the reader’s’ sympathy. As I said last year, it feels like time for this writer to be rediscovered.

Lost Books – Sacred Cow

August 5, 2018

One writer inevitably leads to another, and when Cristina Rivera Garza was asked what authors she might recommend to readers looking to explore Latin American literature by women, her immediate response was: “Luisa Valenzuela and Diamela Eltit continue to be a must.” Valenzula was known to me but Eltit, from Chile, was not, and a few days later I had acquired a copy of Sacred Cow, written in 1991 and translated by Amanda Hopkinson in 1995 for Serpent’s Tail (one of only four, I think, of her books available in English).

Sacred Cow is a brief, intense novel in keeping with Eltit’s declaration that, “I believe I function in a certain dramatic register, though in truth I have a great tendency and vocation for irony.” Largely written in the first person, it tells of the narrator’s relationship with two men, Manuel and Sergio. Though initially she feels little desire – “I wasn’t too bothered about sex, which seemed to me little more than an excessive if gratifying ritual” – an encounter with Manuel’s estranged wife which leads her to confess details of her previous relationship with Sergio, seems to ignite their passion:

“On heat, overheated, nothing could restrain us.”

The relationship (though not the narrator’s longing) ends when Manuel returns to his home in the South; rumours reach her that he has been detained. (Eltit remained in Chile throughout the Pinochet dictatorship, which only ended in 1990). It is then she renews her relationship with Sergio:

“I forced myself to feel continually seduced since I had to cling to something in order to efface the unleashed perversity of those times.”

Desire, which is a constant theme, is seen as an escape. Sergio’s own back story is one of desire for the teenage Francisca, whom he wants from the first moment he sees her. It is desire rather than fulfilment which is his focus as he spends a year without talking to her:

“After a year of observing her, of possessing her in every way he could imagined, he finally seemed to be moving towards the reality of speech.”

Of their present relationship, the narrator says:

“Sergio was seeking in me an image that he’d held in his head since he was more or less a child… the forgotten Francisca.”

This revelation is further complicated by the fact that the narrator may be Francisca. Her first appearance in the novel – presumably in the present – is lying in bed with her face beaten: notably the narrative moves from first to third person for this chapter. The story of her relationship with Sergio is interrupted with sections of direct speech – Francisca and an older relative – and first person asides (in brackets) describing looking after someone who is ill. Could this be what the narrator later refers to as “the time when my grandmother was dying”?

Sacred Cow, then, is a complex novel to interpret. Though largely eschewing politics, we are at one point faced with the idea that the narrator is participating in some kind of protest:

“There was a crowd of women drawing up the basis of a new constitution. Their thighs were tattooed with symbolic devices. My tattoo burned into the flesh of my thigh. At this fiesta I was initiated as a worker, rejecting the slurs and the bribes they offered me to break the forthcoming strike.”

Later, when she says, “there’s something slippery in me which that stops me taking the workers’ side” it suggests her personal desires overwhelm her political convictions. The tattoos demonstrate Eltit’s powerful use of imagery: the two most common here are blood and birds. Images rather than symbols, their use is difficult to pin down, though blood generally relates to desire and femininity, and birds frequently suggests something ominous – though at one point she says, “the image of my blood became a huge flock of birds,” no doubt to keep the reader guessing.

Sacred Cow is certainly not for the casual reader. Containing many powerful moments it is difficult to draw anything certain from it. Its refusal to be obvious, though, is perhaps its most admirable quality, and one which, in times of dictatorship, can be seen as a political act in itself.

Lost Books – The Book of Happiness

February 9, 2018

Nina Berberova was a Russian émigré author who began writing in the 1920s but was not widely translated into English until fifty years later, largely thanks to US publishers New Directions. She was born in St Petersburg in 1901, leaving for first Berlin and then Paris in 1922. Twenty-five years later she immigrated to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1959 and living and working there until her death in 1993. The Book of Happiness, her most autobiographical novel, was translated by Marian Schwarz in 1999 though it may have been written as early as the 1930s.

The novel tells the story of Vera, from her childhood in the years prior to the First World War, through the Russian Revolution, and into French exile. Divided into three parts, each part focuses on a man she has loved. It opens with the death of the first of these, her childhood sweetheart, Sam, who kills himself in a Paris hotel room leaving only her address:

“She stood over him and strained to recognise in this much too dead face those lively features that had lived on in her memories before she crossed the threshold of this room. It was like trying to lay a negative over a printed photograph so that they coincided, so that there were no gaps – and she just couldn’t manage it.”

At this point she is living in Paris with her husband, Alexander, but the narrative returns with her memories to her first meeting with Sam as a child when she finds him lost in a park in St Petersburg. When it is discovered the two children live on the same street they become inseparable, despite her father’s warning:

“Yes, but he’s going to grow up and marry a Jewess, or do something with his violin, and you’re going to run off with some dashing young man, some prince of the blood. Nothing will remain of this love but dust, dust.”

Sam leaves Russia in the aftermath of the revolution and soon after Vera meets Alexander. Even as he meets her for the first time he tells her:

“I thought all week…that if someone could be loved in this horrible repulsive world, full of malice and filth, then it had to be you.”

Alexander is a character who might have walked out of the pages of Turgenev – sickly (his lungs), world-weary, and (as Vera puts it) “full of a kind of vain nobility that was no longer of any use to anyone.” He tells Vera:

“You know, I would never kill myself, but if someone were to kill me…”

When he gets permission to leave Russia for France he asks Vera to go with him as his wife. Though she does not love him with the childish whole-heartedness she felt for Sam, she also feels their relationship is inevitable:

“The thought kept pounding in her head that nothing had been decided, that it could all be fixed, it could all be redone because no promises had been made. She knew that this was a temptation and a lie because everything had been decided, and there was nothing to fix, and she had given a promise firmer than ‘I do’.”

By the time Sam commits suicide, Alexander is dying from consumption, a slow decline which has been taking years and has left him bedridden for months. When he finally dies, Vera feels relief:

“There was no doubt about it: She was free.”

Alexander’s death allows her to fall in love again in the novel’s final part. This may seem a risky enterprise given her previous experience (particularly for the man, Karelov) but it would be wrong to assume that the novel’s title is ironic. Despite the difficult circumstances of Vera’s life, happiness is far from absent. When she realises that Sam will not immediately disappear from her life when his parents are found, for example:

“…as soon as she felt they were together she was amazed at the rush of joyous assurance that all would be just as she had dreamed… And in her heart she called all this happiness, because it lasted.”

Can happiness last? the novel asks. When a sparrow flies into Vera’s room, and then out again she realises:

“…it would never come back again, she could not even tell it apart from the other sparrows like it… that you couldn’t know everything there was to know in life, have everything, love everyone, or enjoy everything.”

Later Dashkovsky, a man who had loved her mother, visits her. He tells her that, as you get older “All you want is one thing: stability, assurance that the happiness that you are with me today will be the same happiness for me tomorrow and the day after.” Her relationship with Karelov begins with his declaration, “I want to be happy.”

The Book of Happiness not only evokes the lost Russia which opened the twentieth century and the émigré life which followed for many, but portrays, with an eye for honest detail, the development of a young woman, and her discovery of love and happiness, in a manner which still resonates today. If Penguin Classics (or anyone else) are looking for a deserving author to return to print, they need look no further.

Lost Books – All the World’s Mornings

December 20, 2017

Perhaps ironically for a novel about a reclusive artist, All the World’s Mornings is probably Pascal Quignard’s most famous book, adapted, as it was, into as film the same year it was published, and quickly translated into English by James Kirkup in the days when a French film could engender a paperback release with a still on the cover. This is my first experience of Quignard but, judging from the titles of his other novels (Sex and Terror, anyone?) it seems typical in that it fearlessly broaches grand themes such as love, death and art without blinking.

The novel is set in seventeenth century France and based on the life of a historical figure, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a musician who is credited with adding a seventh string to the viola. (The English version comes with a series of historical foot-notes, with no indication they are not in the original). The novel begins with the death of Saint Colombe’s wife, a loss he never recovers from:

“Three years after her death, her image was still before him. After five years, her voice was still whispering in his ears.”

(His wife will return to him throughout the novel, a ghost or a memory). After her death he cuts himself off from the world, teaching his two daughters, Madeleine and Toinette, (and the occasional pupil) the viol:

“Year after year he laboured at the viol and became an acknowledged master. In the two years following his wife’s passing he worked up to fifteen hours a day.”

He has a hut built in the grounds of his house so that he can play isolated and undisturbed. When he is invited to play for the king he refuses, saying that “his palace is no place for a wild man of the woods.” (Caignet, sent to request his presence, becomes the first of many to listen secretly as he plays in his hut). When asked again, we glimpse his ferocious temper as he smashes a chair while declaring to the abbe Mathieu:

“Your palace is smaller than any hut, and your public is less than nobody.”

The purpose of music, and therefore art in general, is foregrounded again with the arrival of another visitor, Marin Marais, a young man who wishes to become a pupil of Sainte Colombe. Sainte Colombe listens to him play but initially declines to teach him:

“You are just making music, Monsieur. You are not a musician.”

When he does agree to take him on as a pupil he says it is because his “broken voice moved me” (as a child Marais had sung in the King’s choir). It’s not long, however, before their relationship breaks down, Sainte Colombe, in what is clearly something of a habit, smashing Marais’ viol against the stone fireplace when he hears he has played for the king:

“Monsieur, what is an instrument? An instrument is not music. You have there in that purse enough to buy yourself a circus horse to pirouette before the king.”

The story has plenty of drama – on the same day Marais leaves he begins a relationship with Madeleine which he must now pursue in secret, just as he continues to listen to Sainte Colombe’s music in secret beneath his hut. Yet, for all the passion which will be unleashed, the novel remains, at heart, the story of Marais’ relationship with music. Quignard has done something remarkable in creating a historical novel with pace and plot enough for the big screen while at the same time providing a profound meditation on art. The novel’s short chapters and formal style add to the sense of reflection.

All the World’s Mornings is a short, powerful novel which you are unlikely to leave without being provoked into consideration of artistic creation. Sainte Colombe, and presumably Quignard, a vocation of almost religious proportions:

“When I draw my bow across the strings, it is a little bit of my living heart I am tearing out. What I do is nothing but the discipline of a life in which there is never a day off. I am fulfilling my destiny.”

Quignard has been widely translated recently (with particular thanks to Seagull Books), but All the World’s Mornings is currently out of print, a situation which an enterprising publisher should rectify as a matter of urgency.

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

In recent years, Carmen Boullosa has become one of the most regularly translated of women writers, her third novel from Deep Vellum due to be published this month. For her first appearance in English, however, we must go back to 1994 when Amanda Hopkinson translated her novel of the previous year, The Miracle-Worker. The novel tells the story a healer, Milagrosa, who falls in love with the detective sent to discredit her – part of a plot for the presidency which soon endangers both their lives. That this sounds like a thriller is only one of a number of postmodern tricks the novel uses to entertain the reader – its plot unfolds far from conventionally, and reaches no neat conclusions.

The Miracle-Worker is introduced to the reader as a bundle of papers and an audio-tape found clutched in the hands of a dead man. (Though nothing is certain, we assume this is the body of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez). This makes even their order uncertain, as an editor (also unknown) informs the reader:

“I have ordered them into what appears, to the best of my judgement, to be the most easily comprehensible sequence.”

The novel begins in the words of the miracle-worker, Milagrosa. Her gift, she feels, depends on her isolation:

“The terror of losing the gift I have repels me from even the notion of physical closeness.”

She discusses some of the difficulties of meeting her supplicants’ wishes. When a woman asks her to heal her brain-damaged son, to whom she has dedicated her life, Milgrosa can “foresee her loneliness and abandonment as soon as the boy acquired a normal intelligence.” There is also an amusing story of a man who wants his much younger lover to see him as a younger man (fifty instead of seventy); then his lover comes to beg that he see her as older to bridge the remaining gap (fifty instead of thirty). Of course, he leaves her. Most of the requests, however (a number of which are reproduced in the novel’s next section) only serve to remind us how difficult life is.

From there we move on to a transcript of the tape-recording of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez. He explains that he’s been hired by the Industrial Textile Workers’ Union: “the Union ordered me to pursue the Milagrosa, with a specific mission to destroy her.” The reason is only vaguely suggested later:

“They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa.”

Of course, this may mean much more to a Mexican reader, but I suspect Boullosa has no intention of writing a political thriller. The lack of exposition lends terror to the rising death count as Aurelio and Milagrosa go on the run. Aurelio’s endangerment is established early on when he is recognised as “the shit of a strike-breaker” (again never fully explained) and beaten. At this point he has already fallen for Milagrosa, and when she rescues and heals him their relationship blossoms. Soon she rejects her role as healer, reverting to her own name, E, and planning to escape the country with Aurelio.

Things are further confused when we discover the elderly man who dumped his young lover, Felipe Morales, is now running for President. Aurelio witnessed him returning to Milagrosa to ask that his wife respect and admire him again: “That fool Morales…He took advantage of me.” This, somehow, has given him the confidence needed to win the election. Aurelio begs Milagrosa to use her power to stop him:

“Please destroy Morales… I’m pleading with you. For the sake of our love, for dignity and justice.”

It is perhaps possible to read The Miracle-Worker as a political satire, but Boullosa’s primary intention seems to be to impress a sense of Mexico, in flashes, on our flinching retinas, a madcap mixture of religion, passion, corruption and violence with no obvious resolution. The novel can sometimes feel like a chase scene, with unexpected corners and no clear end point, but there’s a breathlessness to it that’s worth pursuing.