Archive for the ‘Lost Books’ Category

Lost Books – Forever Valley

February 21, 2023

I first encountered French writer Marie Redonnet when I was compiling a long list for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 and, although her novel Nevermore was not technically eligible having been published in the US, I included her as I was finding UK publishing not entirely welcoming to women in translation that year. Forever Valley is an earlier book (originally published in 1987) but similarly translated by Jordan Stump in the mid-nineties. The story is in many ways a simple one: a sixteen-year-old girl -perhaps an orphan – brought up by a priest in the shadow of a ruined church begins work in a dancehall where sleeping with the customers is part of her job description; at the same time, she begins a ‘personal project’ to dig for the dead in the rectory garden. As Redonnet explains in an interview, included in the book, the story is, for her, something that evolves from the writing:

“It is after all the writing (what you call the stye) that contains the fiction, it is the writing that creates meaning. When I am not engaged in the process of writing I know nothing of the story I am going to write, and when I have begun to write, I know nothing of what will follow.”

This gives her writing a dream-like quality which makes events seem both unexpected and inevitable. Like Kafka, her stories feel like fables to which the idea of a ‘moral’ is entirely foreign.

The ironically named Forever Valley and its ruined church has been reduced over time from a village to a hamlet and is now reliant on the valley below. The father (as he is referred to by our sixteen-year-old narrator) is “much too old to move to another parish.” The narrator has never been taught how to read, and is ignorant about life and even her own origins:

“The father must have raised me so I can look after him in his old age… Now that his legs are becoming paralysed, he would have to leave the rectory and go to the home if I were not here.”

When she turns sixteen, the father turns her education over to Massi, the only other inhabitant of the valley, once the wife of its mayor, now a widow with a dancehall, which relies on the custom of the herdsmen and the customs officers from the valley below. The narrator is given a low-cut dress and high heels:

“She said then father raised me well and I am just right for the customs officers.”

While Massi hires milkmaids to dance with the herdsmen, she regards the custom officers as superior and requiring a more refined woman – up to now she has dealt with them herself. She teaches the narrator to dance but also instructs her “what I will have to do when I go up to my room with one of the custom officers.” As she is behind is her ‘development’ the custom officers won’t have to take precautions – whether Redonnet’s intention is simply to emphasise her innocence or to suggest that she is not, in fact, sixteen is unclear. What is certain is that it plays a part in the novel’s portrayal of a patriarchal society where even the independent Massi is in thrall to the chief customs officer. At the heart of this is the father who, even as he is physically incapacitated, still wields power: it is to him that Massi gives her earnings so he can invest them, visiting him every week with a homemade cake.

Alongside her new job at the dancehall, the narrator begins a ‘personal project’ to find the dead:

“If the dead are in the garden, they can only be found by digging pits. Over time they have become invisible.”

Though she wants the project to be hers alone (“I would rather the father did not see me”) the father insists on being present while she digs:

“It’s not a little thing to dig a pit. It doesn’t go quickly, especially as I have to keep an eye on father as I dig. He leans forward too far to see what I am doing and when he leans forward too far, his hat falls off.”

Having established the narrator’s situation, Redonnet does imbue the story with a certain amount of plot. The milkmaids drink tainted milk which turns their skin yellow; the custom officers are threatened with dismissal when it is discovered the customs post is unmanned when they are at the dancehall; the father becomes increasingly paralysed and closer to death. The narrator grows a little:

“I have learned a great deal in two weeks. I can’t count on Massi or the father.”

In this sense, the novel might even be seen as a coming-of-age story, as the narrator frees herself from the influence of the father, and of Forever Valley itself. It is certainly, for all its strangeness, a compelling story from a wonderfully unique imagination.

Lost Books – The Joker

May 7, 2022

Despite a long acquaintance with the work of Lars Saabye Christensen that began when I read The Half Brother in 2003 before hearing the author speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I may never have known about his first appearance in English in 1991, The Joker, translated by Steven Michael Nordby, had I not read about it in M. A. Orthofer’s indispensable The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Literature. From that point on the only difficulty was tracking down a copy of this US only, small press publication! Orthofer had also hinted at the novel’s intriguing premise beginning, as it does, with the narrator, Hans Windelband, finding his own death notice in the paper:

“But I wasn’t dead.

“But that’s what it said in the newspaper.”

He confides in his friend the Butcher (who is, thankfully, a butcher) who tells him to take a vacation – “For the good of us all… I wish you’d stay away for a couple of years” – but he only gets as far as a hotel within walking distance (walking distance with a suitcase) and begins phoning funeral parlours in order to locate his body. When he finally finds it, he discovers that he is no closer to solving the mystery of who was using his name as the individual in question fell four flights out of a window and landed head first on the railings below:

“I looked at it a long time.

“But I couldn’t recognize the face.

“Not even his mother could have recognized that face.”

Hans follows up by attending his own funeral where he meets an old girlfriend, Berit, who is (obviously) surprised to see him, and the dead Hans’ elderly neighbour, Malvin Paulsen, to whom he gives a false name. There is little to learn about his impersonator, however, as Paulsen tells him, “He never went out… He was almost never out of doors. Even his room reveals nothing:

“It occurred to me that everything appeared so impersonal, completely without character.”

Before he can investigate further, he gets into a fight with a couple who are arguing at his hotel, begins to rekindle his relationship with Berit, and is beaten up in a pub with the threat:

“We know who you are… You ought to take it easy, then everything will take care of itself.”

The role of the Butcher also becomes increasingly uncertain as he follows Hans to the funeral and, when Hans returns to his hotel, is waiting for him in his room. Hans, we know, has loaned the Butcher money in the past, and the Butcher has suspicions regarding where this money came from.

As the story unfolds, everything proves to be connected to everything else. For example, Hans meets Malvin in a pub and, through him, Arne who runs removal company Malvin once worked for; he joins Arne on a job, only to discover he is Berit’s ex-husband. Malvin’s brother, an antiques dealer, is somehow involved with the dead ‘Hans’ whom, it turns out, Hans does know. Christensen is happy to stretch these coincidences as far as he can (before Hans knows of Arne’s marriage to Berit he tells us, “Sometimes he reminds me of Berit”) but their implausibility is made bearable not only by the novel’s charm, but by Hans’ impression that its plot is a plot against him. At the same time, it also becomes clear that our narrator is not entirely forthcoming. Where did he get the money to lend the Butcher? And what exactly was his relationship with the dead ‘Hans’? This makes for a thoroughly entertaining mystery, as does the style in which it is written with standout phrases such as:

“…the snow was hanging in the air at an angle like a dirty bed sheet…”


“The sun was shining like an operating room light. The sky was blue and disinfected.”

Hans is far from perfect but proves to be an endearing narrator: Christensen has a talent for writing about young men that we can see throughout his career from Beatles to, most recently, Echoes of the City. The Joker is an unusual and enjoyable mystery which deserves to be rediscovered.

Lost Books – My Last Duchess

July 2, 2021

Iain Crichton Smith is not unusual among writers in being defined by his first novel, Consider the Lilies, set in the time of the Highland Clearances, which made its way, perhaps fittingly given the years Smith spent as a teacher of English, into the Scottish curriculum (though less frequently taught now, his short stories remain among the Scottish Text choices). The contrast between that regularly reissued debut and his later novels, most of which have never been reprinted, is, however, stark. Of course, Smith did not primarily see himself as a novelist – according to Angus Calder, he spoke of writing novels “to fill the gap between poems.” Despite this he wrote ten (and two in Gaelic), of which My Last Duchess, published in 1971, is the third.

My Last Duchess is the first, but not the last, of Smith’s novels to deal with a man in crisis. Mark Simmons finds himself, at 42, a failure: his job as a teacher at a college is not the university post he longed for, the book he has been writing for many years is still unfinished, and his wife, Lorna, has left him:

“There had been Lorna and before that there had been his parents and now there was nothing but the statement, ‘I have nowhere to go.’”

The novel opens with what we might take as a last desperate gesture, a visit to an author he has long admired (ironically, or perceptively, one whose name was made with their first novel which they have never equalled) in the “expectation of a monologue dense with wisdom and knowledge of life.” He is, of course, disappointed, sitting in silence as he listens to the writer and his son:

“Who are these guiltless people, he wondered, what sinless world, cold as stainless steel, have they emerged from, fully formed? They speak with conviction of the profoundest matters and what they do not speak of they consider unimportant.”

Mark spends the night in a hotel room and, as he thinks back, we begin to see the tensions in his marriage. At the centre of his relationship with his wife, which we later learn began when she was a student of his, is his need for superiority (“She never read much and nothing very deep”), but with this comes a pressure to succeed, as well as a worry that, with her insight into other people, “in her own wandering disorganised way she might not be brighter than himself.” A meeting with an uncle of hers early in the marriage demonstrates the difference between them: Lorna sees the man as an individual who was once kind to her; Mark sees only his politics. At this point in the marriage she can tell him:

“Anyway your book will be good and they’ll make you a lecturer or something fabulous like that.”

As the years pass, this looks less and less likely. The next morning, in the present, he retreats further into his past, taking a train to the city and the university he once attended:

“What could he find in this place? Himself? Penetrated through and through by self-disgust he waited as for some saviour, as if out of the library directly ahead of him there should emerge a figure who might tell him that his life had not been wasted, that art and poetry were in fact still present even in the middle of this desperate winter, and that the lighted windows were sending out meaningful signals into the darkening evening.”

He visits the family where he once lodged, and the home of a woman he meets on the train, searching for comfort and understanding. “You’re very unhappy,” she tells him at the end of the first part.

In the second part we learn of Mark’s early life, and of his marriage to Lorna. We see Mark develop a contempt for those around him – Wilkinson, his superior at the college (“incomprehensible”), Lorna’s friend Mrs Carmichael (“to him she represented the bourgeois”), and her attempt (with Lorna) to help a hermit in the village:

“If he’s a real hermit he shouldn’t want you and in any case how do you know you’re making him any happier?”

A change occurs when Mark meets a young writer, Hunter, who has worked in city slums – in Mark’s eyes he has “gone into the inferno with no weapons but his concern and courage.” But as Lorna tells him: “You don’t want to help anyone. You just want a thrill.” Not only does Lorna’s belief in Mark dissipate, so does his belief in himself.

My Last Duchess can seem dated at times – particularly with references to contemporary culture such as Dixon of Dock Green and Monty Python, as well as an advert spotted at a book stall for John Updike’s Couples – but the issue it faces – how the dreams of our youth interact with the reality of our middle-age – is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Smith manages to simultaneously sympathise with Mark and shine an unforgiving light on his flaws. Unlikely now to be reprinted but available as an e-book, the novel remains worth reading for Smith’s ability to see Mark’s journey through to the end without ever entirely losing hope.

Lost Books – A Coin in NIne Hands

September 2, 2020

A Coin in Nine Hands is one of Marguerite Yourcenar’s earlier works, originally published in 1934, although, as an afterword from the author explains, this is a revised version from 1959, translated in 1971 by Dori Katz (in collaboration with Yourcenar). That the original had been subject to censorship is perhaps unsurprising as it centres around the attempted assassination of a political leader who is clearly intended to be Mussolini, though the later version was entirely rewritten rather than simply restored. The novel’s conceit is apparent from the title: it uses a ten lira coin to link its characters during one dramatic day. Though each chapter focuses mainly on a single character, we gradually see that all are interlinked, and a character who is merely mentioned in one chapter may well appear in person in another.

The novel opens harmlessly enough with a brief chapter describing prosperous businessman Paolo Farina who, we are told, is regarded sympathetically since his wife, Angiola, left him (marriages – particularly unhappy marriages – will be a recurrent theme of the novel at a time when divorce is not legal). He copes with his wife’s absence by frequenting prostitutes, and a particular favourite of his, Lina Chiari (whose voice reminds him of Angiola – “since all women have more or less the same body”), will be the subject of then next chapter. Here the tone darkens a little as we discover Lina has finally plucked up the courage to see a doctor as she has developed a lump on her breast and fears the worst. Her only comfort is:

“…she savoured the consolation of telling herself that she would no longer have to worry about finding money, about cooking or doing her laundry, that, from now on, all she had to do is suffer.”

Yourcenar slowly develops a sense of hopelessness. Farina may seem superficially contented but he is fully aware, “Love can’t be bought.” In the third chapter we meet shop owner Giulio Lousi from whom Lina buys a lipstick. He is troubled by a nagging wife, and a daughter with a disabled child whose husband has left her:

“…all this conspired to make Giulio not quite the most unhappy of mortals, for there was vanity to claiming that title, but at least a poor man with his share of troubles like everyone else.”

In the next chapter, Rosalio di Credo, Angiola’s sister, tells us “unhappiness had become a habit”:

“Stifled by unhappiness as by sudden asphyxiation she quickly opened the window.”

It is as Giulio and Rosalio are in church that we first catch a glimpse of Marcella Ardeati, the would-be assassin, sheltering from the rain in her black shawl:

“…hiding under it the dangerous object wrapped in brown paper that perhaps tonight would change the destiny of a people.”

Marcella’s chapter, the fifth and therefore central, is by far the longest, beginning with a confrontation between her and the wife of Carlo Stevo – once her lover, but now a political prisoner denied to both of them

“She had met Carlo Stevo at the very moment when both were desperate about the state of their country and the world.”

Everyone she talks to attempts to dissuade her, including Massimo, whom she took for an ally but is in fact a police informer (people being other than we think they are is another recurrent theme). “Your sacrifice will save no one,” he tells her, but she is determined to go ahead:

“She clung to the idea of murder like a shipwrecked sailor hang on to the only solid part of his sinking universe.”

We, of course know, that she is fated to fail; the novel instead asks the question of whether it is better to attempt action, even out of despair, rather than live on without hope. The chapter ends just before she fires, and the rest of her story unfolds in gossip and hearsay in the chapters which follow, winning sympathy even from the world-weary flower-seller, Mother Dida:

“In spite of herself, Dida felt a twinge in her heart at the thought of her.”

In her penultimate chapter, Yourcenar introduces the elderly painter Clement Roux, in conversation with Massimo who has witnessed the attempted assassination. Here too, we see the contrast between those who act and those who stand by as Massimo reflects bitterly:

“To be the one who doesn’t die, the one who watches, the one who never quite enters the game completely…”

Given the circumstances, it difficult not to see his thoughts as also describing the artist, and, by extension, the writer. Roux returns to his hotel and, in a sentence which returns us to Farina’s life at the beginning of the novel, is contented with his lot:

“Once again having assumed the reassuring routine of day-to-day reality, Clement Roux felt safe.”

A Coin in Nine Hands is so cleverly executed it would be a joy to read even without the depth with which Yourcenar delivers her cast of characters. The coin is no mere trick as it emphasises the true connectedness of a society in which individuals often feel quite separate (a scene between Marcella’s husband and Angiola in a cinema illustrates this perfectly). It also wrestles with a question which is as vital now as it was then: tolerate a hopeless existence passively or embrace what may be equally hopeless action? Yet another novel – and, indeed, writer – mysteriously rendered out of print.

Lost Books – The Devil’s Trill

July 27, 2020

In his obituary for Daniel Moyano in 1992, Andrew Graham-Yooll (who had interviewed Moyano for his book After the Despots) described him as “one of the lesser known of the best of Latin American writers”. He goes on to tell how Moyano won the magazine Primera Plana’s annual literary prize in 1967 for his novel El Oscuro, judged by no less than Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar. That novel, like most of Moyano’s work, has still not been translated into English. In fact, all we have is his 1974 novel, The Devil’s Trill, translated by Giovanni Pontiero in 1988. The novel is a playful satire which uses music to explore the role of art.

The novel begins with the founding of the city of Todos los santos de la Nueva Rioja in 1591, in the wrong place due to a clerical error:

“The city’s location in the middle of the desert would make it both hard to reach and hard to leave. The people would find no work there, food would be scarce and the more ferocious among them would take up arms against the central government.”

The challenges of survival are borne out in the experiences of Triclinio’s family: first their cow dies, then their goat, and finally the father turns to bee-keeping to survive, a strategy hampered by the scarcity of flowers. The story of Pagnini in a magazine convinces him that Triclinio’s salvation lies in learning to play the violin:

“This secret desire absorbed the old man’s thoughts of making it possible for Triclinio to study something before the bees, which were becoming ever more translucent, should finally turn into air and vanish forever.”

Fortuitously there is a violin teacher in the city, but Triclinio’s talent does him little good as a “decree specified that La Rioja was to concentrate on folk music, thus reserving for cosmopolitan Buenos Aires all other types of music.” And so, Triclinio heads for the capital with his violin, surprised to find that he is no longer alone, as the landlord of his boarding-house tells him:

“Here everyone is a violinist, all these boarding-houses cater for violinists, as do some of the hotels… In Buenos Aires everyone pays the violin but not to earn a living as you seem to think… Here people earn their living in the meat trade and only play the violin to combat what you might call a sort of spleen…”

In this way Monyano explores the purpose of art in a light-hearted, almost absurdist manner. Later a character will tell him that both the inhabitants of La Rioja and Buenos Aires have it wrong as:

“Come what may, we need beauty in order to exist, for beauty is the human dimension of reality.”

Triclinio remains an innocent: his desire is only to play his violin He is not a man of ideas, as Monyano explicitly states – his head is too full of noises:

“For some time now he had wanted to know about the world and himself, without the terrifying abstractions of rhythms and notes, but on the rare occasion when he succeeded, he could not clarify his thoughts for instead of sounds, words throbbed through his head, phrases which he had heard or which had occurred to him or which were inspired by statues and monuments; resounding words that embellished history and served no real purpose.”

This allows Monyano to approach politics with Triclinio’s wide-eyed innocence, revealing then absurdity behind Argentina’s often cruel and chaotic history. A letter to the president gains Triclinio an invitation to the presidential palace when there is (naturally) a coup. He leaves via the gallery of deposed presidents:

“Tricliano caught a glimpse of an artist concealed behind a pile of books who was furtively committing to canvas the physical traits of the reigning president.”

He becomes involved in a protest when he is distracted by the legs of a choir of factory girls and finds himself water-cannoned out of the city and into the exile of Violinville, a violin shaped shanty town on the outskirts. There he begins a relationship with the daughter of a powerful man, though she tells him:

“I shall only be able to love you when the country gains some stability and that strikes me as being extremely unlikely, if not impossible.”

What is most striking about Monyano is his gentle humour which frequently veers towards the ridiculous but is never simply silly. He’s not adverse to poking fun at his forebears, at one point describing Triclinio walking “with his violin and the bees which often followed him from home all the way to the Conservatoire as in a story buy Garcia Marquez.” If anything, his own imagination is more outlandish, as when the city of La Rioja is “covered with a huge circus tent with the mountains of Velasco and Famatina as supports. Anyone who wanted to know what was happening in the province had to pay an entrance fee.” The novel also includes an Australian opera featuring a kangaroo and a platypus. And yet it is quite clear throughout that Monyano is using this to comment on life in Argentina, particularly for artists. The Devil’s Trill is a short, endearing novel that deserves to be more widely read. Unfortunately for us, Monyano’s imagination is only restrained by a lack of translation.

Lost Books – The City and the House

June 26, 2019

A well-deserved Natalia Ginzburg revival is already underway in both the US and the UK, though not one which has (so far) extended to her final novel, The City and the House, published in 1984 and translated by Dick Davis in 1986. As a later work this neglect is perhaps unsurprising, but it might also be explained by the fact that it is an epistolary novel written long after the form was in its prime, and perhaps too close to its extinction (I mean the point when we can reasonably accept characters will commonly write letters to each other). Having said that, Ginzburg handles the form with skill, presenting a core exchange between former lovers Giuseppe and Lucrezia while encompassing a number of other correspondents, allowing her to examine a network of relationships along the way, and combining to give a powerful sense of time passing.

We learn in the first letter that Giuseppe is planning to leave Italy and live with his brother, Ferruccio, in in America. Giuseppe tells Lucrezia that, “I have never managed to do anything and I am nearly fifty.” He feels he has few ties to Italy, having only a distant relationship with his son, Alberico:

“I would have liked someone different. But that certainly goes for him too.”

He is indifferent to Lucrezia’s claim that he is the father of one of her children, telling her instead that her husband, Piero, is “an excellent father and they have not need of any other.” The life Giuseppe imagines for himself in America, however, is altered before he even leaves Rome as his brother informs him he has married an American divorcee, Ann Marie. This will be one of many crossed wires (one of Giuseppe’s most powerful reasons for going to America was the thought of the two of them living together as a couple of bachelors, going as far as to declare, “I will do the housework and prepare the meals”) to occur as the letters cross each other in the novel.

The plot of The City and the House is not complicated, but it would be both tedious and convoluted to recount, based as it is on the ever-changing relationships of its characters. Its soap opera tendencies are mediated by variety of voices and viewpoints by which it is told. Overall we have a picture of characters searching for happiness but often unsure where to find it. Giuseppe and Lucrezia typify this, partly because we sense that their previous relationship reached a point where they might have made a stronger commitment to each other, as Lucrezia suggests:

“I wanted to leave Piero and come and live with you… You told me that I should not leave Piero, that I shouldn’t even think of doing so. You said the children would suffer. I said I would bring them with me and they wouldn’t suffer much… Then you got very frightened.”

Here, Giuseppe’s fear of being a father seems, at least in part, to bring their relationship to an end. Later he will find Ann Marie’s daughter and son-in-law easier to tolerate than she does, as well as improving his relationship with Alberico. Meanwhile Lucrezia will leave her husband for another man, but with as much desperation to inflict a change on her life as love.

The idea of choosing what we do to find happiness in our lives is echoed in the choice of where contained in the novel’s title. The house referred to is that owned by Lucrezia and Piero, which many characters talk of fondly. Giuseppe writes to Piero:

“I shall carry your big, yellow old house, which you call Le Margherite, though goodness knows why, with me in my heart.”

And later, in reference to a phone call:

“It was a real joy for me to hear all their voices together and to think of them all together there, at Le Margherite, in the sitting-room, that sitting-room I remember so well with the big oval table, the lamp shade with its frayed border, the basket of firewood and the dog’s cushion, the sofa in front of the fireplace and over the fireplace the picture of King Lear.”

Just as Giuseppe moves to America, Lucrezia moves to the city, Rome. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lear, who gave away his kingdom, is featured in Giuseppe’s description. In fact, the sale of property is a repeated act in the novel, one reason we feel time is rushing on, towards the elegiac atmosphere of the final letters. For all is lightness of tone, The City and the House could not be described as a happy novel, though its ambiguous ending leaves us with a little hope.

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.

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.”


“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.