Archive for the ‘Lost Books’ Category

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.”

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.