Posts Tagged ‘lost books’

Lost Books – Two Crimes

July 23, 2022

Sadly, having read The Lightning of August and The Dead Girls, Two Crimes is the last of Mexican author Jorge Ibarguengoitia’s novels available in English (translated by Asa Zatz in 1984, five years after it was originally published). Another three novels remain untranslated as well as numerous short stories. The pity of this is that Ibarguengoitia is one of Latin America’s most entertaining writers (Juan Pablo Villalobos would be a good example of a modern writer with a similar sensibility) – and Two Crimes is probably his most entertaining book.

The novel begins straight-forwardly enough with a party thrown by Marcos and his wife, the Chamuca (which seems to be Portuguese for samosa leaving me to imagine a lewder interpretation…) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This, however, is the traditional moment of happiness before their lives fall apart, a collapse which originates in the seemingly innocuous arrival of an uninvited guest, Evodio, who asks to stay the night. Although they know Evodio is a “dedicated activist” they have little idea of the danger this will put them in until they receive a phone call at work the next day to tell them that police are searching their apartment:

“And so that portion of my life came to a close.”

They go straight to the bus station and separate: the Chamuca to her cousins and Marcos to his uncle, Ramon, to borrow money so they can “go somewhere to live until this blows over.” As Marcos is narrating the novel, we follow him to his uncle’s – where he is refused entry by his cousin, Amalia. Unwittingly, Marcos finds himself at the centre of battle for his uncle’s inheritance, but he is able to gain admittance the next day when he returns with his uncle’s friend, Don Pepe. In fact, Marcos’ plan to get money from his uncle has nothing to do with any potential inheritance – instead he tells Ramon he has a business opportunity, an abandoned mine where cryolite can be extracted. He intends to make the money from the ‘costs and profitability study’ he will undertake which, as he tells his uncle:

“…you’ll have to pay me…even if the study should show that it is not an advisable investment.”

The uncle readily agrees, and, to stir things up, tells the cousins that he asked Marcos to come. So worried do they become that they offer to buy his share of the inheritance (without being sure he even has one) and, when that doesn’t work, sign an agreement that they will split the inheritance equally, whatever they get.

To complicate things further, Marcos becomes involved with Amalia’s daughter, Lucero, when he finds her in his room and she gives him “the most perfect kiss, technically speaking, that I had ever had in my life.” He soon doubts whether her apparent attraction can be trusted:

“A little later, when I was putting on my shirt, I noticed that the sixty-one pesos and the copy of the contract that were in the pocket had changed places.”

Not only does this not stop him pursuing her, but when he fails at the first attempt, he turns to Amalia instead:

“…it was an irresistible impulse. I was inside Amalia’s room before I realised it. What a different reception that was!”

The con, however, seems to be working, until the unexpected arrival of Marcos’ wife, and the death of Ramon soon after. Ibarguengoitia’s handling of the plot is masterful, but his stroke of genius to hand the narrative over at this point to a new narrator, Don Pepe. This gives us a different perspective on the first half of the novel – we realise that, for all his enthusiasm, Ramon did not trust Marcos, assuming that he would disappear with the thousand pesos he had given him and the Land Rover he borrowed:

“Doesn’t that story Marcos told us about the beryllium mine sound like hokum to you?”

Don Pepe then drives the narrative forward as he hunts of Marcos after Ramon’s death. The change in perspective works brilliantly, refreshing the narrative when it seems to have reached one conclusion, until we reach another. Marcos is charged with ‘two crimes’ – the original crime of ‘terrorism’ which forces him to go on the run, and his uncle’s murder – but, of course, although two crimes are indeed committed in the novel, these are quite different, and the last one occurs unexpectedly in the final pages. Two Crimes is a thoroughly entertaining novel from a master story-teller, with both its tension and humour working as well today as they did forty years ago.

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 – 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 – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.