Posts Tagged ‘WITMonth’

The Back Room

August 13, 2017

Carmen Martin Gaite’s The Back Room is the only one of the five of her novels to have been translated into English still in print, though it is, perhaps, not the ideal starting point. Written in the middle of a writing career which lasted forty years, it features a writer who we take to be the author (there are references, for example, to her first novel The Spa) reflecting on her childhood in the company of a stranger who arrives one night shortly after midnight, and might be anything from a journalist to the devil; perhaps simply a dream.

The novel begins one sleepless night and the narrator’s mind is already very much on her childhood – “the little girl form the provinces who can’t manage to fall asleep is looking at me in the light of the little yellow lamp.” We also sense a restlessness in the untidiness of the rooms and a lack of focus in her writing. At one point she loses her footing over a copy of Todorov’s Introduction to Fantastic Literature:

“When I finished it I wrote in a notebook: ‘I swear I’m going to write a fantastic novel.’ I suppose it was a promise I made to Todorov. That was around the middle of January, five months have gone by since then. Projects often flare up like will-o’-the-wisps in the heat of certain readings, but then one’s enthusiasm flags…”

The ringing of a telephone wakes her (the novel is full of awakenings, making the differentiation of dream and reality difficult). The visitor claims he is expected though the narrator is less certain (“I don’t know what interview he’s talking about but I don’t dare admit this.”) He quickly brings doubt to his existence, commenting on the narrator’s fear of a cockroach she has sighted in the kitchen:

“They’re mysterious….Like all apparitions. Don’t you like mystery stories?”

Later she will find with a print of ‘Luther’s Discussion with the Devil’ which was earlier pinned up in her bedroom in his hand; looking at it then she had felt “it was taking on depth and relief, that I was entering into it.”

Her visitor (“the man in black” she calls him) prompts her to further memories of her youth, though in no particular order, beginning with her departure from Spain on a scholarship to study in Portugal. Her memories take place partly in the images she recalls to her mind, partly in what she tells him. At times, for example when she goes to the kitchen to make him tea, her memories are entirely separate from their conversation. This jumble of memories she associates with the back room:

“I also imagine it as the attic of one’s brain, a sort of secret place full of a vague jumble of all sorts of miscellaneous junk, separated from the cleaner and more orderly anterooms by a curtain that is only occasionally pulled back. The memories that may come to us as something of a surprise live hiding in the back room.”

She compares memory to the childhood game of Red Light where the participants attempt to approach one child who has their back turned, freezing when they turn and say ‘Red Light!’

“…time steals by so furtively that we don’t even notice it, we don’t see it passing. But all of sudden we turn around and find images that have moved behind our backs, frozen photographs that bear no dates, like the figures of the children in the game of Red Light, who could never be caught moving.”

To some extent her recollections focus on her development as a writer: “That child and her mania for sitting reading with her face glued to the balcony!” She talks of the romance novels she loved, and her own childish romances. But her memories are also a record of Franco’s dictatorship, a point she makes by describing two moments when she saw Franco’s daughter, Carmencita (who is of a similar age) – as a child and at Franco’s funeral:

“We’ve grown up and lived in the same years. She was the daughter of an army officer from the provinces. We’ve been the victims of the same manners and mores, we’ve read the same magazines and seen the same movies.”

At one point they are interrupted by a phone call from a woman claiming to be her visitor’s girlfriend. She also claims to have discovered love letters from the narrator (signed with a C) – though the narrator has no memory of them. (Missing letters, and other papers, are another recurrent motif of the novel). In the final chapter, we are given a strong impression that the novel is a dream –the narrator is awoken by her daughter’s kiss – but how much of it? And in what way does that explain the manuscript she finds:

“The place formerly occupied by Todorov’s book is now occupied by a pile of numbered pages, one hundred and eighty-two of them. On the first line is written, in capital letters with a black ballpoint pen: THE BACK ROOM.”

As the man in black reminds us:

“Ambiguity is the key to fantastic literature… Not knowing whether what one has seen is true or false, and never finding out.”

The Back Room is both puzzling and prepossessing, marking Gaite out as an intriguing writer who deserves attention.

Cry, Mother Spain

August 10, 2017

Though Lydie Salvayre writes in French (here translated by Ben Faccini), her parents were among those who fled Spain at the time of the Civil War. The ‘Mother Spain’ of the title therefore is both the country from which her family originates, and a reference to her own mother, Montse, whose story forms the basis of the novel. As Salvayre explains in a preface, however, the novel’s origins lie elsewhere, with the writings of George Bernanos, a Catholic monarchist who initially supported the Nationalist cause only to be disgusted by the atrocities he saw committed in its name. Bernanos’ perspective gives a historical context and relevance to Montse’s story, which in turn allows the reader to experience the impact of these historical forces on the individual.

The novel opens with Montse’s political awakening. When she is taken to be introduced to the Burgos family as a potential maid, don Jaime comments, “She seems quite humble.”

“But that comment, my mother says, throws me into a turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.”

Her brother, Jose, an anarchist, is even more furious:

“Who does the bastard think he is? He’ll regret it, the bare-faced carbon. I’ll teach that bourgeoisie to think twice before opening his mouth again.”

This particularising of the class conflict which was emerging is typical of the novel. Salvarye is at pains to exemplify the various shades of opinion which exist in the village, and how they are also linked to personal relationships. While Jose represents the anarchist viewpoint, don Jaime’s adopted son, Diego, is the resident Communist. The uncertain parentage of his unruly red hair means he is largely distrusted, however, and he is jealous of the way Jose is admired by his peers. Both have difficult relationships with their fathers, don Jaime being the largest landowner in the district, and Jose’s father, though poor, also owning a few acres he wishes to hold onto. Most of the farmers in the village, however, rent their land from don Jaime and are initially entranced with Jose’s proposal for a commune:

“We no longer want to do all the whoring for the landowners: they’re keeping us in poverty and pocketing our money… We can live differently. It’s possible.”

The novel captures the initial joy felt by the villagers at the thought they might be on the verge of a better life:

“The village was in a state of effervescence the next day, at boiling point. Red-and-black scarves hung from windows and balconies, people basked in their newly acquired slogans, babbling away gesticulating, panting, throwing themselves on the few copies of Solidaridad Obrera that had finally reached the village.”

As the days pass, the mood changes, however, and Diego’s more cautious approach begins to win the argument. (One of the areas the novel explores is the conflict between the anarchists and the Communists, making clear that opposition to the Nationalists was not united).

The joy of revolution is also shown when Jose and Montse leave the village to join the Republican army. Salvayre describes it as “a brief interlude of freedom for my mother, a moment of enchantment.” Her mother tells her she had never before seen two people kiss, or heard a foreign language:

“In one evening Montse discovered (her creased, wrinkled face lights up with joy when she describes this) the existence of running water, hot and cold, bath tubs with wrought-iron tiger feet, lavatories with flushing mechanisms and flip-up lids, electricity in every room, refrigerators, clocks, thermometers on walls, telephones made out of ebonite.”

Superficially this may not seem political, but, of course, it is the entrenched poverty of the existing system, now broken in the anarchist held city, that has prevented her from experiencing these things before. Salvayre, as she does throughout, demonstrates how events impact the individual beyond the abstract ideas which create them. The passion for revolution is echoed in Montse’s falling for a French volunteer; the rebellious times reflected in her adolescence.

Cry, Mother Spain is a wonderful novel. It recreates the period of the Civil War in both the particular and the general. It does not stint on detailing the cruelty and violence which accompanied it, but at the same time it reveals the idealism and passion. In the turbulence of its forces we can also see something recognisable in the coming of age of both Jose and Montse. They guide us through the hope and horror in stories, which we know from the start, end very differently.

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Broken Mirror

August 1, 2017

That the final chapter of Merce Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror is told from the point of view of a rat gives some indication of how far behind she had left the first person narration of her previous novels by the time she came to write her ninth, her first to be published since her return to Catalonia in 1972. “A novel is a mirror carried along a road,” claimed Stendahl, warning his reader that it is as likely to reflect the mud beneath as the blue skies above. Rodoreda certainly shares Stendahl’s intent to show us the high and the low, but her fractured viewpoints suggest that what appears in the guise of a nineteenth century novel is in fact its epitaph.

The novel opens as a young wife, Teresa, is presented with a brooch – “a bouquet of flowers made with diamonds and as big as the palm of his hand” – by her elderly husband, Nicolau Rovira. Teresa is not of the same class – the daughter of a fishmonger – and already has an illegitimate child by a married man. She later returns to the jeweller and asks him to buy back the brooch, using the money to pay the father to adopt the child, telling her husband she has lost the brooch while at the same time arranging to become her son’s godmother, “a rather mature infant who had no mother, poor little thing, she’d died in the hospital in childbirth.” Teresa is no Becky Sharp, however: she is simply practical, contriving the best outcome for all concerned, a cool-headed capability that will be shared by many of the women in this novel of three generations. Neither is her married lover a cad (she remembers him fondly on her death bed) nor her aged husband a breathless letch; from its opening pages, Rodoreda’s humanity shines through. Her characters have flaws and failings, but we will not be expected to boo and hiss from the stalls as they pantomime their way through a nineteenth century melodrama.

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We also quickly learn how quickly she will turn our heads. We have only just begun to follow Teresa with our eyes when we must look to Salvador Valldaura, who makes his entrance trailing a seven page love story that ends tragically, only to be introduced to Teresa, “the widow of the financier Nicolau Rovira.” (We only looked away a moment!) Rodoreda flits between her characters’ feelings with ease, as we see in the obligatory ball scene where they fall in love:

“If I could, Valldaura thought, I would take her to the end of the world. The applause was deafening. Teresa, panting, her head thrown back, was telling herself that she’d never known a night like this one. She was hot. She took of her gloves slowly – they seemed endless – and wiped her face with her hand.”

By the time we reach the phrase “they are endless” we are no longer even certain whose consciousness we inhabit. Rodoreda is equally at home with the servants. In one memorable scene, in the heat of the summer, they undress in the yard and cool themselves with water sprayed from a hose:

“Since the hose was very long, Armanda started to chase the terrace, and for a long time they did not stop running and screaming.”

Such moments of joy stand out as the overall atmosphere of the novel is elegiac. It’s one of a number of scenes which are repeated either exactly or in echo, an inescapable recurrence which suggests that, for all its wealth, the family are trapped within a life which changes little. Attempts at wilful independence (see Teresa’s grandson, Ramon, and the ‘adopted’ (another illegitimate child) Maria) tends to end badly. As Teresa ages she loses the use of her legs, a paralysis which further emphasises a frozen existence. There is little sense, however, that Rodoreda therefore approves of the violence which will sweep it away. The civil war provides the novel’s endpoint but hardly features of itself, perhaps because it is a topic Rodoreda has explored elsewhere, but also, I think, to emphasise that her characters are largely detached from politics, and, indeed, the twentieth century. Teresa’s daughter, Sofia, leaves Spain, and when the house is taken over, even Armanda moves out:

“She spent the remaining wartime in an apartment very near the villa, an apartment that after the war would become hers… As soon as the war ended she went to see the villa.”

In these few sentences the war is over and Sofia returns, but with no intention of returning to the life she led before. Perhaps that is why the novel ends with Armanda recalling an act of disobedience from Sofia’s childhood, walking the gardens of the villa where only ghosts are left:

“…very near her, level with her eyes, the black trees as background, something drew her attention: a shard of mist almost nothing, hesitant, a transparent wing that moved away and finally vanished as if the earth had sucked it up.”

Even the rat dies.

Moderato Cantabile

August 27, 2016

moderato

Marguerite Duras’ short novel Moderato Cantabile (translated in 1960 by Richard Seaver) is neither ‘moderate’ nor ‘melodious’; just as her son refuses the instructions of his music teacher to play in such a style, so too does Anne Desbaresdes attempt to rebel against the strictures of her own quiet life. The music teacher, striking “the keyboard a third time, so hard that the pencil broke right next to the child’s hands,” has no effect. The stand-off is interrupted by a scream, “a long, drawn-out scream, so shrill it overwhelmed the sound of the sea. “ The boy begins to play, but as he does so it becomes increasingly clear that something serious has occurred below – a woman has been shot. Anne leaves in time to witness the aftermath:

“At the far end of the café, in the semi-darkness of the back room, a woman was lying motionless on the floor. A man was crouched over her, clutching her shoulders and saying quietly:
‘Darling. My darling.’”

Anne becomes fascinated by the crime, returning to the café the next day where she strikes up a conversation with another customer, Chauvin, on the subject, pretending that she was unaware of the murder:

“Perhaps they had problems, what they call emotional problems.”

Chauvin, it transpires, already knows who she is:

“You have a beautiful house at the end of the Boulevard de la Mer. A big walled garden.”

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Anne’s visits to the cafe become daily, each time meeting Chauvin and discussing the murder. Duras hints that their relationship echoes that which so recently ended in death:

“They met by chance in cafe, perhaps even here, they both used to come here. And they began to talk to each other about this and that.”

The man, having mentioned Anne’s house the first time they spoke, proceeds to describe it in more detail, as if he is drawing closer to her:

“Isn’t there a long hallway on the second floor, a very long hallway onto which your room and everyone else’s opens, so that you’re together and separated at the same time?”

The conversation continues at cross-purposes, her insistent probing of the reasons for the woman’s death – a death, it is suggested, she chose; he describing her own life to her. He returns time and again to the workers of the company her husband manages walking beneath her window, sometimes heard, sometimes observed, as predictable as the tide:

“Whether you were asleep or awake, dressed or naked, they passed outside the pale of your existence.”

Their appearance at the cafe, at the end of the day, acts as a sign for her to leave. The man, it seems was once such a worker, remembering a visit to her home, “you were standing…on the steps, ready to receive us, the workers from the foundries.” We are given the impression he has loved her since that moment; what is less certain is how she feels about him, perhaps seeing him as an escape from a life she finds intolerable. What is without question is that their intense feelings charge every scene, with Duras able to encapsulate enormous passion in a moment such as when he lays his hand next to hers. Slowly their discussion of the murder becomes a discussion of their own relationship:

“He had never dreamt, before meeting her, that he would one day want anything so badly.”

Very little happens in Moderato Cantabile: like the sea, which is so often referenced, it is what lies beneath the surface which is most powerful and dangerous. Duras beautifully conveys the repressed feelings of her protagonists to create a love story unlike any other.

Panty

August 16, 2016

panty

An unnamed woman enters a flat she has fled to (without clothes or belongings). We do not know why she is there or where she has come from. She asks the man who owns the flat (her lover?), “How long am I allowed to stay in this flat?” He comes and goes, dropping her off, phoning. She has no plans, though surgery, which she may or may not have, is mentioned. On her first night she finds a “crumpled panty”:

“Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was.”

Later, without clothes of her own to change into, she wears it:

“What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.
I slipped into her womanhood.
Her sexuality, her love.
I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.”

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This is not a novel, however, about a transformative piece of clothing, instead it is about the many facets of womanhood, a theme reflected in the novel’s unusual style. A series of disconnected chapters – those disconnections emphasised by seemingly random chapter numbers – tell the woman’s story, some clearly referring to the same character, but others allowing for the possibility that this is about more than one woman. Even the manner of their telling changes: opening in the first person, the second and third person are also freely used. The reader is often cast in the role of lover via the use of ‘you’ though the woman may be ‘I’ or ‘she’:

“She fell silent. You said, ‘Hello? Hello?’ a couple of times then hung up.”

“Your breath against my face was impossibly heavy. My whole body throbbed.”

This prevents the novel being about one woman’s experience (though it may be) and reflects instead the experience of women. The novel’s exploration of sexuality created problems for both Bandyopadhyay and her translator Arunva Sinha in their native India. It demonstrates the sexual exploitation of women in a dream of childhood when the woman is shown pornographic pictures by a man:

“The man had pursued her ever since clutching the book with the green cover.”

Later, when a similar scene is re-enacted by dogs – “Chasing for pure sex. Only sex. Nothing else.” – the woman feels only desire. Her desire, however, is shown to be in conflict with her role as mother in a horrifying story she tells of her son burning to death “on an afternoon when I was far away, lying beneath a man I barely knew.” Trapped in the house, he phones her:

“He was coughing, choking. But I could still hear the hurt in his voice as he asked, ‘Why did you go away, Maa, why did you leave me?’”

This perhaps explains her flight, and the attention she pays to a homeless family she observes from her balcony, often taking the child food:

“At such times I long to take her away, to teach her to read and write. To give her a full meal. To give her brushes and paints.”

In the bedroom of the flat, one wall is painted dark brown, but beneath the paint the woman can see a couple making love:

“I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were in the wall. The one which was painted dark brown.”

Later we learn this was painted by the owner of the leopard skin panty – the woman whose suicide is described at one point? – raising the possibility that some of the previous chapters are hers, or that it doesn’t, in fact, matter:

“I couldn’t picture myself at your side. Instead, I found her taking my place… Then I couldn’t tell whether it was I who said it or she, ‘We will be married one day…’”

Panty is a fascinating novel: like a jigsaw the reader must piece it together, but I suspect every reader’s, and every reading’s, finished picture will be different.

Mildew

August 11, 2016

mildew

Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is a modern Metamorphosis – and by that I refer not to Kafka’s story but its classical antecedents in Ovid’s tales. It begins with a spot:

“I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched it but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.”

The spot is the start of a transformation which occurs the day before her daughter, Agustina’s, wedding, but her mind is on her niece and namesake Constanza, who has been sleeping with her husband, Felipe. In her studio, where she goes to add the finishing touches to the wedding dress, she sees her niece reflected in the mirrors:

“I walked across the room without looking in the mirrors that still contained the image of Constanza trying on dresses, lifting her skirt, lowering her neckline, and Felipe behind her whispering the same word over and over: ‘Shorter.’”

The affair is particularly bitter for the narrator as she has raised her sister’s daughter alongside her own children. The two Constanzas are also tied together by a secret – the abortion which the narrator arranged for her niece when she fell pregnant as a teenager, an unborn child which she continues to see around the house:

“I held him in my shaking hand: he was as heavy as an apple and felt warm. This tiny body died twenty years ago, I thought. And I knew that I had crossed a terrible barrier and that it was going to be very hard to return from the other side of who knows where.”

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In this novella, women are torn between their roles as mother and lover. The abandoned child is the guilt with which women must live when they reject motherhood. The fathers quickly desert both Constanza and her mother, Flor, leaving them to make the decision to abort, or leave the child with their family. Constanza resents her aunt for not being her mother and uses her role as lover as a weapon against her, deliberately undressing before the narrator after admitting the affair:

“She wanted he eyes on my body, she was removing her clothes to show me the ground where she had won the battle I didn’t know we were fighting.”

Macbeth is quickly referenced (“Out, damned spot”), Lady Macbeth having so graphically rejected motherhood for love of her husband. (Interestingly, the narrator echoes Lady Macbeth at one point when she complains of Constanza, “I never had the power over her that all mothers have: the power of death”). The spot is, of course, blood, the blood which Lady Macbeth thinks can be washed away (“a little water clears us of this deed”), but in fact represents the couple’s guilt, and which her sleepwalking soliloquy reveals cannot be easily extinguished. Just as her inner life usurps Lady Macbeth’s sleep, so the narrator’s body is overwhelmed by a growth that one assumes reflects internal turmoil. As it spreads, she becomes strangely accepting:

“The mildew might not be a curse. It might be an exit.”

We might be reminded that Daphne was changed to a tree to avoid the amorous pursuit of Apollo, and that such a transformation can be viewed as an escape from the roles enforced on women by men – in this there is an echo of The Vegetarian.

In Mildew the ordinary story of a tawdry affair is itself transformed by writing grounded in, but unrestrained by, reality. The narrator’s transformation enhances rather than overwhelms the narrative, Jonguitud’s structure ensuring that dramatic tension is as much a driver as magical realism, creating a story which will continue to grow within the reader, ever changing.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool

August 8, 2016

70%

Don’t be fooled by the Italian origin of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool – the narrative voice greets the reader like a cold shower: icy, unfriendly, unexpected – yet invigorating. Its topic is, appropriately, not the Italian sunshine but the English winter:

“One day it was still December. Especially in Leeds where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.”

The narrator is Camelia, a young Italian woman whose life has been placed on pause since the death of her father. Her studies abandoned, she has returned to care for her mother, who no longer leaves the house, or talks, shaken both by her husband’s death, and the manner of it, in flagrante (that, at least, is Italian) with another woman while his car veers off road into a ditch:

“My mother was ready to be, in a word, thrown away. Yes, I know that’s two words, but it’s better that way: one for her and one for me, because if I have to throw her away, I won’t be far behind.”

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The novel’s opening is set in a frozen time, emphasised by the idea of an eternal winter, until she finds badly-made clothes in a dumpster – “Each piece had some kind of defect” – which she begins to wear. The disfigured clothing clearly connects to the damaged life she now leads, but also leads her, fairy-tale fashion, to a young Chinese man, Wen, from whose shop the clothes originated. His offer to teach her Chinese – the subject she had abandoned at university – seems a sign that she can rebuild her life. Now she is able to both talk and leave the house, but her adoption of this new dress code suggests her recovery is fragile:

“I started going out dressed in the dumpster clothes… I paraded all that obscene irregularly on the streets, the sleeves on the seat of my pants, the underarm buttons, errors of a sort that no human being could have made, and thus divine errors.”

Soon she begins to alter her own clothes in a similar way:

“I cut out all the sequins as if they were malignant tumours and replaced them with zig-zag miscarriages from my pajamas. Then I punished the pockets with some canvas patches cut from my backpack. I continued, wounding every pair of pants I owned with patches of red canvas, more or less where blood would run down your leg if you were an Italian journalist and you were fucking an English woman and you died in a ditch.”

Just as she attacks her clothes, so she sabotages her own life by sleeping with Wen’s brother when Wen rebuffs her advances. Di Grado brilliantly portrays the ups and downs of depression, Camelia’s high hopes frequently swooping down to despair again. What carries the novel forward on a fierce tide of emotion is her savage wit, descriptive phrases like “Leeds was immobilized in an orthopaedic back brace of snow”; bitter ironies as when she buys her silent mother a parrot; and the sharp wit which leads to this account of sex, drawn from her job as a translator of washing machine instructions:

“Remove clothes. End of cycle. The water will drain.”

70% Acrylic 30% Wool would perhaps be unbearable without this voice, though conversely it brings us closer to Camelia and therefore more pained by every blow she takes. This is important because the final pages may test the reader’s resolve. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is an unflinching portrayal of a woman in crisis, the kind of book which makes you want to reach into its pages before, in its final line, we are shut out completely.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

August 3, 2016

baba yaga

Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of Cannongate’s Myths series, where they asked contemporary writers to offer their version of an ancient story. The series began in 2006 and (I think) ended in 2014, featuring a stellar cast of international writers including Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Victor Pelevin, David Grossman…and Dubravka Ugresic. Ugresic’s take on the legend of Baba Yaga is typically idiosyncratic, divided into three discreet sections, each a completely different genre of writing – the first autobiographical, the second fiction, and the third academic – all exploring women in old age.

The first section focuses on Ugresic’s relationship with her mother. Her mother has a ‘cobweb’ in her brain:

“By ’cobweb’ she meant metastases to the brain, which had appeared seventeen years after a bout of breast cancer had been discovered in time and treated successfully.”

This makes it difficult for her recall certain common words causing strain in their relationship: “Some daughter if you can’t remember the bread spread stuff!” Ugresic also feels her mother is in denial about getting older and approaching death. She puts away all photographs of dead relatives – “I’d rather be in the company of the living” – and feels disappointed by the ageing of her friends:

“’She got so old,’ she said tersely a little later, as if spitting out a bitter morsel. Her friend was almost a year older than she was.”

Ugresic agrees to go to Varna, the city of her mother’s youth, with a Bulgarian academic and admirer of her work, Aba, who has also befriended her mother. Ugresic makes no attempt to portray herself in a good light as she becomes increasingly irritated by Aba who does not seem to able to organise anything to her satisfaction, and annoys her with knowing references to her writing:

“I snorted. Her use of the plural infuriated me. And her ‘we need to pick up a map of the city’ grated on my ear. Wasn’t she at home here? Why would she need a map?!”

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Almost everything has changed since her mother was a child and the trip is a disappointment: “I had brought back nothing from my pilgrimage and received nothing in return.” It is perhaps for this reason that, in the second part of the book, Ugresic tells of three elderly women, Pupa, Beba and Kukla, taking a last trip to the Grand Hotel (Pupa, we know, is her mother’s housebound friend). These unlikely guests are determined to have the time of their lives, becoming involved in a number of comic adventures with a supporting male cast including American entrepreneur/conman Mr Shaker, and a young Bosnian with a permanent erection who is pretending to be a Turk under the name of Suleiman. Again the focus is on ageing: Shaker sells food supplements and Suleiman works at a Wellness clinic run by Dr Topolanek:

“In the first capitalist commotion, Topolanek realised that the easiest way to make money was out of human vanity.”

Shaker meanwhile, on the other side of the world, is “the king of an industry of magical powders and potions…what Mr Shaker actually sold was ideological hot air.” Pupa offers her own advice:

“Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!”

Ugresic is very good, again, on the effects of ageing on the body:

“Beba and her body lived in state of mutual intolerance. She could not remember exactly when the first hostile incident occurred.”

Of course, the book contains references to Baba Yaga throughout – but there is no need for me to comment on these as the third and final section does exactly this in a letter from Aba to the book’s editor, who has requested an expert opinion:

“As far as I gather from your accompanying letter, your author undertook to provide a text based on the myth of Baba Yaga. By the way, I was touched by your admission that you ‘don’t have a clue’ about Baba Yaga yourself.”

The analysis is exhaustive, to say the least – as Aba says herself, “I’m sure you won’t mind admitting that there was too much of everything. In fact, you were afraid at one point that I would never stop.” While such awareness of the reader’s reaction is amusing, I did find the final section trying – and, in fact, preferred the autobiographical opening to the story of Pupa, Beba and Kolka. This had the effect deteriorating enjoyment, though, of course, all the sections coexist as parts of a whole, and Ugresic is such a wonderful, witty writer that even when she is imitating dullness there is still pleasure to be had. Ugresic cleverly uses the myth of Baba Yaga as the starting point for a meditation of old age in women in a book that is funny, insightful, and, at times, moving.

The Fires of Autumn

August 2, 2016

fires of autumn

Although Irene Nemirovsky only features on my blog once (The Dogs and the Wolves way back in 2010), she is, in fact, a writer whose work I have steadily devoured as it has been translated into English (largely by Sandra Smith). The Fires of Autumn is (as far as I know) her final book – both in terms of translation (published in 2014, nothing has appeared since, and I suspect all her major work is now available in English) and also her final completed novel, written around the same time as Suite Francois and published posthumously in 1957.

The Fires of Autumn is a novel of two world wars. In her first chapter Nemirovsky skilfully introduces all her characters in a pleasant domestic setting, a Sunday meal followed by a stroll, representing the comfortable life before the First World War. Both Therese and Bernard are at the point where they are beginning to leave their childhoods behind:

“Since Therese had just turned fifteen a few days ago, she had put her curls up in a chignon, but her silky hair was not yet used to the style she tried to hold in place with hairpins, so it was escaping all over the place, which made Therese unhappy.”

“Bernard did not reply because at the age of fifteen, the company of adults still intimidated him. He was still in short trousers. (But this was the last year…)”

Therese is destined, however, for the twenty-seven-year-old Martial Brun, who is training to be a doctor. We also meet his friend, the charismatic Raymond Detang, and Madame Humbert and her daughter Renee, who survive by selling hats since Monsieur Humbert died and left them penniless. These are the middle classes: not poor, but not rich enough to put money out of their minds.

WITmonth

War changes everything. Even before he enlists, Bernard is aware that the experience will change him:

“’They aren’t really like us’, thought Bernard as he recalled the soldiers he’d seen when they’d returned from the front. They were different, unusual.”

Martial’s father, Adolphe, is also aware of the change:

“There was something about all this that frightened him: he no longer recognised the French. Its people spoke a new language… The most sacred words – ‘Frugality…Marital fidelity…Virginity…’ – had gradually become old-fashioned, almost laughable.”

Bernard scandalises his own father when he loses five thousand francs gambling when on leave. Nemirovsky identifies the First World War with a collapse in middle class values, a loss of morals which she dramatises by polarising her characters between those who embrace this and those who stay ‘honest’. Detang, who has already offered Bernard work during the war in America buying equipment for the army while being sure to feather his own nest, best exemplifies the new attitude:

“There was an enormous fairground where anyone who wanted to could get in; it wasn’t even necessary to hide your background like in the good old days: they were living in a cynical world which glorified the sludge from which a man had risen.”

Nemirovsky is not suggesting that corruption entered French society with the war, but that it infected the middle classes who had previously been excluded both by snobbery and a sense of propriety. Bernard is torn between the morality of the past and the attraction of easily acquired wealth, as we see in his love for Therese and his affair with Detang’s wife, Renee. This allows Nemirovsky to demonstrate these tensions using the relationships, for example when he invites Therese and her mother to his (luxurious) home only to fail to appear.

In Nemirovsky’s eyes, it is this collapse in the moral fabric of society which leads to France’s defeat in the Second World War. She demonstrates this in practical terms in a plotline which echoes All My Sons (which was, of course, based on a true story). This is, naturally, simplistic, and Nemirovsky’s morality can seem a little dated now: whereas men become corrupted by greed, for women it is only sexual morality which matters, hence Renee is Therese’s nemesis. However, Bernard’s corruption reflects an attitude we continue to see damaging society in the way which Nemirovsky suggests: why be honest when others achieve success through dishonesty? Nemirovsky also has something to tell us about corrupt politicians:

“[Detang] was not even cynical about himself, except for very rare moments when he felt depressed. He honestly considered himself an eminent statement who exists solely for the good of the people.”

Nemirovsky, of course, did not survive the Second World War and was therefore tasked with concluding her story before reality had concluded its. The title comes from Madam Pain’s comment that “these are the autumn fires; they purify the land; they prepare it for new seeds.” In many ways, for Western Europe at least, this is what happened; in the UK the lives of ordinary people were vastly improved after World War Two. As we begin to undo these improvements, the warnings of Nemirovsky’s novel become more relevant.