Posts Tagged ‘WITMonth’

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.”

WITmonth

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.”

WITmonth

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.”

WITmonth

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.”

WITmonth

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?!”

WITmonth

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.

Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

August 27, 2015

Karate Chop

At Edinburgh International Book Festival, Dorthe Nors spoke about the spaces she leaves in her stories. In the novella which comes with her first collection to be translated into English, ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra), those spaces are visible on the page:

“Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.
Minna can play four instruments.
Minna’s lost her rehearsal space.”

In a series of short statements which abhor the pronoun and are suspicious of the conjunction, Nors tells Minna’s story, the story of a search for rehearsal space, which is also a search for love, and for herself. Each introductory statement can be seen as a rehearsal of her own character, couched in the format of an online dating profile. It is quickly apparent that her problems lie not only with obtaining a suitable rehearsal space, but with coming to terms with a deteriorating relationship. Though her boyfriend, Lars, is similarly represented, it is immediately clear that Minna’s perspective remains:

“Lars ought to help her but
Lars uses condoms.
Lars is on his bike and gone.
Lars is Lars.”

The final statement, particularly as it is repeated, is an example of how meaningful the meaningless can become in the hands of a skilled writer. Lars is drifting away from Minna (Lars vanishing on his bike is also a reoccurring event) and Minna is struggling to come to terms with this:

“Lars is a hit-and-run driver.
The hit-and-run driver has suffered at most a dented fender.”

Nors’ brevity does not mean she cannot alight on the perfect metaphor to describe Minna’s sense of the relationship ending. A style that might at first appear inevitably linked to superficial characterisation (however entertaining) in fact proves synonymous with complexity, the layering sentences creating an unexpected depth. Statements like “Minna isn’t shielded from anything” lie subtly between authorial omniscience and Minna’s interior monologue. Nors also moves deftly between the unembellished action and the surreal:

“Minna places her hands cross her eyes.
Minna feels something: Was that hair?
Minna slips out to the mirror.
Minna places her face against it, and there she is:
Minna with fur on her face.
Minna in a wild stampede.”

Later we are told “Minna’s fur is a metaphor,” but, importantly, it is not a symbol imposed upon her by the narrative, but an image which rises from her own subconscious to describe her sense of herself at that moment.

In reference to another story, ‘The Buddhist’, Nors spoke of how the story similarly turns inwards to the psychology of the protagonist and how he views himself. Before the Buddhist’s conversion he is a government official, but his new belief system requires a new occupation and leading the charity People to People seems ideal:

Aha, he thinks, an organisation is a good place to begin if you want to change the world.”

Throughout the story he is simply ‘the Buddhist’, another example of the narrative voice enforcing the character’s interior monologue while creating an ironic distance. It is as he drives in his ridiculous Berlingo (which he believes “signals inner values”) that the story verges into the surreal:

“The moment the wheels of the Berlingo touch the Lillebaelt Bridge, the grey metal of the Lillebaelt Bridge is transformed into a shining Bifrost arching across the strait and stretching into the sky. It is like a mirage and yet quite real.”

In fact it is, as Nors points out, either a delusion of the character or the author’s use of surrealism: importantly, we do not have to decide which. That it is the key to the story’s conclusion is what matters.

While such flights of fancy are not the norm in Nors stories, the use of something seemingly extraneous to the plot (or artificially creating it as ‘The Big Tomato’) to explore her characters’ inner lives is. Often this is used to open the story: the overheard remark from the television in ‘Do You Know Jussi?’; the comedian’s death in ‘The Winter Garden’; the duck farm in ‘Duckling.’ The final lines of ‘The Wadden Sea’ are indicative of her approach:

“Then she pointed into the fog. She pointed into it like it was a piece of psychology. She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.”

As with ‘Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space’, this gives her stories a depth that belies their brevity. Both the novella and the short story collection (which has a different translator, Martin Aitken, and was published alone in the US) suggest a writer of great talent; hopefully Nors’ novels will follow them into English.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

August 21, 2015

helle helle

Whose book is it – reader’s or writer’s? I ask that question because my reading experience of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense differed from my normal relationship with a novel as I had the opportunity to hear Helle speak after I’d finished reading. Although unusual, this isn’t the first time I have listened to an author discuss a book I have just read, but on this occasion my understanding of the novel was altered in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

The novel itself tells the story of a young woman, Dorte, who leaves for university but does not attend, a fact she keeps hidden even from her aunt (also Dorte), the person she seems closest to. While she drifts through her present existence we learn about her past life and relationships. For a while she seems to live an idyllic existence with her boyfriend, Per, and his parents, but she leaves him to live with his cousin, Lars. The transition from one relationship to another is described in terms of action rather than emotion:

“He put his hand on my shoulder, I turned towards him and then we kissed. Per came back with his LP… When Per went to the bathroom we kissed again.”

Similarly her decision to leave Per:

“After we got home it seemed like the only thing to do was pack. I did it on the Tuesday morning before Per woke up, and when he did I told him. I carried the suitcase down the stairs and put it down und the sycamore tree while I got my bike out of the barn.”

In this way, the novel gives the false impression that nothing much happens; in fact, it disguises its eventfulness by burying moments such as these, which would be foregrounded in a traditional story, amid the prosaic details of everyday life. A perfect example of this is Dorte’s abortion:

“Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’d got me a present…”

Only the word ‘long’ reveals any kind of emotional reaction, and ironically Helle makes the telling as short as possible, not even allowing this event a sentence to itself. This style led me to assume that that Dorte was, in fact, suffering from depression (a feeling that intensified when her namesake has a breakdown near the novel’s end):

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt I should wash my hair. I realised I hadn’t had my dinner.”

Helle, however, presented her character as someone who was not unhappy but simply drifting through life. As an example, she mentioned the scene where Dorte boards a train when the conductor waves her on even though she has no intention of travelling – tearing her jeans as she gets off again. In this reading her passivity is a pause in her life, perhaps a reaction to the events the novel describes, but one which has the potential to be healing. This idea of letting life happen to you seems anathema to our contemporary driven society (perhaps on reason why the novel is set in the eighties, along with the absence of smart phones) but becomes an element in Dorte’s coming of age. A stylistic difference also goes some way to explain my different perception of Dorte’s state of mind: in the English version many of the commas have been replaced by full stops, creating a much slower, more lifeless narrative voice.

Helle, in fact, described This Should Be Written in the Present Tense as her most optimistic novel (of course, having not read the others, the context of that statement is unclear). At the beginning (which is the novel’s endpoint – everything is told in retrospect) Dorte seems determined on a new start: her parents have just washed down the apartment, her torn jeans are repaired, and she has filled three black bin bags with what she no longer needs – including pages of her writing. The novel begins with the phrase “I wrote too much…” and ends with advice from a writer:

“I’m always asking myself why does this have to be there, why does that have to be there? And if I can’t find a reason, it goes.”

This feels like a defence of Helle’s style, a declaration that, although she may seem to privilege the trivial over more serious events, what she has included has been deliberately selected. This style allows the novel space for the reader, hence more than one reading is available – something that it is all the better for.

Lost Books – Girl in a Turban

August 11, 2015

girl in a turban

One example of the lack of women writers in translation is the dearth of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a five year absence in 2001, it was won by Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair, an award that later went temporarily missing from the prize’s history. (You can read a review of The Alphonse Courrier Affair here). This still represents a depressing 2 out of 21 winners – less than ten percent.

The Alphonse Courrier Affair was not Morazzoni’s first work – or indeed, her first work translated into English. Prior to writing the novel, she had published a collection of short stories – Girl in a Turban – in Italy in 1986, swiftly translated into English by Patrick Creagh in 1988. All five stories are set in the past (the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), often touching on the lives of famous historical figures, and all, in one way or another, contemplating mortality.

The first story, ‘The White Door’, deals with Mozart’s final days, spent as the guest of a wealthy patron writing his Requiem. When his wife Constanze, visits unexpectedly, she is determined to visit the Villa of his sponsors, but he puts her off:

“ ‘How old you’ve got,’ she said, with all the savagery of a child who does not weigh its words.”

“So his malady was so obvious that it even had a name,” Mozart thinks to himself. That night he dreams of entering the Villa. Once inside he is drawn to a white door – “by instinct he knew that there was the way and that was the ineluctable access.” the door is clearly death but once opened:

“The boyish laugh that rose slowly in his throat spread forth in harmonious sound.”

In accepting death Mozart rediscovers his prematurely vanished youth.

The idea of a good death features in a number of the stories, most noticeably in ‘The Last Assignment’ which tells of Charles V’s decision to retreat to a monastery in the final years of his life through the eyes of Don Luis, a noble who is called to follow the King and is placed in charge of providing provisions for the royal party. Don Luis seems a simple man who goes about his task to the best of his ability, but he also strikes up a relationship with a gypsy whom he passes on the road to and from the town. He helps her when he finds her fallen on the ground, and she later returns the favour when he falls ill; and yet, you would not call their relationship even friendship. After his illness, Charles takes him into his confidence and allows him to read his memoirs, which he takes charge off after Charles’ death, deciding not to release them into the world for reasons we never discover, yet somehow seeming entirely in keeping with his character.

The title story refers to a painting more famously known as ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, currently residing in the home of art dealer Van Rijk

“Propped up against the wall opposite the window in the bedroom, the picture by this time had reigned supreme for a month.”

Though reluctant to sell it, he eventually does, taking the trouble to travel to Denmark with it. He is remembered by the buyer’s daughter when her father dies, and the picture is seen to rise above the commercial bargain they made.

Although death does not feature in the two remaining stories, ‘The Dignity of Signor da Ponte’ centres on an act of violence which we might assume the title character fears has ended in death, and ‘Order in the House’ concerns a living death as its protagonist, Karl, finds himself suddenly paralysed.

Morazzoni’s stories do not attempt to be neat or tricky; they moved with a staid pace in suiting to their settings. Each feels particular to its time period yet has a certain mythic quality thanks to her choice of subjects – kings, paintings, composers. None ends with a shock, yet each conclusion, on reflection, seems well-timed. Given that these were Morazzoni’s first published work, she handles the pressures of historical writing, especially with the use of characters who have actually lived, with enormous confidence. A writer who deserves to be rediscovered.

Three Strong Women

August 7, 2015

three strong women

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye is a novel of (unsurprisingly, perhaps) three parts; less expected is the fact that the central character is a woman in only two of them. All three tell of characters suspended between France and Senegal: NDiaye herself has a French mother and a Senegalese father – a father who returned to the continent when she was only one year old, perhaps explain why her own characters’ lives seem determined by their journeys between these two places. As each section in some way explores the relationship between Europe and Africa, so too does it examine the relationship between a man and a woman, relationships where communication is often fractured and failing.

In the first section Norah, a lawyer, leaves the life she has created for herself in France – her recently moved in lover remains behind to look after her daughter along with his own – to visit her father at his request. Once a powerful man who bullied those around him, he is reduced to a feeble glutton who takes every opportunity to fill his face with food. Norah is most worried about her brother – while she and her sister were brought up by her mother in France after her parents relationship broke down, he was taken by her father to be raised in Senegal. She soon discovers that her brother is, in fact, the reason for her father’s call – he is in prison, awaiting trial after confessing to the murder of her father’s lover.

In the second section the viewpoint moves to that of kitchen salesman Rudy. He met his wife, Fanta, while teaching in Senegal but, after an incident which brought his classroom career to an end, selfishly convinced her to come to France, though he knew she would be unable to work as a teacher there. He hates his present job and is aware that his marriage is in danger of falling apart – so much so that he plans to collect his son and take him to his mother’s for the night so his wife cannot leave him – but he feels powerless in the face of his problems, reacting only with an uncontrollable rage which exacerbates every situation.

In the final section we return to Senegal and follow the journey of Khady, a young woman attempting to reach Europe after her deceased husband’s family tell her she must go. Abandoning the idea of crossing by sea as too dangerous, she is befriended by a young man, Lamine, who has decided to undertake the journey by land.

The three sections have the slightest of connections: Norah’s father has made his wealth through a holiday village in Dara Salam, a business Rudy father was also involved in; Khady is first seen as a servant at Norah’s father’s house, and is told to contact Fanta should she make it to France. These connections, however, are not important to our understating of the stories, which could easily be read as three novellas. Placing the three parts within a novel seems intended to encourage the reader to develop their own connections.

In all three relationships have broken down. Norah resents her father; her father avoids communication (two girl she claims are his daughters stay with him, but he does not speak to them). Every time Rudy attempts to communicate with Fanta they argue:

“…she had inflicted upon herself the absurd obligation of spending the rest of her days in a house she disliked, beside a man she shunned and who from the outset had deceived her as to what he really was…”

Khady has no relationships left – her husband is dead and his family do not want her. The relationship which seems the most loving is that she develops with Lamine as he demonstrates his selflessness again and again – however, this is the relationship where the greatest betrayal takes place.

Despite this it can be argue that all three stories end with sense of peace. NDiaye uses bird imagery to achieve this in each one. Norah’s father is associated with “the lush, wilting vegetation of the flame tree” – “whatever flame tree, exhausted by flowering, he had flown down from.” The end finds him in its branches:

“…his daughter Norah was there, close by, perched among the branches that were now bereft of flowers… Why would she come and alight on the flame tree if not to make peace, once and for all?”

Rudy, as his world falls apart around him, finds himself stalked by a buzzard:

“With its wings spread out along the windscreen, its head turned to one side, it glared at him with its horridly severe yellow eye.”

Towards the story’s end he experiences an epiphany regarding his mother; shortly after his son tells him, “We’ve run a bird over.” The final section also uses a bird in order to create a sense of peace at the story’s conclusion:

“With staring eyes she saw a bird with long grey wings hovering above the fence. ‘It’s me, Khady Demba,’ she thought, dazed by the revelation, knowing that she was the bird and that the bird knew it too.”

The three sections may not cohere or even resonate particularly powerfully, but the writing in each of them is superb. The central section, in particular, where NDiaye conveys Rudy’s frustrations with great skill and sympathy, is utterly absorbing. She is clearly a writer who can inhabit different characters, different worlds, with ease.