The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. P O’Prey & L Graves)

Born in Galicia in 1851, Emilia Pardo Bazán was a leading exponent of Spanish Naturalism and a key figure in 19th-century Spanish literature per se. Her 1886 novel, The House of Ulloa is generally considered to be her masterpiece. My old Penguin Classics copy had been sitting on the shelves for a couple of years, but Grant’s enthusiastic reaction to the book on Twitter (following its recent inclusion in the Pocket Penguins range) prompted me to dust it off for Spanish Lit Month (now extended to August). I’m so glad I did. It’s a marvellous novel, a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions.

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The chaplain in question is Julián, a gentle, innocent and rather sensitive young man who is sent to the House of Ulloa in the Galician countryside in the hope that he will be able to act as a positive influence on the marquis of the manor, a libertine by the name Don Pedro. From the opening pages of the novel, one can detect a palpable sense of foreboding: Julián’s journey to the House hints at trouble ahead; the manor itself is an old ruin; and as for the marquis and the company he keeps, the chaplain appears to have his work cut out. Here are Julián’s impressions at the end of his first evening, a night featuring a bawdy supper where a young toddler is virtually forced into drinking copious quantities of wine by the various men of the house.

All the events of the day began to swim around in his mind. The nag that had almost thrown him flat on his face; the black crucifix that had sent a shiver down his spine; but above all the hubbub over supper and the drunken child. His first impressions of the people here were that Sabel was provocative, Primitivo insolent, the abbot a heavy drinker, over-fond of his hunting, and the dogs far too spilt. As for the marquis, Julian remembered what Señor de la Lage had said:

‘You’ll find my nephew rather rough around the edges. When you’re brought up in the country and never leave it, you can’t help being dull and churlish.’ (pgs. 16 -17)

As the previous overseer of the marquis’ business papers, the abbot has left everything in an unholy mess. With this in mind, Julián’s first task is to try to introduce some much-needed order into the affairs of the manor, a task that is easier said than done, especially when he comes up against Primitivo, the commanding majordomo of the marquis’ estate. While the marquis may be lord of the manor in terms of his title and position in the family, it is Primitivo who holds all the power over the local traders and tenants.

Every improvement Julián wanted to introduce, Primitivo would shrug his shoulders at and deem impossible. Every superfluous thing Julián tried to do away with, the hunter would declare indispensable for the smooth running of the estate. Innumerable small difficulties would rise up at the approach of the earnest Julián, preventing him from making any useful change. And the most alarming thing was to observe Primitivo’s disguised but nevertheless real omnipotence. Servants, tenants, labourers, even the cattle in the sheds, seemed to be under his thumb and well-disposed towards him. The flattering respect with which they addressed the master, and the half scornful, half indifferent way in which they greeted the chaplain, turned into utter submission when it came to Primitivo. Submission that was not expressed so much in words, but in the instant observance of Primitivo’s every wish, often expressed simply by a fixed cold stare of his small, lashless eyes. (pgs. 34-35)

Primitivo is a marvellous character, a rather sly fox who has been stealthily abusing his position within the marquis’ inner circle to line his own pockets, bleeding his employer dry in the process. On the other hand, the empty-headed marquis is under Primitivo’s thumb, totally dependent on his gamekeeper’s knowledge and influence to manage everything. And besides, there’s Primitivo’s daughter, a shapely servant girl named Sabel, who also happens to be the mother of the marquis’ illegitimate son, Perucho. (Young Perucho is the aforementioned wine-drinking toddler.) The marquis knows that any attempts to replace Primitivo will almost certainly come to a sticky end.

Horrified by the marquis’ fast and loose lifestyle, Julián finds himself in a quandary once he learns of the master’s liaison with Sabel and the details of Perucho’s parentage. As a man of the cloth, he cannot be seen to condone the marquis’ unholy actions by remaining at the manor. Then again, if he leaves, who knows what manner of bedevilment may ensue at the House of Ulloa, a place so desperately in need of an upstanding influence it hurts. As a potential solution to his dilemma, Julián convinces the master to move to the local town for a while, and a visit to the marquis’ uncle is arranged.

While staying with his uncle, the marquis is persuaded of the benefits of taking a virtuous wife, so he marries his young cousin, the kind and tender-hearted Nucha. Naturally Julián is delighted – at long last the marquis seems to be on a path to a brighter future. That said, the chaplain’s next challenge is to find a way of getting Sabel and the marquis’ illegitimate child away from the House of Ulloa, another task that proves much easier said than done.

When the marquis returns to the manor with his new bride, all is sweetness and light for a while, especially once the couple discover they are expecting a baby. A new, softer, more attentive side to the marquis emerges as he tends to the needs of his wife.

It seemed as though the marquis was slowly coming out of his rough shell, and his heart, so indomitable and selfish, was changing, letting the tender feelings proper to a husband and father show through, like little weeds peeping out of the cracks in a wall. If this was not exactly the Christian matrimony envisaged by the excellent chaplain, then it was certainly very close to it. (pg 131)

This doesn’t last for long though, especially once the baby arrives. Julián soon becomes Nucha’s closest ally in the house, acting as her confidante and protector whenever it is acceptable to do so. Moreover, he lives in constant fear of Nucha’s discovery of the true identity of Sabel’s son. The marquis’ wife has taken quite a fancy to the boy, allowing him to play with her own baby as the two children get along so well. Before long, Julián’s faith coupled with the particular nature of his character cause him to face another theological dilemma. I could say a little more about this, but will leave it there to avoid revealing too much about the plot.

The House of Ulloa is a terrific book, a hugely enjoyable story packed with marvellous characters and an abundance of juicy developments to sustain the reader’s interest throughout. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments too. Some of the novel’s most touching scenes feature the rather sheltered Julián as he tries his best to take care of Nucha and the youngsters in the household.

Set as it is against the backdrop of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, the novel also touches on the local politics of the day, a diversion which offers Pardo Bazán plenty of scope to explore the various underhand machinations of the district’s leading movers and shakers. After all, as she notes at one point, ‘politics is a cloak for self-interest, hypocrisy and lack of principle.’ In this next passage, she describes what happens when the marquis is persuaded by Primitivo to stand for election.

Ballot-papers were tampered with, and voting times were altered without notification. Forgery, intimidation and violence are not unusual during an election, but in this one they were combined with certain strokes of ingenuity that were entirely unprecedented. In one of the polling-stations, the cloaks of those voting for the marquis were secretly splashed with turpentine and set on fire with a match, so that the unfortunate men ran out shouting, never to return. (pg 216)

All in all, this book would make an excellent choice for the current Women in Translation Month, especially for readers interested in the classics. Alternatively, anyone looking for a damn good read should check it out. Highly recommended.

You can read Grant’s review here. Tom has also written about this novel here and here.

Plans for #ReadingRhys, a week devoted to the work of Jean Rhys

As some of you may recall, back in May I posted an announcement about the Jean Rhys Reading Week that will be taking place from Monday 12th to Sunday 18th September. In essence, it’s a week centred on reading and discussing the work of this remarkable writer.

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If you’re wondering who Jean Rhys is or was, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father, Rhys grew up on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, moving to England at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. After the death of her father, she drifted into a series of jobs spending time as a chorus girl, a mannequin, and an artist’s model. Rhys led a tough and tortured life, but in many ways, those harsh experiences made her the writer she was. (Her work is now considered to have been way ahead of its time.) She started writing when the first of her three marriages broke down. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Eric Karl Anderson, who writes so eloquently about books at the Lonesome Reader blog, will be joining me in co-hosting the reading week. Eric is a long-standing fan of Jean Rhys, so it will be fantastic to have his input. Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens) and Margaret Reardon (another long-standing Rhys fan) will also be helping us with a couple of activities during the week. Between the four of us, we’re planning to cover pretty much all of Rhys’ work to give a broad view of her oeuvre. We’d love as many readers as possible to get involved by reading one of more of Rhys’ books (or even a relevant biography).

With a few weeks to go before the start of the week, we just wanted to give you an overview of what will be happening during the week and to let you know how you can get involved. Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

  • If you have a blog, you could write a review or article about the book and post it there.
  • Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a ‘Jean Rhys Reading Week’ group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book, plus one on Rhys’ life – do join if you use GR.
  • Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys.
  • Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week.

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you.

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week.

#ReadingRhys Schedule:

Monday 12th September

  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie* – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Tuesday 13th

  • Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Wednesday 14th

  • Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Thursday 15th

  • The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)

Friday 16th

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Saturday 17th

  • Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
  • Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Sunday 18th

  • Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
  • An additional post TBC – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

(*I’ve already written a piece about After Leaving Mr Mackenzie here, but I’ll be revisiting the novel with my book group in early September.)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

***** Good Morning, Midnight Giveaway! *****

As a little incentive, we have 5 copies of the brand new Pocket Penguins edition of Good Morning, Midnight to giveaway. For a chance to win one of these prizes, please tell us what you’re planning to read for #ReadingRhys week in the comments below.

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The giveaway will run until midnight on Thursday 25th August (UK time) after which time we will select five winners at random. It’s open to everyone worldwide, so please feel free to enter wherever you live. Do include a note of your contact details in your comments, either an email address or Twitter/GoodReads handle. Good luck!

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the Jean Rhys Reading Week (#ReadingRhys), please leave a comment here or get in touch with one of us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles. She describes her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, as a confessional novel. Nevertheless, it reads like a memoir in the form of a series of sketches, snapshots of a bohemian lifestyle, a life lived in the cultural melting pot of LA with all its colour and splendour. Taken in its entirety, it’s quite a ride.

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First published in 1972 when Babitz was 29, Eve’s Hollywood consists of 45 vignettes and a scrapbook of photos. Some pieces are very brief (a sequence of three pitch-perfect lines on Cary Grant); others are more substantial (mini-essays on the allure of young ingénues, the trials and tribulations of adolescence and the author’s early lovers). In some ways, the following quote sets the tone for the book – it’s taken from the second snapshot, a piece entitled Hollywood and Vine.

When I was 14, I began writing a book, my memoirs, entitled I Wouldn’t Raise My Kid in Hollywood. A few weeks earlier I had let a spectacularly handsome man drive me home from a party I wasn’t allowed to go to, and when I told him I was 14, he dropped me off a block from my house and said, paternally, before he gave me an unpaternal and never-to-be-forgotten kiss, “Don’t let guys pick you up like this, kid, you might get hurt.” After that I never saw him again except on the front page of the papers two years later when he was found dead in Lana Turner’s bathroom. He was called Johnny Stompanato, poor guy. I’d been writing that book sort of before that, but afterwards I began writing it for real. After that, I’ve always been writing it. (pg. 14)

Eve Babitz grew up in the midst of a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio Twentieth Century Fox. Her mother, Mae, was an artist (a few of her drawings of LA appear in the book). Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky (Eve’s godfather), the opera singer Marilyn Horne, and the influential poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. Here’s one of Eve’s early recollections of Stravinsky.

Stravinsky himself was Stravinsky.

He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking. (pg. 10)

Several of the vignettes focus on Babitz’s adolescence, the time she spent at Le Conte Junior High and Hollywood High. She writes openly and engagingly about teenage life in the late 1950s, Friday nights at the Polar Palace ice-skating rink and summer days riding the waves at the rather rough beach at Roadside. None of the kids from Eve’s school went there, only the kids from West LA, ‘tough kids with knives, razors, tire irons and lowered cars.’

Babitz is particularly good on the beauty and power of teenage girls. In The Sheik, she highlights the 20 or so girls at Hollywood High who were extraordinarily beautiful, too beautiful for the constraints of the high school environment. The building itself was awash rumours of the girls’ love affairs, their tears and laughter echoed through the corridors. Even the teachers seemed powerless in the face of this overwhelming force of nature.

These were the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams. In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West. After being born of parents who believed in physical beauty as a fact of power, and being born beautiful themselves, these girls were then raised in California, where statistically the children grow taller, have better teeth and are stronger than anywhere else in the country. When they reach the age of 15 and their beauty arrives, it’s very exciting—like coming into an inheritance and, as with inheritances, it’s fun to be around when they first come into the money and watch how they spend it and on what. (pg. 81)

Babitz develops this theme in Ingenues, Thunderbird Girls and the Neighbouring Belle: A Confusing Tragedy. In this piece we meet Sally, Eve’s best friend in Hollywood High, a beautiful, rich and tragic ingénue. For Eve, it was love at first sight.

It was a romance. Everything to do with Sally was a romance, that was how she was. She wasn’t one of those cheerfully sunny girls who bring spring into a room with them, She was way too Garbo, sullen and tragic. It’s their best friends who flee shrieking from the patio. (pg. 97)

Naturally, several of Babitz’s vignettes capture something of the cultural milieu of Los Angeles. There are the drugs of course, but some of my favourite pieces focus on other aspects of LA life: the sight of a roller skater crossing Sunset Boulevard; the sheer joy of eating taquitos from a roadside stand on Olvera Street, the best taquito place in town; a beautiful mini-essay on the Watts Towers, a set of sculptural structures designed by Sam Rodia. There are many more. This is a book that sparkles with a lively sense of place and time.

Perhaps most importantly, Babitz is keen to put paid to the notion of Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland. She pushes back against the outsiders’ view of LA, those people from the East Coast or abroad who look down on a city they consider to be rather ‘shallow, corrupt and ugly’.

Like talking about uprisings in front of the slaves, people travel to Los Angeles from more civilised spots and cast their insults upon the days, only to see their own reflections sniffing down their noses back. It’s perfectly all right to say, “Los Angeles is so garish and a wasteland,” as they sit beneath the arbors and pour themselves another glass of wine though it’s already 3 p.m. and they should be getting back to the studio to earn their money. (pg. 192)

There are other cultural musings too. Babitz writes of her ultimate love for Lawrence of Arabia, a film she resisted seeing for a year as a result of all the hype and the shower of Academy Awards it attracted. In The Hollywood Branch Library, we hear of the writers Babitz loves and admires, writers such as Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates. Here she is on Colette whom she discovered at the tender age of 9.

When I travel, there are always certain books that go with me. Colette always is right there. I wouldn’t trust myself anywhere without Earthly Paradise, what if something happened and I didn’t have it? What if the electricity went out and all my friends died? Without Colette, where would I be? For me, Colette is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do. (pg. 231)

Colette as a spiritual guide – isn’t that wonderful?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I really loved this book. It’s a difficult one to describe, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of it here. Babitz’s style is at once both easy going and whip-smart (she is eminently quotable). There is a breezy lightness of touch to her writing that feels so effortless and engaging. The same is true whether Babitz is writing about the deeply personal (the loss of her virginity at the age of 17, ‘it was the Rainier Ale that did it’) or the more surprising (a short piece on her dislike of photocopying is a delight). There are touches of humour threaded through this collection of vignettes too.

In the end, it’s a book you have to experience for yourself. In some ways, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (both of which I rate very highly). I feel as though I’ve found a new friend in Eve Babitz, one I’d like to return to again and again.

Eve’s Hollywood is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

Last year I wrote about La Femme de Gilles (1937), an early novella by the Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe. It’s an intensely powerful story of desire, pain and selfless love, all conveyed in the author’s spare yet beautiful prose. When Daunt Books announced they would be reissuing Marie (first published in 1943), Bourdouxhe’s follow-up to Gilles, I knew I wanted to read it. Luckily this book came along at just the right time for me; moreover, it turned out to be a great choice for Women in Translation month which is running throughout August.

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Like its predecessor, Marie focuses on the inner life of a young married woman. As the novella opens, thirty-year-old Marie is on holiday in the Cote d’Azur with her husband of six years, Jean, the man whom she loves with a profound sense of tenderness. One afternoon, while Jean is swimming in the sea, Marie notices a young man on the beach, most probably another holidaymaker; he is lean, tanned and muscular, and Marie is instantly attracted to him. The sight of this youth in his early twenties awakens something in Marie, more specifically ‘the realm of the possible; the fascination and excitement of a new world.’

A day or so later Marie heads out for a walk on her own with the intention of finding the attractive stranger again; it’s not long before she spots him on the beach. Even though the man strikes up a conversation with Marie, words are barely needed; they have already formed a deep connection.

They sit on the sand. They might have gone on talking; about the distant hills that unfold towards the sea, about a white villa the outline of which is visible among the cypresses. But what would have been the point? They know that there is nothing to say. They mutually accept this great silence, and the richness, the sincerity that lies within it. They also know that in that moment they are seeing everything from the same point of view and that, for both of them, that red sail on the sea stands out as clearly, as harshly, as cruelly, as the thing that is deep inside them. (pg. 17-18)

As they prepare to part, the young man gives Marie his phone number back in Paris, the city which is also home to Jean and Marie. As she watches him go, Marie feels completely alone, stranded between two opposing worlds: the safety and security of her life with Jean vs the possibility of new and uncertain experiences ahead.

Back in Paris, life continues as normal for Marie (at least at first) as she occupies her time with housework and the occasional session as a private tutor. Nevertheless, the young man from the beach remains in her thoughts. When Jean goes away on a business trip for a few days, Marie contacts the man. They meet up in a café, walk the streets of Paris for a while and take a room for the night.

To dwell any further on the plot probably isn’t necessary at this stage, plus it might spoil some of the experience of reading the novella itself. While things happen in the story, this isn’t an action-driven narrative; instead the focus is on experience, memories and introspection. As with La Femme de Gilles, Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to her female protagonist’s point of view. This is another richly realised portrait of the inner life of a woman at a pivotal moment in her life. To her friends, family and husband, Marie appears to be content in her marriage. At an early point in the novella, a female friend observes: ‘Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you’ve managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.’ Internally, however, Marie is far from at ease with herself, as illustrated by the following passage, one that appears later in the book. (Claudine is Marie’s rather melancholy and irresponsible older sister, a very different creature from the intelligent and capable Marie.)

And she’d stay there until the blue light of dawn came through the window. Thrown back on herself, she’d feel quite alone at the heart of a well-worn past – even though she had created such fine things. Jean, Claudine: links that did not want to expire, that tightened their hold in a final struggle as others tried to replace them.

‘Please, please leave me!’ She’d have liked to shout this in all the space around her. How she longed to have neither past nor future! And yet – on the one hand there were these still burning ashes and on the other there was this new thing, this thing that did not yet have a name. Like a warm beast that moved inside her, making its nest. (pg. 85-86)

As Marie reflects on the nature of her position, her mood varies quite significantly. There are instances when she seems lost and dissatisfied with her situation, most notably when a change in Jean’s job forces the couple to move away from Paris for a while. At other times, a brighter Marie emerges, one in tune with her own her solitude and desires in life.

Like its predecessor, Marie is written in an emotive, intense and intimate style. It is a more optimistic novella than La Femme de Gilles, more hopeful but every bit as compelling. In his review in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard describes Marie as one of the most French novels he has ever read, and I can see what he means. To quote Lezard: ‘the book’s concerns are, to put it broadly, existentialist’.

I really loved this novel; it’s in the running for one of my books of the year. This wonderful story of a young woman’s awakening is played out among the busy streets, cafés and train stations of Paris, a city beautifully evoked by Bourdouxhe’s prose. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the rather dreamlike mood of certain passages in the narrative.

They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house. (pg. 33)

Marie is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

 

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

First published in German in 1929, Grand Hotel is Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s best-known work. Following its initial success, this charming novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and subsequently for the cinema screen, with significant input from Baum herself – the film adaptation (which I have yet to see) features Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore brothers, amongst others.

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The setting for the novel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin, an establishment which endeavours to furnish its residents with the best of everything the city has to offer. Baum’s carefully constructed story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at the hotel. While it doesn’t aim to follow a conventional narrative arc, Grand Hotel has plenty of surprises in store for its readers, many of which are connected with the secrets and inner lives of this diverse group of guests.

The central character in the mix is Otto Kringelein, a down-at-heel bookkeeper who has travelled from the provinces to Berlin to live the high life for a week or two. After enduring many years of bullying and penny pinching both at work and at home, Kringelein has come to the city with the knowledge that he has only a few weeks left to live. Backed by funds from his savings and life insurance policy, Kringelein is intent on experiencing Life and everything it has to offer before his time is up. Here are his first impressions of his new environment, a passage which I hope will give you a feel for the Grand Hotel itself.

He stood there in his old overcoat, and through the lenses of his pince-nez eagerly devoured it all. He was as exhausted as the winner of a race when he breasts the tape, but he saw the marble pillars with stucco ornament, the illuminated fountain, the easy chairs. He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. (pg. 13)

At first, Kringelein is befriended by another guest, Doctor Otternschlag, a lonely, embittered war veteran who comes to the bookkeeper’s aid when the hotel staff prove rather reluctant to give him a room. Once he realises that Kringelein’s days are numbered, Otternschlag offers to show him something of Berlin with a trip to the ballet and other civilised outings. Nevertheless, Kringelein cannot help but feel that ‘real life,’ whatever that may be, remains out of his reach.

All that changes when Kringelein crosses paths with the dashing Baron Gaigern, a charming young playboy who also happens to be staying at the hotel. I love this description of the Baron, which serves as an excellent introduction to this elegant womaniser.

There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. (pg. 6)

Everyone at the Grand Hotel is enchanted by the friendly Baron Gaigern, but little do they know that he is in fact a cat burglar on the lookout for rich pickings. Once he realises Kringelein is in the money, Gaigern sees an opportunity, and so he takes this somewhat fusty bookkeeper under his wing. At long last Kringelein begins to experience the thrill and excitement of the life he has been craving. Under the guidance of the worldly Baron, Kringelein is persuaded to invest in the finest of clothes, new silk shirts and beautifully tailored suits that transform him in an instant. Further delights soon follow: the adrenaline rush of a drive in a fast car; the adventure of an aeroplane flight; and the heady atmosphere of a night at a Berlin club. There is a touch of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about the sense of vitality (not to mention nervousness) that Kringelein experiences in this new and exhilarating world.

Another character whose life is most definitely altered by an encounter with the Baron is Grusinskaya, an aged Russian ballet dancer and fellow guest at the Grand. Following years of success at the top of her game, Grusinskaya’s career is now on the slide as she finds herself playing to half-empty houses of unappreciative onlookers.

Madame sat in the little dressing room staring at the electric bulb that hung in a wire cage over the looking glass and consulted her memory. No, she thought gloomily, it was not such a success as at Brussels. She was tired to death. She stretched out her most limbs. She sat there, like a boxer who lies in his corner after a hard round, and let Suzette rub her down and chafe her and remove the paint. The dressing room was overheated, dirty, and small. It smelt of old dresses, of glue, of grease paint, of a hundred exhausted bodies. (pg. 26)

A little like Doctor Otternschlag, Grusinskaya is another lonely soul. That said, while past events have left the doctor feeling bitter and cynical, Grusinskaya has been dealt a slightly different hand. The lack of warmth and true love in her life has taken in toll, leaving this once great dancer somewhat vulnerable and fragile. Funnily enough, Grusinskaya is the real reason for Baron Gaigern’s visit to the Grand. The lovable young rogue is after the lady’s pearl necklace, an item rumoured to be worth in the region of 500,000 German marks. Nevertheless, when the Baron embarks on the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s jewellery, something rather surprising happens. To reveal anything more might be a step too far, so perhaps I can encourage you to read the book instead.

The final two characters are Preysing, General Manager of a provincial textiles company, and Flämmchen, the attractive young secretary he hires to assist him with some typing (and a little more besides). Somewhat intriguingly, Preysing is of particular interest to Kringelein as he happens to be the bookkeeper’s ultimate boss. While Kringelein has a score to settle with the GM, Preysing doesn’t even recognise him as one of his own employees when the two men come into contact with each other at the hotel. Preysing, a somewhat cold and unadventurous businessman at heart, has pressing troubles of his own. He has come to Berlin to negotiate a key business deal, a precarious merger with another company which he desperately needs to pull off. Flämmchen, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Tired of looking for a permanent job, she knows her own value and longs to be in the movies. Like many of other characters here, Preysing and Flämmchen find their lives irrevocably altered by their time at the prestigious hotel.

Grand Hotel is an utterly delightful novel full of moments of light and significant darkness. Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one character to another with great ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these characters as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. What appears to be chance and the luck of the draw may in fact turn out to be a case of cause and effect. In some ways, the Grand is a metaphor for life itself, complete with the great revolving door which governs our daily existence. I’ll finish with a short quote that hints at this.

These unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the elevator; you meet again in the dining room, in the cloakroom, and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door—the door that never stops shoveling people in and shoveling them out. (pg. 190)

This is my first read for Biblibio’s Women in Translation Month, which is running throughout August. For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Guy and Melissa. Update: Caroline has also reviewed it, link here.

Grand Hotel is published by NYRB. My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

One of the things I enjoy about following other bloggers and reading their reviews is the discovery of ‘new’ things, interesting books that I might not have heard of otherwise. A case in point is The Incident Report (2009), an excellent novella by the Canadian author, Martha Baillie, which I bought after reading Max’s review. I very much doubt that I would have stumbled across this book had it not been for Max’s blog, and that would have been a shame as it’s a little gem.

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In some respects, Baillie’s book could be described as a fragmentary novella. The central figure here is Miriam Gordon, a thirty-five-year-old single woman who works as a Public Service Assistant at the one of the branches of Toronto’s Public Library. The book is written as a series of library incident reports. Whenever an incident occurs at library, the librarian in charge is required to complete the necessary forms detailing a description of the episode, the perpetrator, any witnesses, actions taken, etc. (There’s a template at the beginning of the book.)

The reports themselves cover quite a variety of different incidents ranging from minor offences (squabbles over the use of a computer) to health-related issues (a man who experiences recurring fainting episodes) to the downright bizarre (a guy who spends hours stripping the plastic covering from electrical wire with the aid of a pocket knife – it’s his own length of wire, not the library’s). Some reports are fairly innocuous, others more threatening and abusive. Here are a few to give you a flavour – all three are quoted in full.

Incident Report 61

A young patron, suspected of previous thefts, was caught at 10:30 this morning in the act of stealing a brand new Mad magazine. He was warned that his behaviour was ill-advised. The magazine, though slightly torn, was reinstated in the collection. (pg. 100)

Incident Report 9

At 11:20 this morning, a patron entered the library to report that a man outside, who was embracing a tree, appeared to be experiencing some distress.

By the time the ambulance arrived the man had lost hold of the tree and lay unconscious. He was lifted from the ground into the ambulance, which drove away without event. (pg 31)

Incident Report 67

At precisely 2:00 this afternoon, I received a telephone call from a patron who complained that the library ought not to hire librarians who “look like terrorists.” I thanked the caller for his advice and assured him that his concerns would be taken into consideration. He suggested that if all our librarians were dressed in cheerful uniforms, the public would feel less threatened by the severe demeanour and foreign physique of certain librarians. As soon as I’d hung up I reported his suggestion to our Branch Head, Irene Frenkel, thereby carrying out my end of the bargain. I remained uncertain as to what constituted his end of the bargain. (pg. 108)

As the book progresses, more details about Miriam herself start to emerge. Some incident reports have little to do with the library; instead they reveal something about Miriam’s life, her current situation and certain significant episodes from her past. In particular, Miriam reflects on her relationship with her father, a gentle, outwardly cheerful man who suffered terribly from an inner sense of despair.

It was all a performance, one he badly wanted to believe in, while inside his head he was whistling a private tune of grave self-deprecation and despair. A master of distractions, light on his feet for such a heavy man, and quick with his hands, he would have made a fine magician or boxer. Instead he wrote poems in rhyming verse that nobody would publish, and earned his living by selling insurance of various kinds.

I wanted to save him from humiliation. (pg. 34)

When Miriam was eleven, her father disappeared for three days. Even though she knew her husband was probably wandering around somewhere (almost certainly visiting bookstores), Miriam’s mother had a hard time accepting this, especially on his return. In time, her initial resentment turned to fear, a worry that almost certainly transferred to Miriam herself. There are more details of Miriam’s backstory in the book – in particular, the quiet tragedy of her father’s life – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves should you decide to read the book. These experiences have left their mark on Miriam, and she is reminded of her father during another incident at the library – it’s one of the most poignant episodes in the novel (quoted here in part).

Incident Report 44

At precisely 11 AM this morning, when the library was not yet full of urgency, John B, a regular, sat down and looked at me through his watery blue eyes. His long stiff legs stuck out in front of him. His bony hands rested on the Reference Desk. He asked that I locate the Web site of a small publishing house, Raccoon Jaw Press, and write down their address for him. I did so. He explained that the press was on the brink of publishing a collection of his poems.

“Very soon my book will be out. I’ll bring you a copy.”

I thanked him and handed him the address, the same address I’d copied out for him the week before and the week before that. Once a week he requested this address. (pg. 76)

The fallout from past events has left Miriam reluctant to form any lasting relationships with men. She is wary of getting too involved, fearful of exposing herself to the possibility of more suffering in the future. Even so, Miriam finds herself attracted to a man she meets in the nearby park where she likes to go for lunch. His name is Janko, a taxi driver from Slovenia. He is kind, gentle and sensitive, an avid reader and a talented artist. Maybe, just maybe, Miriam has found a soulmate.

Incident Report 55

Again I arrived at Janko’s apartment. His skin, and under his skin. What his left toe knew. The smell of him. The orbital smell of him. That our knees spoke willingly. Inexplicably, the taste of raspberries filled my mouth. (pg. 90)

In another book, I might have found that last passage a little annoying, but not here; it works perfectly within the context of Baillie’s story as snapshots of Miriam’s new life with Janko are threaded through the second half of the novella.

Certain other threads also recur: stories of some of the library regulars, typically those who come with their own habits and idiosyncrasies; incidents involving one of Miriam’s co-workers, an annoying woman named Nila who seems to delight in sounding off about the most trivial things at every opportunity; and perhaps most worryingly, details of a series of very creepy notes left in various places around the library, notes that appear to be targeted at Miriam herself.

In spite of its fragmentary nature, Baillie’s novella hangs together quite beautifully. For such a short work it’s surprisingly layered and satisfying. Everything comes together to build a picture of Miriam’s life, and when the ending comes it packs quite a punch.

One aspect that works so well here is the juxtaposition of different tones. Some of the reports concerning ‘true’ incidents at the library – numbers 61 and 9, for example – are, on the whole, factual and objective; others – the excerpts from Miriam’s life and even some of the episodes at the library itself – are more emotive, often embellished with subjective details which bring them to life. They are by turns, amusing, touching, melancholy and unsettling.

I enjoyed this book very much. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novella I quite liked in parts but not as a whole. To my mind, the Baillie is the more successful of the two, or maybe it’s just more my kind of book. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Incident Report is published by Pedlar Press.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (tr. Sophie Hughes)

First published in Spanish in 2015, Affections is the second novel by the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún (his first to be translated into English). Hasbún is something of a rising star in Latin American literature circles. In 2007 he was named as one of the Bogotá 39, the 39 most important Latin American writers under the age of 39; moreover, in 2010 he was included in Granta’s list of the twenty-two best young writers in Spanish. (Hasbún was born in 1981.) In light of this pedigree, I was keen to read Affections, especially given the timing as July is Spanish literature month.

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The focus of Affections is an unusual one. Hasbún’s novella is work of fiction inspired by real figures and historical events from the 1950s and ‘60s. The story revolves around the work and family life of Hans Ertl, the renowned cinematographer who is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with the German film-maker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. (Triumph des Willens and Olympia, both filmed in the 19030s, were two of Riefenstahl’s best-known works.) Affections, however, concerns itself with a later period in Ertl’s life, the time directly following his move to Bolivia in the mid-1950s.

The novella opens in 1955, just over a year after Ertl, his wife (Aurelia), and their three daughters (Monika, Heidi and Trixi) travelled to Bolivia to settle in the city of La Paz. I say ‘settle’, however nothing about the family’s new life feels very stable; right from the start they consider themselves outsiders, interlopers from a very different part of the world. Here’s Heidi’s perspective on their situation.

La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world. (pg. 13)

Keen to embark on a new mission in Bolivia, Hans Ertl sets off in search of Paitití, an old Inca city hidden deep in the midst of the Amazon rainforests. Accompanying him on the visit are his two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, plus a fellow adventurer, Rudi, and an entomologist by the name of Miss Burgl.

What starts out as the story of the early stages of the group’s expedition soon morphs into something very different indeed. As the chapters slip by, it becomes increasingly clear that Affections is primarily concerned with the falling apart of Ertl’s family as their lives start to unravel on the page.

Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best. Leave, but also come back, like a soldier returns home from the war to gather his strength before going again. – Heidi (pg. 12)

Out of all of us Mama had suffered the most. – Trixi (pg. 32)

In some ways, Affections feels like the literary equivalent of a collage, a series of snapshots and scrapbook entries conveyed by way of a sequence of loosely connected chapters. The role of narrator passes backwards and forwards from Heidi to Trixi to Monika; other sections are reflected through the eyes of some of the other main players in the girls’ lives, most notably Monika’s brother-in-law and brief lover, Reinhard.

While various things happen to the family over the course of some 20 years, Hasbún seems more concerned with feelings and experiences than conventional aspects of plot and character development. In some respects, Affections is a novel about the different phases of our lives, the various endings and new beginnings we all experience as we move from one stage in our transitory existence to the next.

I knew I couldn’t leave without finding Monika first, without convincing her to forget all that, to start a new life with me where nobody knew us. Our parents had done it, and Heidi too, in her own way.

They were the worst years of my life and my only consolation was to convince myself that it was possible to start again far away. They were devastating years and my answer, time and time again, wherever I happened to be, was to make myself think like this. – Trixi (pg. 135)

As a novel, it also has much to say about the various facets of our character, how different people tend to views us, and the challenges of reconciling these different identities into a complete whole. Never is this more relevant than when the focus falls on Monika, a woman who seems to represent so many disparate things to those around her.

Yes, there are people for whom one life is not enough. I often think this, in the darkness of my living room, glass of whiskey in my hand, at the epicentre of my new circumstances. How hard it is to assemble all the different people some people were, to reconcile, for example, the intriguing Monika from the early days with the impossible Monika later on. – Reinhard (pg. 38)

There is a strong sense of dislocation and isolation running through this intriguing collection of snapshots, especially when we hear from Monika herself – the use of a second-person narrative gives her vignettes a very distinctive feel.

You are the fine young thing the businessmen try to seduce, the self-assured sibling who sees one of her sisters every once in a while and has lost all contact with the other, the one she never really got along with. You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally. You are the woman who speaks to the people who turn up at the shelter, who is interested in what they have to say, who is weighed down by their stories, even though they tend to be quiet types, men and women who vanish as silently as they appear. You are the woman who remains a stranger to herself. – Monika (pg 64)

Ultimately, Affections is a mercurial, shapeshifting work, a disorientating novella that raises as many questions as it answers. As a piece of art, it leaves much to the reader’s curiosity and imagination, and that’s no bad thing in my book.

Grant and Stu have also reviewed this one for SLM.

Affections is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.