The Gate by Natsume Söseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

There is something very compelling about Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, the sort of quiet, contemplative novel I find myself increasingly drawn to these days. At first sight, it may seem a relatively uneventful tale of an ordinary Japanese couple trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, everything is happening here; we just have to tune in to the author’s style in order to see it.

the-gate

First published in Japan in 1910, The Gate revolves around the lives of Sösuke, a lowly clerk in the Japanese civil service, and his wife of six years, Oyone. As the novel opens, Sösuke is relaxing on the veranda of his home in Tokyo; it is Sunday, his one day of rest. Before long Sösuke sets out for a walk on his own, and in the process of this excursion, we learn a little more about his situation, in particular his mindset and outlook on life. It soon becomes clear that the monotonous routine of life as a commuter has left Sösuke mentally paralysed and physically drained. As he strolls around the city, it is as if he has never really noticed his surroundings before. In time, the gaiety and sense of ease he notices in those around him only serve to highlight the dreariness of his existence, and as the afternoon draws to close he is reminded of the inevitable stresses of the week ahead.

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that had accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work – the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large, all but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “Nonaka-san, over here, please…” (pp. 14-15)

From the opening pages of the novel, there is a sense of detachment about Sösuke, as if he is merely existing in the world rather than participating in it. As the story unfolds, we start to hear a little more about his backstory and the reasons behind his current demeanour. Although Sösuke and Oyone are still very young (late twenties, I think), they seem stuck in a form of stasis that one usually associates with middle age. Once a quick-witted and lively young man, Sösuke now seems to have accepted his lot in life. In time we learn that some years earlier Sösuke was forced to abandon his studies at university following a scandal that had emerged at the time, a sequence of events that ultimately resulted in strained relations with his family. There is a darkness in Sösuke and Oyone’s shared past, something shameful that seems to have haunted their lives ever since.

Moreover, the novel raises the idea that fate may be punishing this couple for their previous misdemeanours by failing to grant them a child, or at least one that survives for more than a few days. (Three pregnancies have ended in tragedy, a source of much sadness particularly for Oyone as she feels the burden of guilt very deeply.) As a consequence of all this, Sösuke and Oyone have cut themselves off from the wider society, avoiding all unnecessary contact with others wherever possible.

In their effort to avoid the stress that comes with living in a complex society, they eventually cut themselves off from access to diverse experiences that such a society affords, and in so doing came to forfeit, in effect, the prerogatives regularly enjoyed by civilized people. […] That they nonetheless lived out each and every day with the same stoical spirit was not because they had from the outset lost all interest in the wider world. Rather, it was because the wider world, after having isolated the two of them from all else, persisted in turning a cold shoulder. Blocked from extending themselves outward, they began developing more deeply within themselves. What their life together had lost in breadth it gained in depth. (pp. 132-133)

Much of the tension in The Gate centres on a problem relating to the support and education of Sösuke’s younger brother, the rather selfish and impatient Koroku. When Sösuke’s father died some years earlier, he left a house along with significant debts. Not having the mental resources to deal with the situation at the time, Sösuke handed the estate over to his uncle to sort out on the understanding that part of the legacy was to go towards funding Koroku’s school fees. Now the uncle has also died leaving the issue of what, if any, funds are due to Sösuke completely unresolved. What’s more, Sösuke’s aunt claims that she is no longer in a position to be able to continue with the payments for Koroku’s education as the money previously provided by Sösuke has run out – the implication being that Sösuke should step in and assume responsibility for Koroku’s school fees. Needless to say, this is an expense that he and Oyone simply cannot afford. As Sösuke wrestles with this problem, we sense his unwillingness to tackle the issue head on. Rather, he gravitates towards a position of inaction, preferring instead to put off any possible discussion with his aunt for fear of sparking a conflict.

All the same, once every day or so, the figure of Koroku hovered indistinctly at the back of his mind and triggered the reaction, for the moment at least, that he must give serious consideration to his brother’s future. The next moment, however, he invariably stifled the thought on the grounds that there really was no cause for haste. Thus Sösuke passed the days, unable to dispel the nagging sense of indecision lodged in his breast. (pp. 47-48)

Sösuke’s reluctance to resolve this matter proves to be a constant source of frustration to Koroku, a feeling that only continues to burrow away as the weeks and months slip by. In particular, Koroku finds it annoying to see his brother lazing around doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon when instead he could be off visiting his aunt with the aim of resolving the question of funding once and for all. This element of the story also enables Söseki to draw the comparison between the old Japan (as represented by the quiet, traditional and unassuming Sösuke) and the new, emerging economy (typified by Sösuke’s cousin, the bright, dynamic and enterprising Yasunosuke).

The cruelty of fate is a running theme here. At one point, a chance conversation between Sösuke and his kindly landlord threatens to cleave open old wounds from the past, a development which prompts Sösuke to seek spiritual enlightenment in an attempt to ease his anxiety.

For all its quietness and sense of understatement, The Gate is a very powerful novel. There is a feeling of tension and pain running through the narrative, of things unsaid or pushed to one side. Nevertheless, despite all their troubles, Sösuke and Oyone love one another very deeply; they share a warm intimacy, taking comfort and strength from one another in their simple surroundings. While they hold out little hope for a brighter future, at least they have each other.

As was their habit the couple drew near the lamplight. In the whole wide world this spot where they sat together felt like the only source of brightness. In the light that shone from the lamp Sösuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sösuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp’s power to illuminate. It was through spending each evening this way that as time passed they had found their own life together. (pg. 58)

In spite of its beautifully melancholy tone, the novel ends with the arrival of spring and signs of better days ahead for this couple. Nevertheless, Sösuke knows that everything in life in cyclical, and before long it will be winter again – what goes around comes around.

Seamus at Vapour Trails has written a great review of this one, which you can read hereEmma has been reading Söseki’s I Am a Cat – I’ll add a link once her billet is available.

The Gate is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Without going into all the details, it’s probably fair to say that my previous encounters with Muriel Spark have been a little mixed. Nevertheless, given how enthusiastic several of my blogging friends are about this author, I’ve been meaning to give her another try for a while. Having just finished Memento Mori, I think I am finally beginning to see what there is to love about Spark, in particular her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. Judging by this book alone, she was quite a writer.

spark

First published in 1959, Memento Mori focuses on the lives of a group of English ladies and gentlemen in their seventies and eighties, all of whom are linked by family ties, social connections and various secrets reaching back over the previous fifty years. As the novel opens, we learn that Dame Lettie Colston (one of the central characters in the book) has been on the receiving end of a sequence of mysterious phone calls from an unknown male caller. Each time the message is the same: ‘Remember you must die.’  The police seem of little help in the matter, and the nuisance calls continue. Another more conventional writer would have used this set-up as the basis for a mystery novel, focusing on the incidents themselves and the search for the perpetrator. However, Spark does something much more interesting with this idea, using it instead as a means of exposing the behaviours of various members of the group, exploring a range of social issues such as class, ageing and our attitudes to mortality.

While Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey shows some concern for his sister’s welfare, he has pressing problems of his own to deal with. His elderly wife, the once-famous author Charmian Piper, is now in need of care as she is exhibiting signs of dementia. Much of the joy of this novel comes from the acerbic exchanges between the various members of this family, the delightful Charmian being especially prone to mixing everything up in her mind. Here’s a brief extract from one of their conversations.

‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.

‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.

‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.

‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’

‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine. (pp. 5-6)

Towards the end of that quote, Spark touches on one of the novel’s recurring themes, namely the different characters’ observations on the process of ageing. Godfrey is proud to be in control of all his faculties, and as such he has a tendency to measure himself against his various friends and peers. Another member of the group, the gerontologist Alec Warner, makes a habit of covertly studying each of his elderly acquaintances by way of an amenable third party (Olive, granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering), recording intimate details about them on a series of coded index cards. He seems strangely obsessed with every aspect of their behaviour as a means assessing their mental and physical health.

While Memento Mori is not a traditional plot-driven novel, several developments happen along the way to keep the reader entertained. At an early stage in the story, Lisa Brooke, a long-standing acquaintance of Godfrey and Charmian, passes away, leaving a significant inheritance to be settled. Her former carer, the poisonous but highly capable Mrs Pettigrew, is staking her claim on the estate, as are the remaining members of Lisa’s family and her estranged husband, Guy Leet. While the details of Lisa’s will are being investigated, Mrs Pettigrew accepts a role as Charmian’s carer, thereby creating all manner of mischief and tension within the Colston household. There are some priceless exchanges between Mrs P and Mrs Anthony, Godfrey and Charmian’s housekeeper – too long to quote here in detail, they are tremendously well-observed. The sly and cunning Mrs Pettigrew isn’t above a spot of blackmail either. She recognises several weaknesses in Godfrey, most notably his strong sense of male pride and his penchant for the occasional dalliance here and there. As such, she sets out to use these flaws in his character to her advantage.

One of the most enjoyable things about this novel is Spark’s portrayal of the relationship between Godfrey and Charmian. There is a very interesting dynamic here. As Charmian starts to rally, her mind improving and sharpening over the winter months, Godfrey finds himself experiencing a corresponding decline. It is almost as though Charmian’s spirits have to wither before Godfrey’s can bloom. As it turns out, Godfrey has always been a little resentful of his wife’s success as a novelist. In some ways he seems to enjoy bullying Charmian, treating her as a helpless child whose memory cannot be trusted. There is a wonderful scene where Charmian makes an afternoon tea all on her own while Godfrey and the others are out. Nevertheless, on their return neither Godfrey nor Mrs Pettigrew is willing to believe Charmian, Mrs P deliberately lying in the process as a means of putting her charge in her place. I love this next passage where Charmian begins to question her sense of duty to Godfrey.

She looked at Godfrey who was wolfing his rice pudding without, she was sure, noticing what he was eating, and she wondered what was on his mind. She wondered what new torment Mrs Pettigrew was practising upon him. She wondered how much of his past life Mrs Pettigrew had discovered, and why he felt it necessary to hush it up at all such costs. She wondered where her own duty to Godfrey lay – where does one’s duty as a wife reach its limits? She longed to be away in the nursing home in Surrey, and was surprised at this longing of hers, since all her life she had suffered from apprehensions of being in the power of strangers, and Godfrey had always seemed better than the devil she did not know. (p. 125)

Interestingly, there is another strand within the novel, one in which the quietly tragic rubs up against the darkly comic. Charmian’s former maid and carer, Jean Taylor, now resides in the geriatric ward of a public hospital. This thread allows Spark to convey a different set of emotions, namely the loss of independence and sense of humiliation one may well experience on entering such a place.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought her an injection. (p. 10)

The other grannies in Jean Taylor’s ward provide some comic moments to balance the poignancy, obsessed as they are with the constant rewriting of their wills and the search through the horoscopes for signs of good news.

Spark also uses this element of the story to pass comment on a range of social issues. Before she entered the hospital, Jean Taylor had longed to move to a private nursing home in Surrey; but Godfrey (her employer at the time) had quibbled about the cost, preferring instead to extol the virtues of the new and progressive free hospitals with their advanced standards of care. This would not do for Godfrey himself of course; instead, this distinguished gentleman imagines himself spending his final years in a nice hotel, possibly somewhere like the establishment in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

By the end of this marvellous novel, virtually all of the main players in the group will have received one of the mysterious telephone calls with the message ‘remember you must die’. Astute readers may have guessed the true identity of the caller by now, but if not, all will be revealed in the closing stages of the story. In Memento Mori, Spark has delivered a sharp yet moving tragi-comedy about the nature of ageing, one that might just provide us with a timely reminder of our own mortality and the need to treat each other with compassion while we’re still here.

Memento Mori is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last summer I read Stefan Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity. It was a book group choice, one that gave rise to a really interesting debate about the moral dilemma at the centre of the story: should we tell the truth and risk crushing a vulnerable person’s spirit, or is it better to go with the flow in the hope of keeping their dreams alive? (There’s no easy answer to this question, btw – hence the power of the book.) While I loved the author’s prose style, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pity was a little too drawn out, a touch overwrought and melodramatic at times. It left me with the feeling that Zweig might be better suited to the short form, more specifically novellas and stories. First published in German in 1913, Burning Secret is one of his novellas and a terrific one at that. Let me tell you a little about it.

burning-secret

As the book opens, the Baron – one of three key players in the story – is approaching the town of Semmering in Austria where he will be spending a week’s holiday. On his arrival at his hotel, the Baron is disappointed to discover that none of the other guests are known to him. He was hoping for some congenial company, an amusing distraction of some description to help pass the time. It is quite clear from the off that the Baron is something of a lady-killer, the type of dashing young man who enjoys the thrill of the chase. In an extended passage, Zweig presents a portrait of a man always on the alert for the next ‘erotic opportunity’, a seasoned huntsman who takes great pleasure in stalking his prey before going in for the kill.

Luckily for the Baron, he doesn’t have to wait too long before the rustle of a silk gown is audible in the background. Into the hotel dining room comes a tall, voluptuous woman, a type the Baron likes very much. While the lady in question is past her prime, there is a touch of the faded beauty about her, a sort of ‘elegant melancholy’ for want of a better phrase. In spite of the fact that the lady is accompanied by her young son, twelve-year-old Edgar, the Baron’s interest is immediately aroused. In the very subtle scene that follows, the interplay between the Baron and Edgar’s mama starts to unfold. It is abundantly clear that the lady has noticed her admirer even though she pretends otherwise.

The huntsman in him scented prey. Challengingly, his eyes now sought to meet hers, which sometimes briefly returned his gaze with sparkling indecision as she looked past him, but never gave a clear, outright answer. He thought he also detected the trace of a smile beginning to play around her mouth now and then, but none of that was certain, and its very uncertainty aroused him. The one thing that did strike him a promising was her constant refusal to look him in the eye, betraying both resistance and self-consciousness, and then there was the curiously painstaking way she talked to her child, which was clearly meant for an onlooker, Her persistent façade of calm, he felt, meant in itself that she was beginning to feel troubled. He too was excited; the game had begun. (pp. 13-14)

Having set his sights on the mama, the Baron sees young Edgar as a potential route of access to his prey. By making friends with the boy, the Baron hopes to facilitate an introduction to the mama, thereby making it easier to move things along a little more quickly. Zweig has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just two or three sentences (he does this with all three of the main players in this story). Here is his description of Edgar, a passage that perfectly captures the awkwardness of a young boy in his own skin.

He was a shy, awkward, nervous boy of about twelve with fidgety movements and dark, darting eyes. Like many children of that age, he gave the impression of being alarmed, as if he had just been abruptly woken from sleep and suddenly put down in strange surroundings. (p. 17)

At twelve years of age, young Edgar is on the threshold of adolescence, longing to be viewed as a grown-up, someone who is independent of his mother. At this age, every little thing means the world to a boy like Edgar; his emotions are big and deeply felt, with a tendency towards either wild enthusiasm and affection or outright hostility and hatred.

He did not seem to adopt a moderate stance to anything, and spoke of everyone or everything either with enthusiasm or a dislike so violent that it distorted his face, making him look almost vicious and ugly. (p. 23)

When the Baron takes a shine to Edgar, the boy is flattered and entranced. Edgar has been brought to the resort to recover from an illness, and with no other children of his age in sight he is clearly very lonely. Before long, he is following the Baron everywhere, desperate to spend time with his new friend. The Baron for his part finds it ridiculously easy to win the boy’s confidence. He knows full well he is using Edgar as a pawn in the game to seduce his target, but he shows precious little concern for any collateral damage that might occur along the way.

Sure enough the desired introduction takes place, and before long all three visitors are spending quite a bit of time together at the resort. All too quickly though, Edgar notices the blossoming of a different type of relationship between his mama and the Baron, a development he finds both puzzling and frustrating. Why has his mama stolen his new friend away from him? Why are the two grown-ups always trying to sneak off by themselves, sending Edgar off on errands on his own? And what is the burning secret they appear to be concealing from him? In some ways, this secret seems to represent the key to adulthood, something mysterious and forbidden and potentially dangerous.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot as it might spoil the story. What’s so impressive about this novella is the insight Zweig gives us into the psychological motives behind the actions of each of the main characters. While the book is written in the third person, the point of view moves around at various points in the story to focus on the Baron, young Edgar and the boy’s mama. The dynamics between the three players are constantly shifting, and they are a delight to observe.

In some ways, Burning Secret is the story of the loss of a young boy’s innocence. In that respect in shares something in common with L. P. Hartley’s excellent novel The Go-Between (in fact at one point in the book, the Baron actually refers to Edgar as his go-between, if only in his thoughts). Young Edgar is desperate to understand the seemingly exciting world of adulthood and everything it represents. Only this world comes with significant dangers and uncertainties, the threat of pain alongside the promise of pleasure. By the end of Burning Secret, Edgar is happy to retreat back into the sanctity of childhood for a while, a place where he feels safe and secure.

In another sense, Zweig’s novella has something to say about the dangers of succumbing to the lure of desire. While not unaccustomed to the occasional flirtation, Edgar’s mama finds herself dangerously close to being pulled into an emotional whirlpool, a vertiginous and violent force seems all set to sweep her away. At one point, she realises that Edgar may have picked up a sense of what is happening, a thought that causes her to pause. For Edgar’s mama, time is running out. This might be her last chance of a dalliance before resigning herself to life without passion. (There are clear hints that all is not entirely rosy between Edgar’s mama and her husband.)

Burning Secret is an excellent novella, full of little shifts in the power base and interplay between the three central characters. In that sense, it has something in common with Beware of Pity, but Secret feels like a subtler, more nuanced piece of work.

To finish, a few words about Zweig’s prose. He has a wonderful turn of phrase, a real ability to capture a moment or an emotion in just one line. Here are a few of my favourites.

In his happy dreams, childhood was left behind, like a garment he had outgrown and thrown away. (Edgar, p. 30)

On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box. (The Baron, p. 11)

Everything in the air and on the earth was in movement, seething with impatience. (The mood and setting, p. 10) 

I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month – here are some links to previous reviews by Guy and Max.

Burning Secret is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy

First published in 1956, The King of a Rainy Country was Brigid Brophy’s second novel, a semi-autobiographical work narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl named Susan, whom the author once described as a ‘cut-down version’ of herself. Witty, engaging and deceptively light on its feet, the book itself is divided into three fairly distinct parts, each one focussing on a different phase in the story.

brophy

As the novel opens, Susan is moving in with Neale in his flat in central London. At first it seems natural to assume that Susan and Neale are girlfriend and boyfriend, but in reality their connection is a little more ambiguous. Maybe they’re just friends; maybe they’re still getting to know one another. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, it’s a relatively relaxed one. Although they sleep in the same bed, sex doesn’t seem to feature here.

We lent each other money without keeping account; we spoke of what we could afford; sometimes we discussed a house we would own. Our relationship was verbal: allusive and entangled. Deviating further and further into obliquity we often lost track. “I don’t think I think you know what I mean.” “We’d better say it openly.” “Much better. But I’m not going to be the first to say it.” “Neither am I.”

Between confidence and the luxury of giving up we veered, straddled or fell. Sometimes Neale warned me to expect nothing of him. At other times it was he who accused me of not trying. […]

We were pleased at being coupled as you two, but also afraid lest, in the unspokenness of our understanding, neither of us really understood. (p.9)

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their bohemian lifestyle, Susan and Neale have very little money to spare. Neale spends his nights washing dishes in one of the local restaurants while Susan takes dictation for a bookseller, a rather dodgy individual by the name of Finkelheim who just happens to be based in one of the houses directly opposite the pair’s flat. One of the joys of this novel is Brophy’s wit, a skill that is plainly evident in her creation of Finkelheim, a man who has assumed a Jewish name as he believes it will be better for business. ‘That way nobody will expect any easy terms from you. You won’t get asked any favours.’  Here’s a brief flavour of the dynamic between Susan and her employer.

Confined together, Finkelheim and I were bound to observe one another and to think what we saw important. We kneaded our relationship for a day or two, and then it took shape: small, lumpish, putty-coloured but reassuring because defined; it created the atmosphere the place lacked. The leer he had given me at our first interview grew into a game. He would say:

“You still sharing with a friend?”

“Yes.”

“You let me know when the friend moves out.”

However, I felt perfectly safe. The game could not grow beyond a certain intensity for lack of material. (pp. 20-21)

It soon becomes clear to Susan that Finkelheim makes his money by peddling pornographic material; the other more respectable books are merely a sideline for the sake of appearances.

One day, when Finkelheim is out, Susan notices a familiar face while leafing through one of the racier titles, The Lady Revealed. The nude in question is Cynthia Bewly, an old friend and teenage crush from school. When Susan spots her former classmate, the memories of her schooldays come rushing back. At the time, Susan idolised Cynthia – and it seems those feelings were reciprocated too, at least to a certain extent…

Cynthia shewed me ways of swerving out of my course into hers. I took up art: and this meant that in free lessons Cynthia and I would draw from the life — from a girl in a gym tunic posed on a desk — while Annette worked at fancy lettering in another part of the studio. I discovered for myself that if I slipped into the wrong queue at dinner time I could sit next to Cynthia. I would watch her profile: I felt unable to eat. Presently this became her feeling too. We would each crumble a slice of bread, each worked on by asceticism. (p. 62)

Filled with a sense of curiosity about Cynthia, Susan is eager to reconnect with her old friend and schoolgirl crush. Neale too is intrigued by the mystery surrounding this girl from Susan’s past, so much so that the pair set about trying to trace Cynthia to see how her life has turned out. If nothing else, the very fact that she is featured in The Lady Revealed is all rather fascinating.

After various attempts to find Cynthia by calling every Bewly in the phone book, Susan manages to find a lead on her friend by way of another acquaintance from school. It would appear that Cynthia, now an aspiring actress, is on her way to Venice for a film convention in the hope of securing a role in a future production. In one of several fortuitous coincidences in this novel, Neale and Susan just happen to find jobs as tour guides accompanying a coach party of tourists across Italy, a lucky break considering their lack of funds to finance a trip to Venice on their own. So before they know it, the two youngsters are on their way to the continent with the aim of arriving in the city just as the film festival is taking place.

In the second phase of the novel, we follow Susan and Neale as they travel to Nice to pick up their tour. What follows is a very witty interlude as the pair do their best to cope with the various demands of the visitors, a rather eclectic bunch of American tourists of all shapes and sizes. Neale performs splendidly, making up much his commentary on the local places of interest as he goes along. There are some wonderfully comic scenes here, somewhat reminiscent of a Barbara Pym novel. One lady traveller is fixated on the number 13 to the extent that she will only sit in seat 13 or sleep in room 13 – a subsequent mix-up with one of the hotel bookings for room 31 causes much frenetic activity along the way. Susan for her part attracts the attention of an admirer, an older chap named Gottlieb Wagner. It all makes for tremendous fun.

The tone changes somewhat in the final section of the story when Susan and Neale finally arrive in Venice, a shift which reflects the serene nature of their surroundings. By way of another lucky coincidence, the couple bump into Cynthia at her hotel and arrange to meet up again the next day when they will have more time to chat. At this point they are introduced to Cynthia’s friends, the statuesque opera singer, Helena Buchan, and her amiable companion, Philip. As this section of the novel unfolds, the various allegiances and relationships between different members of the group start to develop in unexpected ways. To say anything more about this element of the story might spoil it, so I’ll leave it there; save to say that the ending is rather poignant, a combination of new beginnings for some while other threads are drawn to a close. It’s all handled with great delicacy and care.

This is a really lovely novel, shot through with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more engaging to read. Every relationship is coloured by a delightful sense of ambiguity; nothing is quite how it appears at first sight. Brophy’s story captures the freshness of youth, a sense of going with the flow to see where life takes you. In many ways, the opening and closing sections reminded me of Olivia Manning’s wonderful book, The Doves of Venus, another semi-autobiographical novel with a similar feel, also published in the mid-1950s.

At the heart of The King of a Rainy Country is the search for the ideal, the one place, one person or one moment so imbued with meaning that it makes everything in life worthwhile. I’ll finish with a short passage that hints at this idea.

“…I want there to be one place, one person, perhaps even one moment. I suppose like most of one’s instincts it will have to go unsatisfied.” Later he asked: “Could there ever be one moment so supreme that everything would be justified for evermore?”

“I believe so.”

“All romantics believe so.” (p. 139)

My thanks to Max and Ali whose excellent reviews altered me to this novel in the first place – please do take a look at their posts.

The King of a Rainy Country is published by The Coelacanth Press.

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

In 1928, German schoolmaster Hans Herbert Grimm anonymously published his first and only book, the semi-autobiographical anti-war novel, Schlump. Despite its obvious literary merits, Schlump was somewhat overshadowed at the time by the success of another WW1 novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (somewhat ironically, the two books were issued within weeks of each other). In the early 1930s, Schlump was burned by the Nazis. In an effort to keep his authorship of the book a secret, Grimm concealed the original manuscript of Schlump in the wall of his house in Germany where it remained until its discovery in 2013. Now, thanks to the efforts of Vintage Books, NYRB Classics and the translator Jamie Bulloch, a whole new generation of readers can experience this rediscovered classic for themselves. Given the book’s history, it seemed a fitting choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month which is running throughout November.

schlump

The novel itself focuses on the wartime experiences of Emil Schulz (known to all as ‘Schlump’), a bright and eager young man who volunteers for the German infantry on his seventeenth birthday. In August 1915, Schlump sets off for the barracks in readiness for the adventures ahead. Perhaps like many other young men at that time, he has a rather romanticised vision of life as a soldier, a view which is typified by the following passage.

He could picture himself in a field-grey uniform, the girls eyeing him up and offering him cigarettes. Then he would go to war. He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded. Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end. (pp. 6-7)

As luck would have it, Schlump’s first experience of war turns out to be a fairly gentle one. Armed with his school-leaver’s certificate and a grasp of the local language, Schlump is posted to Loffrande in France where he is put in charge of the administration of three villages, a task he soon gets to grips with, overseeing the work of the villagers and intervening in various matters in need of his attention. A good man at heart, Schlump gets on well with the locals, especially the rather high-spirited young girls who see to it that he is not short of female companionship.

Everything is relatively peaceful here in the countryside, so much so that it would be relatively easy for our protagonist to forget his true status as a soldier were it not for the faint rumble of cannons in the background. Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, and after a season in Loffrande, Schlump hears that he is to be sent to the Front. Somewhat understandably, he feels a mixture of anger and disappointment; in some ways, it is almost like leaving home for a second time. As a sergeant from the service corps says before Schlump departs for the battlefield, ‘Only fools end up in the trenches, or those who’ve been in trouble.’

The relative calm of Schlump’s introduction to life as a soldier only serves to accentuate the horrors that follow. Like Remarque, Grimm doesn’t hold back on the true nature of life in the trenches; the physical and mental effects of war are conveyed here in a fair bit of detail. In this scene, Schlump’s regiment is under attack from the British (the Tommies).

One, two! Those were the small shells; now the heavy one would be on its way. Yes, there it was. A terrible explosion, and Schlump was given a sharp jolt by the wall he was leaning against. A loud boom came from the dugout. Schlump teetered forward. The heavy shell had hit the machine-gun nest and the hand grenades had exploded. Two soldiers shot high into the sky; Schlump had a clear view of them, their arms and legs spread-eagled. And around the two bodies innumerable tiny black dots reeled: fragments of stone and dirt. Everything landed on the Tommies’ side. The trench was completely destroyed. There was no trace of the other two machine gunners. Schlump crawled out of the rubble and checked that his legs were still in one piece. (pp.114-115)

Grimm is particularly strong on the gruelling, precarious rhythm of life in the trenches: the constant exhaustion from operating on two hours sleep; the additional discomfort from rampant infestations of lice; the seemingly never-ending periods of standing guard; the perpetual feeling of exposure; the fetching and carrying of food, most of which gets spilled on the battlefield (that’s if it makes it at all – in some instances the carriers will die or suffer severe injuries en route).

Schlump does not escape the war unharmed; there are a couple of occasions when he is hospitalised and sent back to Germany to recuperate, periods which also serve to highlight the debilitating effects of war on those left behind. During a brief visit home, Schlump finds his father a mere shadow of the man he once was, forced to work in a factory as no one is in need of the services of a tailor any more.

In spite of everything the war has to throw at him, Schlump remains, for the most part, optimistic. Only once or twice does his spirit come close to fracturing, most notably when a pregnant girl is killed by a bomb while crossing the marketplace in her village, an act which provokes a sense of outrage and dismay at the cruelty of war. Moreover, Schlump is not blind to the hypocrisy of those in charge of the foot soldiers, the higher-ups who shield themselves from any personal danger or discomfort. The contrast in the following passage is plain to see.

And then that time when they’d been resting, when the first company had returned from the front trenches, those wretched fellows had looked ghastly: emaciated, ashen-faced, grubby chalk worked around the stubble, stooped, utterly worn out, filthy, terribly filthy, lice-ridden and bloody, and only twenty men left of the sixty who’d been positioned on the front line. These men were standing by their quarters when the fat sergeant major came out, who’s spent each one of the twelve nights playing cards and getting drunk. This sergeant major, the mother superior of the company came and ranted at them as if they were common criminals. If that wasn’t contempt, then what was? (pp. 120-121)

The somewhat episodic nature of this novel makes it difficult to capture in a review. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes centering on Schlump’s experiences of the war from 1915-18. My Vintage Books edition of Schlump comes with an excellent afterword by the German writer Volker Weidermann – author of Summer Before the Dark, a book set before the start of WW2 – who describes Grimm’s novel as a docu-fable. It’s an apt description, particularly given the nature of the some of the episodes in the book. There is a fable-like quality to several of the tales and stories peppered throughout the narrative. Almost every character Schlump encounters has a story to tell, an anecdote or myth of some sort, a feature which adds to a feeling of the margins being blurred. In certain instances, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is meant to be ‘real’ and what is more likely to be a horrific nightmare or fantasy of some sort.

I’m very glad to have discovered this book via Grant’s excellent review last year. Schlump is a very endearing character, forever the scallywag, the chancer and the dreamer, always looking to sneak away from his place of confinement in search of girls. In spite of the undeniable horrors of war, Grimm brings a great deal of humour to this story, especially the first part of the book when his protagonist is stationed in France. There is a sense of universality about this story, almost as though Schlump could have been any soldier in any regiment in the Great War. It’s one of the things that makes this novel so relevant to readers everywhere, irrespective of their nationality.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

I can’t quite recall where I first heard of Angela Thirkell’s cosy novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire, but it was somewhere on the blogosphere. Even though they sounded a little fluffier than my usual fare, comparisons with Barbara Pym piqued my interest, so I bought a couple to try. (Well, they were going cheap in one of the local charity shops.)

After a false start earlier in the summer, High Rising – the first in Thirkell’s sequence of social comedies – proved to be an absolute delight. Yes, the world she creates here is unashamedly comfy and twee, but it’s also very charming and entertaining. I turned to High Rising for a bit of escapism at the end of a long week, and it fitted the bill perfectly.

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The novel revolves around the life of Laura Morland, an independent and capable middle-class widow, who divides her time between her main residence in High Rising and her flat in London. As the book opens, Laura is collecting her youngest son, Tony, from school for the Christmas holidays which they plan to spend in their country home. While Tony is a much-loved child, his capacity to exasperate his mother is seemingly endless as he gabbles away non-stop on the finer details of his train set, which carriages he should acquire next, and so on and so forth. In fact, a substantial portion of the novel’s charm comes from Tony’s incessant chatter with the other characters around him, more of whom in a little while. Here’s Laura as she reflects on her irrepressible young son.

She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive. There seemed to be some peculiar power in youngest sons which made them more resilient to all outside disapproval. When he was checked in his flow of speech, he merely took breath, waited for an opening and began again. Laura could only hope that this tenacity of purpose would serve him in after life. It would either do that, or alienate all his friends completely. (p. 22)

Alongside her role as the mother of four boys, Laura has carved out a decent living for herself as a moderately successful writer of middlebrow page-turners, a skill she developed to support her family following the death of her husband some years earlier.

The story gets going in earnest when we are introduced to Laura’s dear friend and fellow writer, George Knox. George, a widower himself, lives with his twenty-year-old daughter, Sybil, in the nearby settlement of Low Rising. Life in the Risings is relatively gentle and settled, but all this changes with the arrival of George’s new live-in secretary, the rather attractive and confident Miss Grey. Thirkell is a delightful observer of social situations, an ability which I hope comes across in this next passage. In this scene, Laura is meeting Miss Grey (the newcomer) for the first time.

‘You must excuse me,’ said the newcomer. ‘I believe you are Mrs Morland. Miss Knox told me you were coming today. Mr Knox is very busy, but he is coming down, just for tea.’

‘Certainly I’ll excuse you,’ said Laura, ‘though I haven’t the faintest idea what for. You are Miss Grey, of course.’

‘Has Miss Knox been telling you about me?’ asked Miss Grey.

‘Oh, yes, and Dr Ford, and my devoted maid, Stoker. We gossip very quickly here, Miss Grey, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’

She held out her hand, without getting up. Miss Grey hesitated, then touched it without enthusiasm and moved away to the tea-table.

I’m ashamed of myself, thought Laura, for nearly being rude at sight. But I won’t be patronised by a chit in George’s house. And why should she ask if Sybil has been talking about her? Why should she think that anyone wants to talk about her? Impertinence. (p. 46)

It soon becomes apparent that Miss Grey is a bit of a schemer. She has firm designs on George Knox, virtually sidelining his rather sensitive daughter, Sybil, in the family home as she goes about her business. No-one else is allowed to get too close to George, especially Laura whom Miss Grey considers a potential rival for George’s affections. Laura, on the other hand, has no particular desire to marry George; nevertheless, she is very fond of him, so much so that she keeps a close eye on developments at Low Rising as the weeks and months slip by.

Much of the action in High Rising revolves around Laura’s attempts to temper Miss Grey’s hold over the Knox household. Given that the Risings is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, several of Laura’s friends and colleagues also play their part in winkling out Miss Grey, aka ‘The Incubus.’ First, there is Anne Todd, Laura’s resourceful yet vulnerable secretary, a woman who will have to face up to an uncertain future once her frail mother passes away. Then we have Laura’s publisher, the rather charming Adrian Coates, smitten as he is with George’s lovely daughter, Sybil. And finally, there is Amy Birkett, the headmaster’s wife who happens to know something about Miss Grey that might just turn out to be of some significance to the story. There are a few other players too, most notably Laura’s gossipy housekeeper, Stoker, and Dr Ford, the local doctor who has his sights set on Anne Todd, if only she would yield to him. It all makes for a very entertaining mix.

High Rising is a delightfully engaging read, the bookish equivalent of comfort food, something light and frivolous to enjoy every now and again – not the sort of book I would read every day, but rather delicious as an occasional treat. While Thirkell’s brand of humour isn’t quite as sharp or as dry as Barbara Pym’s, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Much of the dialogue is hilarious in a somewhat farcical sense – intentionally so, I think. (There are a few pointed racial slurs which reflect the attitudes of the day, but unfortunately this seems to be par for the course in many novels from the 1930s.) Equally, some of the situations and set-pieces are most amusing in a theatrical way.

As a central character, Laura is very easy to like. In spite of her trials and tribulations with young Tony, Laura is an intelligent, sympathetic and compassionate woman trying to do the best for her close friends and family. She knows her books aren’t terribly literary, but then again she’s not aiming for that sector. Her readers are the everyday women of Britain, just like Laura and her friends.

I’ll finish with a passage from one of the novel’s early scenes where Laura is reflecting on her first meeting with the publisher, Adrian Coates, back in the days when she was just starting out as a writer. I wondered if Thirkell was thinking of herself (or some of her contemporaries) when she wrote these lines. Either way, I am looking forward to reading more of her in the future.

‘If you are really writing a book I would very much like to see it when it is ready,’ he said.

‘You mightn’t like it,’ said Laura, in her deep voice. ‘It’s not highbrow. I’ve just got to work, that’s all. You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me when he was alive, and naturally he is no help to me now he’s dead, though, of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind. That’s all I could do,’ she said gravely.

So in time her first story went to Adrian, who recognising in it a touch of good badness almost amounting to genius, gave her a contract for two more. (p. 30)

Several other bloggers have reviewed High Rising – here are links to a couple of positive reviews by Ali and Jane. BookerTalk’s post is also well worth reading, particularly as she offers an alternative perspective on the novel.

High Rising is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Providence by Anita Brookner

Anita Brooker is another of those writers I’ve been meaning to read or revisit for a while. I liked her Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. That said, my tastes in literature have changed quite substantially since the days of my early twenties when I was young and carefree and too foolish to know any better. Now that I’ve come to appreciate the work of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, I thought it would be a good time to try Brookner again, all the more so given her passing in March of this year. (Julian Barnes wrote a beautiful piece about her for The Guardian, which you can read here.) Anyway, to cut a long intro short, I really loved Providence (Brookner’s second novel, first published in 1982), so much so that I’d like a few more of her early books over the next year or two.

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I suspect there is a reasonable degree of Brookner herself in Kitty Maule, the central character in this short but subtle novel of life’s hopes, expectations and various misfortunes. Kitty, an intelligent, sensitive and presentable young woman in her thirties, lives on her own in a flat near Chelsea. By her own admission, Kitty is somewhat difficult to place, her father having died shortly before she was born, and her mother some three years ago. Fortunately for Kitty, she is not entirely alone in the world. Her French grandmother, the dressmaker Maman Louise, and her grandfather, Vadim, have lived in London ever since they moved to the city shortly after their marriage several decades earlier.

Kitty works as a college tutor in literature, her key area of focus being literature in the Romantic Tradition. For some time she has been harbouring hopes of a budding romance with one of her colleagues, the rather passive and thoughtless Maurice Bishop, one of the key players in her department. Maurice, however, seems rather reluctant to commit. While he is happy to drop round to Kitty’s flat for the occasional dinner of an evening, Maurice demonstrates very little in the way of warmth or affection for her. In many ways, I thought him a rather selfish man in spite of a broken relationship in his past. It turns out that Maurice is still rather emotionally attached to Lucy, the childhood sweetheart whom he had hoped to marry. Alas, Lucy’s faith and calling in life intervened and so the marriage wasn’t to be. At least that’s what Maurice tells Kitty one evening when they are together in her flat. Kitty, for her part, cannot help but wish for something more in her life. She is tired of being admired for her sensible nature and professional expertise. In short, she wants to feel loved and cherished.

But I want more, she thought, blowing her nose resolutely. I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet. I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable, I do not want to do wonders with Professor Redmile’s group, I do not even care what happens to Larter. I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook, she thought, turning the tap with full force on to a bowl rusted with the stains of her fresh tomato soup. I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful. I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding present. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (pp. 59-60)

As the novel unfolds, we gain an insight into the other aspects of Kitty’s life: the occasional visits to her grandparents complete with Maman Louise’s devotion to making dresses and various outfits for her to wear; Kitty’s tutorials on Constant’s novel Adolphe, a text which I feel sure would add another layer to the nature of her relationship with Maurice; and perhaps most significantly, Kitty’s interactions with her two closest friends – her rather annoying but kindly neighbour, Caroline, and her academic colleague and fellow spinster, Pauline. Deep down in her heart of hearts, Kitty knows that she may well end up like Pauline, a lonely woman cut adrift from so many pleasures in life while she cares for her blind mother. On a visit to Pauline’s cottage, Kitty gets a glimpse of what her own life might come to if things don’t change for the better very soon. (This is a long quote, but it is worth reading in full.)

Kitty felt a pang of pain for her. She comes here every night, even in the darkest winter, she said to herself. There is no one for her to talk to. She has to make arrangements for people to come in and see to her mother during the day. And when her mother dies, what will she do? Probably go on living in the same place, even lonelier. And she knows all this. She is too clever not to know. She is what is called a liberated woman, thought Kitty. The kind envied by captive housewives. She felt an urgent need to put her own life into some sort order, to ensure that she did not turn out like Caroline or like Pauline, the one so stupid, the other so intelligent, and both so bereft. She saw her two friends, who would have nothing to say to each other if they should ever meet, as casualties of the same conflict, as losers in the war in which Providence was deemed to play so large a part, and to determine the outcome, for some, not for others. (pp. 80-81)

In her yearning for Maurice, Kitty’s pursuit takes her on a somewhat fruitless trip to France, a period of waiting alone in a guest house while the love of her life takes in the cathedrals of the country. At home in London, she is persuaded to consult a clairvoyant in the hope of discovering some positive news about her potential future and related matters of the heart.

Even though I’m still quite new to Brookner, I strongly suspect that Providence is highly representative of much of her work. It’s a quiet, beautifully observed novel about the disappointments in life, both large and small, the crumbling of those hopes and dreams that many of us hold dear. I felt a great death of empathy and sympathy for Kitty as her somewhat inevitable story played out across the pages of this book. In some ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek in its precision and insight into the inner life of a woman whose life remains unfulfilled. The central characterisation is excellent, Kitty in particular. Moreover, there is much warmth and compassion in Brookner’s portrayal of the grandparents, Louise and Vadim. There’s a lovely scene in which Kitty takes the elderly couple out for the afternoon, a trip that warms their hearts.

I loved this book and would recommend it as a suitable point of entry (or re-entry) into Brookner’s work. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a gateway novel for me.

Providence is published by Penguin Books. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.