Monthly Archives: June 2014

Weekend Wine Notes: A Tale of Two Chardonnays

A couple of weeks ago I returned to an old favourite, an unoaked chardonnay from the Mâconnais region in Burgundy: Saint-Véran en Crêches, Domaine Nathalie et Jacques Saumaize. I’ve been buying this Saint-Véran for years, and it never fails to deliver vintage in, vintage out. I’m not a big lover of oak as far as chardonnay is concerned, and I suspect this is one of the reasons why I love this wine. There’s plenty of refreshing lemony acidity here, and a lovely creamy note on the finish – it’s so well balanced and elegant. Everything I want from a chardonnay at this level. In fact, it leaves me wondering why I ever bother buying other examples. But then again, that’s part of the fun of wine, isn’t it, to try different things? How else to discover a new gem?

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Speaking of which, here’s a new wine from one of my favourite producers, GD Vajra: Dragon Langhe Bianco, Luigi Baudana (2012 vintage). Listed by The Wine Society as a chardonnay, the Dragon is a mercurial creature indeed – I’ve been reading Angela Crater’s Nights at the Circus, and this wine would be a fitting match. The Dragon hails from Serralunga d’Alba in the Piedmont region in North-West Italy, and it certainly feels quite European. On the nose, it’s quite floral with some stone-fruit notes, too, but if served blind, I doubt I’d mark this wine as chardonnay – it’s more complex and characterful than that. My initial thought was ‘assyrtiko’ from Greece, but the more I sampled this wine, the more it cried ‘Alsace’, especially as it warmed up. This wine is a beguiling mix of citrus (lemon oil), savoury and minerally flavours with a long, mouth-watering finish. Crying out for food, this wine would be lovely with salmon or a robust seafood dish – it’s got enough body and a slight oiliness to cope with something substantial.

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In fact, the Dragon isn’t just a ‘straight’ chardonnay. It’s a blend: 80% chardonnay, 20% sauvignon blanc, riesling and local grape, nascetta. Whatever it is, the Dragon is a winner, one that punches well above its price point of £9.95. More, please!

Wine stockist: I bought both wines from The Wine Society. I tasted the 2011 vintage of the Saint-Véran en Crêches, Domaine Nathalie et Jacques Saumaize – The Society has moved on to the 2012 vintage now, priced at £12.50 per bottle. The Dragon Langhe Bianco, Luigi Baudana, 2012 is £9.95 per bottle.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened, however much we are assured that the story is a true one, not an invention, but real. At any rate, it forms part of the hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities. (pg. 310, Penguin Books)

When something happens in life, how do we ever know if someone is telling us the truth, that their version of events is accurate? Or do we just have to accept the impossibility of ever knowing anything (or anyone) for sure? These questions are central to The Infatuations, the latest book by Javier Marías.

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The novel is narrated by María Dolz, a woman in her late thirties, who works for a publisher based in Madrid. Every day, María has breakfast at the same café where she sees a married couple who also take breakfast together on a daily basis. María can see how much this handsome man and woman enjoy each another’s company, as they talk, laugh and joke ‘as if they had only just met or met for the very first time’. María never speaks to her ‘Perfect Couple’ (as she thinks of them) but simply seeing them together and imagining their lives lifts her mood at the start of each day.

One day, the couple (Miguel and Luisa) are absent from the café; at first María assumes they have gone away on holiday and, deprived her morning fillip,she feels a little bereft at their absence. Later, she learns from a colleague that Miguel has been stabbed repeatedly and murdered by a homeless man in what appears to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. In fact, María had already seen the newspaper report of the murder (coupled with a photograph of a man lying in a pool of blood) without realizing that the victim was the husband from her Perfect Couple.

A few months later, María sees Luisa at the café again, accompanied this time by her two young children. After a while, the children depart for school leaving Luisa alone and María decides to offer the widow her condolences. She soon learns that Miguel and Luisa had also noticed her at the café; indeed they even had their own name for her, the ‘Prudent Young Woman’. Luisa is keen to talk, so she invites María to come to her home that evening where María meets the intriguing Javier Díaz-Varela, one of Miguel’s closest friends. Although María doesn’t see Luisa again for some time, she bumps into Javier purely by chance during a visit to the museum and the two become lovers. As María continues to see Javier, she learns a little more about his relationship with Luisa and uncovers other information which causes her to question Javier’s true motivations and desires…and these discoveries cast a different light on events and circumstances surrounding Miguel’s death.

What Marías does brilliantly in The Infatuations is to use the events surrounding Miguel’s murder to weave an elegant meditation addressing fundamental ideas about truth, chance, justice, love and mortality. There’s a philosophical, meandering, almost hypnotic quality to Marías’s writing. His extended sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, often followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. And he softens the boundaries between thoughts and speech, too; once immersed in the middle of an extended passage, it isn’t always easy to tell whether you are listening to a character’s inner reflections or observing their conversation with another. This technique might sound a little confusing, but it isn’t at all; Marías pulls it off with tremendous skill and style, and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is simply wonderful.

During this meditation, Marías offers us reflections on a number of existential themes. For example, how we cling to the dead, feeling ‘an initial temptation to join them, or at least to carry their weight and not let them go’; how the dead should never come back, however much we would like them to; how an unexpected or a particularly dramatic death can dominate our memories of that person, almost stealing part of their existence from them:

You could say that those who die such a death die more deeply, more completely, or perhaps they die twice over, in reality and in the memory of others, because their memory is forever lost in the glare of that stupid culminating event, is soured and distorted and also perhaps poisoned. (pg. 75)

Marías is particularly insightful when it comes to grief and how the death of a loved one affects those who remain. In this passage, María Dolz observes Luisa’s daughter, Carolina, with her mother in the café. It’s almost as though mother and daughter have swapped roles as Carolina tries to look after Luisa:

She kept one eye on her mother all the time, watching her every gesture and expression, and if she noticed that her mother was becoming too abstracted and sunk in her own thoughts, she would immediately speak to her, make some remark or ask a question or perhaps tell her something, as if to prevent her mother from becoming entirely lost, as if it made her sad to see her mother plunging back into memory. (pg. 41)

And the following passage on grief reflects some of my own experiences following the sudden death of my mother (many years ago now). There’s no finer example of why The Infatuations resonates so deeply with me:

And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellent. She understands that for them sadness has a social expiry date, that no one is capable of contemplating another’s sorrow, that such a spectacle is tolerable only for a brief period, for as long as the shock and pain last and there is still some role for those who are there watching, who then feel necessary, salvatory, useful. But on discovering that nothing changes and that the affected person neither progresses nor emerges from her grief, they feel humiliated and superfluous, they find it almost offensive and stand aside: ‘Aren’t I enough for you? Why can’t you climb out of that pit with me by your side? Why are you still grieving when time has passed and I’ve been here all the while to console and distract you? If you can’t climb out, then sink or disappear’. And the grieving person does just that, she retreats, removes herself, hides. (pg. 64-65)

I loved The Infatuations (its Spanish title is el enamoramiento’the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation). It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and superbly written; one to savour and revisit in the future. I don’t want to say very much more about the novel’s plot or Miguel’s death, but Marías sustains an air of mystery and ambiguity through to the finish leaving María Dolz to contemplate: ‘the truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess.’ (pg 326)

This review was originally published as a guest post on Winstonsdad’s blog (23rd April 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here. With Stu and Richard’s Spanish Lit Month fast approaching, I thought it a timely post in the run-up to July.

The Infatuations (tr. Margaret Jull Costa) is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Page numbers refer to the paperback edition. Source: personal copy.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (review)

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. Three of her novels, The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she won the prize in 1979 with Offshore. I knew she was held in high regard, but somehow, she’d fallen off my radar. But then at the end of last year, 4th Estate reissued Fitzgerald’s books in beautiful new editions. Tempted by these reissues in their smart covers, I thought I’d try one of her novels: The Beginning of Spring, first published in 1988.

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The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in the winter of 1913, a time political and industrial change for Russia. Frank Reid — born and raised in Russia, but English by descent – owns and manages a small printing works, part of a business established by his father. As the book opens, Frank learns that his wife, Nellie, has left him suddenly and without any warning. Nellie has taken their three children (Dolly, Ben and Annushka) with her, but subsequently deposits them at Mozhaisk station. Frank is at a loss as to why Nellie has disappeared so abruptly, abandoning the children during her escape. On the children’s arrival home, Dolly (at ten, the eldest of the three) offers her father the following observation, which makes her seem wise beyond her years:

‘You shouldn’t have expected her to manage by herself. She had to send us back, we weren’t a comfort to her. I think you asked too much of her.’ (pg. 23, 4th Estate)

And a few days later, Dolly tells Frank ‘the mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place.’ (pg. 62)

During the novel, we learn a little more of Nellie’s upbringing in Norbury, and how she came to meet Frank through the local choral society. As a young man, Frank journeyed to England to study and gain hands-on experience of the printing industry, and his training took him to Norbury. Fitzgerald takes us back in time to illustrate Frank’s initial impressions of his future wife:

Frank was struck by her way of looking at things. There was a tartness about it, a sharp flavour, not of ill-nature, but of disapproval of life’s compromises, including her own. (pg. 29)

Nellie is determined that she’s ‘not going to be got the better of by Norbury’. We sense her desperation to get away from this stifling environment, the gossip and judgement of its inhabitants, not to mention the scrutiny of aunts, uncles and other family members due to attend the wedding. A little before her wedding day, Nellie seems unsettled by her lack of experience with men, and the same anxieties return to her mind:

It was a moment’s loss of confidence, which Frank knew he mustn’t allow. Under his hands her solid partly naked body was damp with effort. She was recklessly dragging off something whose fastenings seem to defy her. Her voice was muffled. ‘Go on Frank. I’m not going to let them stand about knowing more than I do. I won’t be got the better of.’ (pg. 37)

There’s something quite telling about this section of the narrative, and yet Fitzgerald leaves much unsaid, thereby allowing the reader to contemplate the significance on future events. As the flashbacks continue, Nellie seems quite at home in Moscow on their arrival in Russia, more so than in Germany where the couple spent their first three years of marriage. And so we still don’t know why Nellie has left Frank, or whether she intends to come back.

Returning now to 1913, Frank sets about trying to make arrangements for the care of the children. Keen to avoid the English chaplaincy (the chaplain’s wife is quite a character) for as long as possible, Frank draws on the support of Arkady Kuriatin’s wife and family; Kuriatin is a merchant and business contact, and his family are happy to accommodate the Reid children, in the short term at least. Fitzgerald’s writing contains flashes of sly humour, and we see this in her description of the Kuriatins:

Arkady had children – how many, Frank couldn’t say, because extra ones, perhaps nephews and nieces, perhaps waifs, or even hostages, seemed to come and go. His wife, Matryona Osipovna, was always at home. Frank had heard her say, ‘What is there better outside than in?’ Nellie had always admitted Mrs Kuriatin’s kindness, but couldn’t be doing with her. (pg. 63)

A visit to Moscow by Nellie’s rather naïve brother, Charlie, also provides ample opportunity for Fitzgerald to add touches of wry humour to the narrative.

Another of the novel’s delights stems from its cast of finely-drawn and memorable characters; one such character is Selwyn Crane, Frank’s chief accountant, fervent poet and avid follower of Tolstoy. In order to provide his employer with a solution to his childcare dilemma, Selwyn introduces Frank to Lisa Ivanovna, a bright young peasant girl who can speak good Russian to the children. The author gives us a few details of how Selwyn has encountered Lisa. Finding her in tears while working in a Moscow department store, he assumes she’s feeling homesick and out-of-place in the big city. And yet, there is an air of mystery around Selwyn’s connection with the girl and his reasons for bringing her to the attention of Frank. All goes well when Lisa meets Frank’s children (who seem to be showing few signs of missing their mother), and so the young girl moves into the Reid household. Frank finds himself drawn to this attractive, quietly enigmatic creature, but it would be unfair of me to say any more about how the remainder of the story unfolds…

The Beginning of Spring is a quietly compelling novel, one that draws you slowly, yet steadily, into its mysterious world. Fitzgerald gives us a skilfully realised picture of Russia in this era with its tea rooms bustling with activity and its well-to-do houses. We see how business and dealings with the authorities are conducted in Russia during this period, a time when one had to have ‘an instinct for how much in the way of bribes would be appropriate for the uniformed and political police.’ And despite being born and raised in Russia, Frank is constantly reminded that he’s a ‘foreigner’, one whose freedom to come and go from the country is dependent on the disposition of the authorities.

As I’ve already hinted, there is much going on under the surface of the narrative, plenty left unsaid and this leaves space for the reader to ponder the significance of particular phrases and scenes. Towards the end of the book, there’s a beautiful extended passage covering the change and evolution of birch trees as the seasons pass from spring through to winter and back to spring once again. Fitzgerald describes in two or three pages the lifecycle of the birch, as we follow the trees from birth to decay and death. Once again, I’m sure this piece is symbolic of other events in the novel, but nothing is explicit; we’re left to draw our own meaning from these images. Similarly, could it be that the opening of sealed windows in the Reid household, an event that heralds the start of spring, is symbolic of something else? Could it be a metaphor for the release of repressed emotions, perhaps? A sign of feelings that have been bottled-up for months…

In the closing chapters, Fitzgerald deftly pulls the novel’s threads together, and we discover something of the puzzle surrounding Nellie’s disappearance. It’s a great ending, one that left me keen to read more of her novels at some point.

The Beginning of Spring is published in the UK by 4th Estate. Source: personal copy.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, tr. by Deborah Dawkin

Peirene Press do a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European novellas, many of which are written by women writers. Peirene curate their books by theme, and The Blue Room is the second in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.

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Hanne Ørstavik, an award-winning Norwegian author, has published several books, but The Blue Room is her first to be translated into English, skilfully translated here by Deborah Dawkin. The story is narrated by Johanne, a young woman in her early twenties who lives with her mother in a small apartment in Norway. The novel begins on the morning when Johanne is due to leave Oslo for a six-week trip to America with her boyfriend Ivar, a trip her mother seems very reluctant for Johanne to take. When Joanne wakes, she finds herself locked in her room, alone in the apartment and unable to break free on her own. As the young girl waits, she soon realises she must let go of her excitement and hopes for everything that might happen in her relationship with Ivar. Instead, Johanne’s thoughts coalesce around a number of recent experiences: how she came to meet Ivar at University (where she’s studying to become a Clinical Psychologist), the role of religion in her life, and her relationship with her mother.

Johanne’s reflections reveal a recent sexual awakening, but also internal conflict between the different demands and influences in her life. On the one hand, she’s attracted to Ivar and is keen to explore her desires and sexual fantasies; but at other times, feelings of guilt and pain flood into her mind:

I lay on my side with my head on the pillow and looked out of the window; the blue of the sky was so clear it almost hurt. I felt it come again. I didn’t cry much, just a few tears rolling down, wetting my eyes. I wondered about the cause. My thoughts lay embedded in sinews and skin, beyond my reach. Those of you who believe yourselves to be clean, without sin, without guilt, may cast the first stone. I saw myself under a heap of stones. (pgs. 46-47, Peirene Press)

These conflicting forces play a part in Johanne’s reactions towards Ivar. As an example, here’s Johanne as she thinks back to an early stage in their relationship, and we see how quickly her thoughts change; what starts with the hope and promise of the first flushes of love suddenly flips into a mood tainted by fear and a sense of danger:

What I wanted most was to go for a walk in the forest, just the two of us, talking, alone, with the sun coming through the trees at an angle, looking at it together, getting to know each other. Ivar took a folded piece of yellow paper out of his pocket. Here’s the address and time and stuff, he said. He looked at me with his head to one side. He was serious. His lips moved a fraction, I observed the breath between them, and his freckles. He’ll kiss me now, I thought. My lips were tingling, but nothing happened. He just looked at me, his face very close. It was if we’d made a promise to each other, exchanged a vow that had no outward expression, because it was unvoiced, but it would live on inside me for ever, real and genuine. Pure. I think Ivar felt it too. Like the words I love you. But then why, I wondered, hadn’t he kissed me? Did he think I was ugly? Repulsive? What was he after? A basement party somewhere near the Akerselva river, late at night. What did he intend to subject me to? Why me? Men always accost me when I’m in town or on the train, alcoholic kids, guys who are out of their heads, or who need someone to confide in. There must be something about me, something they see. Perhaps I’m marked. Perhaps I have a wound that everybody can see but me. Something wrong? Ivar asked, putting a hand on my arm. I still hadn’t answered him about the party. His grasp was firm. A strong, warm hand on my arm. That’s how it starts, So-called concern, I thought later. Just another word for manipulation. (pgs. 94-95)

As the story develops, we can’t help but feel that Johanne’s fears about Ivar’s intentions stem from her mother’s ideas about men and their motives in general:

Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots, she said. (pg. 51)

The claustrophobic, almost stifling setting for Johanne’s confinement reflects the nature of her ties to her mother. It’s a very unsettling, unnerving read, especially when disturbing visions of a sexual and intense nature flood into Johanne’s mind like bolts from the blue. But it’s a subtle book, too; I found myself reading each line quite slowly, looking behind the words on the page for hints and clues about events in Johanne and her mother’s past that might shed light on various elements within the story. And the ending is quite chilling; it’s one that left me trying to imagine what might happen to Johanne in the hours and days to come.

As with all the Peirene novellas I’ve read to date, I’m sure a second reading of The Blue Room will reveal additional nuances and insights. That’s one of the things I like about Peirene books – there’s always something new to discover when one returns to a Peirene story, even if The Blue Room might be an uncomfortable place to revisit.

A number of other bloggers have also reviewed this book – if you’d like to read their thoughts, just click on the links: Claire at Word by Word, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library and Naomi and The Writes of Women.

The Blue Room is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (book review)

‘I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.’ (pg. 84, Orion Books)

Some years ago now, I read (and loved) James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, but I’d never dipped into any of his other books. Then earlier this year, Max Cairnduff reviewed Postman and his review reminded me of the sharpness of Cain’s writing. As I’ve just come off the back of a run of reading translated fiction from the IFFP longlist, I wanted a change of scene, a different mood. Time for some noir, I thought, so I picked up my copy of Cain’s Double Indemnity and allowed it to sweep me away to Los Angeles for a few hours.

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Our narrator, Walter Huff, is an experienced insurance salesman who works for the General Fidelity of California. He’s mastered all the tricks of his trade, knowing exactly when and how to push (or back off for that matter) to bag a sale. As the story opens, Huff is paying a call to a client’s home in Glendale in an attempt to get him to renew his automobile insurance. His client, Mr Nurdlinger (great name), is out, but Nurdlinger’s wife, Phyllis, receives Walter’s call. Huff explains his reasons for wanting to see Mr Nurdlinger, and Phyllis gives him some story about how her husband is considering other insurance providers. But Walter soon smells a rat:

And after a while I knew this woman didn’t care anything about the Automobile Club. Maybe the husband did, but she didn’t. There was something else, and this was nothing but a stall. I figured it would be some kind of a proposition to split the commission, maybe so she could get a ten-spot out of it without the husband knowing. There’s plenty of that going on. And I was just wondering what I would say to her. A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.

But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. ‘Do you handle accident insurance?’ (pg. 5)

Seduced by the allure of Phyllis Nirdlinger and her shapely curves, Walter is unable to keep away, even though he knows this magnetic woman spells trouble from the get-go:

She made another bunch of pleats. Then, after a long time here it came. ‘Mr Huff, would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all? I have a little allowance of my own. I could pay you for it, and he wouldn’t know, but just the same all this worry would be over.’

I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker. But I didn’t do it. She looked at me, a little surprised, and her face was about six inches away. What I did do was put my arm around her, pull her face up against mine, and kiss her on the mouth, hard. I was trembling, like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare, and then she closed her eyes, pulled me to her, and kissed back. (pg. 13)

Walter’s dog tired of the insurance world. Just how many terrible stunts had he seen where people had tried to ‘crook the wheel’, thereby attempting to cash in on their policies? He falls for Phyllis and sees an opportunity for them to pull their own trick on the insurance game. In his review of Postman, Max describes the book as ‘classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way.’ And that’s what we have here, too; Walter, Phyllis and the unfortunate Mr Nurdlinger surplus to requirements.

Drawing on Walter’s inside knowledge of his business, the pair set about planning what they consider will be an undetectable crime. All the big money on accident policies comes from railroad incidents, as companies will pay double indemnity if a person dies as a result of an accident on the railway. So, if they can pull it off, Walter and Phyllis can clean up; they can remove Nurdlinger from the picture on a permanent basis and cash in at the same time:

‘Get this, Phyllis. There’s three essential elements to a successful murder.’

That word was out before I knew it. I looked at her quick. I thought she’d wince under it. She didn’t. She leaned forward. The firelight was reflected in her eyes like she was some kind of leopard. ‘Go on. I’m listening.’ (pg. 22)

We’re only on page 22 here, but I’m not going to describe any more of the plot as this would only spoil the delights to come. Double Indemnity is superbly written, which I hope I’ve illustrated from the passages quoted above. The dialogue is tight and sharp, and the main characters leap off the page. I love the passages in which Cain gives us access to Huff’s inner thoughts; we find him wrestling with himself and the situation as the narrative unravels. And Phyllis is quite a creature; the ‘leopard’ passage I’ve quoted suggests a predator-like quality, and that’s exactly the type of person (or animal?) we’re dealing with here.

Alongside Walter, Phyllis and Nurdlinger, another character I should mention is Keyes, Head of Claims in Walter’s office. He’s another very skilfully drawn character. Walter describes Keyes as ‘the most tiresome man to do business with…always in some kind of feud with other departments of the company.’ In his obsession with detail, Keyes triple-checks everything that moves and can sniff out a phoney claim a mile off.  This spells trouble ahead for Walter and Phyllis, of course, but I said I wouldn’t dwell on the story…

Double Indemnity is a brilliant noir. Even if you’ve seen the superb film version, it’s well worth investing in the book (and there are some differences in the plot). My copy clocks in at around 135 pages, so it’s a pacey book and a joy to read.

Thanks to Max Cairnduff for prompting me to return to the work of this terrific writer, and for permission to link to his review of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Double Indemnity is published in the UK by Orion Books. Source: personal copy.

Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane, tr. by Ros Schwartz

I’m a streetwalker. Not a call girl or anything like that, no, a common streetwalker with high heels and menthol cigarettes (p. 5-6, Arcadia Books)

Zenith Hotel, a raw and powerful novella by Oscar Coop-Phane, introduces us to Nanou, a Parisian streetwalker.  By following Nanou’s movements over the course of a day, we see a microcosm of her life presented as brief, yet piercing, vignettes. She lives in Zenith Hotel, but there are no soft towels or creature comforts here. Her lodgings are squalid. The communal toilet is ‘not a proper toilet, just a hole in the ground with two little white ceramic footrests’ and the floor is always wet.

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The narration starts with Nanou, so we gain access to her thoughts as she starts her morning in her room with a coffee and cigarette, a routine she maintains from one day to the next. Once Nanou heads out for the day, the focus shifts and much of the narration comes from the perspective of Nanou’s clients. We meet a high-school teacher crushed by the administrative burden of his job and a slightly stale marriage. We see a moped-loving man in his late thirties who has moved back in with his parents following the failure of his relationship. And there’s a bar manager in the process of leaving his current role to open a café with his brother. Cooper-Phane sketches these distinctive pen-portraits with a striking combination of insight, compassion and raw honesty; he shows us the lonely, the disconnected, those bruised by the harsh realities of life.

Perhaps the most moving and memorable of these portrayals is ‘Victor and Baton’, in which we encounter a solitary man as he cares for his one friend in life, his dying dog – this is a deeply affecting picture of an isolated individual desperately trying to escape the ‘crushing burden of solitude’. (p. 47):

Baton was abandoned at birth. Victor took him in and washed him, caring for him like his own son. He raised him in his little apartment in the 11th arrondissement. He made him a space in the sitting room, in his life, in his heart. When he went off to work, Baton waited for him, the only soul who has never deserted him. (p. 44-45)

At the end of each client vignette, we return to Nanou and briefly glimpse her thoughts as she continues to walk the streets. Once again, there is a raw candour to the writing; it’s spare and direct, but penetrating, too:

They find it comforting to taste destitution, to defile themselves a little. When they get home, they’ll have a shower and forget all about it.

I wash myself too, but it doesn’t come out. Their filth is under my skin, under my nails, in my hair. Their smell clings to my body. I scrub myself raw but I can’t get rid of it. Even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, you don’t get used other people’s filth. It contaminates you as much as it did on the first day. (p. 41)

Nanou turns to writing as a way of squashing time; it’s a means of getting through the day:

When I get home, I’m going to burn all this. I don’t want anyone to read it. So why write? I don’t know, it’s stupid.

I will have managed to talk about myself, though, a few pages of self-indulgence. I didn’t think I was capable of it.

Forgive my style and my mistakes. Don’t feel sorry for me either, that’s not why I’m doing this. Like I already said, I write to kill time, so don’t go thinking it’s for sentimental reasons or anything like that. (p. 57)

Zenith Hotel is a very good novella. At just under 100 pages, it’s a one-sitting read which manages to convey so much emotion in such a brief space. Cooper-Phane writes with brutal honesty, and yet there’s real compassion and humanity here, too. One of the things I most admire about his writing is the way he uses realistic details to flesh out his characters. Cooper-Phane avoids cliché to show Nano’s clients in a way that is believable and feels true to life. He also writes with raw candour about the grime and stench of life in the seedy side of Paris – brace yourself, as some of these images may not be for the weak stomached.

Zenith Hotel (winner of the Prix de Flore in 2012) is this author’s first book, and it’s all the more impressive to discover he penned it at the age of 23.

My thanks to Stu at Winstonsdad’s who recommended this book – if you’d like to read his review of Zenith Hotel, just click on the link. I’ll finish with a few final thoughts from Nanou as they seem to capture the essence of this story:

I’ve got no nerve. Maybe one day I’ll develop some. And I’ll follow it outside my body, wherever it leads me. What else can I do but wait? I harbour my little woes, caress my little scorchmarks. I don’t try and heal them. I wait for them to leave my flesh. You live with your burns. What else can you do? (p.19-20)

Zenith Hotel is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: personal copy.

An Evening with Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing

Next month our book group will be reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. It’s Healey’s debut novel, and there’s been quite a buzz about it in the press and amongst some of the bloggers I follow. So when I saw that Waterstones Piccadilly was hosting an event with Emma on the evening of the book’s publication, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

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My book-group friend and I headed into London on Thursday afternoon, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. To start the event, Emma read an extract from her book.

The novel is narrated by Maud, an eighty-two year old woman with dementia, and we joined the novel at the point where Maud finds herself lost in a department store. In her confusion, Maud accidentally knocks an expensive Waterford crystal vase from the shelves and is accosted by a shop assistant who thinks Maud might have to pay for the damage. Healey gives us a piercing insight into the mind of a dementia sufferer as Maud struggles to remember her address. Luckily for Maud, she is rescued by her daughter, Helen, and we see how their roles have reversed over time – Helen was always running away as a child, but now it is Maud who needs to be looked after.

After the reading, literary agent Karolina Sutton chaired a discussion with Emma on the novel’s themes and influences. My note-taking skills aren’t good enough to record verbatim responses, but I hope I’ve captured the sentiment behind their conversation.

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When asked about the inspiration for the book, Emma spoke of her own grandmother’s experience of dementia, and how, in the early stages of her condition, her grandmother thought someone was missing. As her grandmother’s dementia worsened, Emma was inspired to use this initial experience as a jumping-off point to explore what happens to a person as their condition deteriorates. Emma was keen to explore Maud’s logic and way of thinking – with dementia, there is so much going on under the surface and in the mind of the sufferer that others cannot see. And so Maud’s story became a means of illustrating these thoughts, one that enables us as readers to empathise with an individual who is living with the condition.

Emma also wanted to explore the experience of being a carer, which she does through Helen’s character (as an aside, Healey feels more could be done to support carers in the UK). Maud reaches the stage when she can no longer remember who Helen is, and so her connection to her daughter breaks down.

In terms of research for the dementia strand of the story, Emma looked at how dementia sufferers tend to present in the early stages of the condition. Individuals with dementia often repeat certain patterns of behaviour (and she illustrates this in the book through Maud’s purchases of several tins of peaches).

In some instances, dementia sufferers can hold on to a thought or memory until they walk through a door, only for it to disappear once they pass over the threshold. Doorways seem to be quite significant when it comes to memory and dementia, and Emma used this idea in her narrative. As a dementia sufferer’s short-term memory fades, the idea of living in the past is augmented. And so, in Elizabeth is Missing, Maud becomes more interested in her early life.

The novel’s story contains another strand, a mystery that takes us back in time to the period just after the end of the Second World War, and Healey wanted to use this as another means of exploring Maud’s condition. As Maud thinks back to her childhood, it is almost as though she’s transitioning between two worlds – the present day and her life in the 1940s. At the end of World War II, Britain was in a state of flux, and Emma felt that this period of change and turmoil in British history fitted with Maud’s state of mind in the present day. Also, a number of people disappeared or never came home after the war, and so this made the mystery element of the narrative feel quite plausible. Emma conducted much research into the post-war age by reading novels and newspapers from 1946. The 1947 British film It Always Rains on Sunday, starring Googie Withers, was a valuable reference source – in fact, a quick bit of research tells me that this film was re-released earlier this year, and a digitally-remastered version is also available on DVD.

In terms of the writing process, Elizabeth is Missing took Emma five years to write alongside a full-time job and a year of study on a creative writing course. Healey is a passionate advocate of creative writing courses and believes they are a fantastic opportunity to learn this skill – she spoke of benefiting hugely from the critical analysis of her work by other writers. From an early stage in the course of writing this book, Emma knew how the story would end, but not the full narrative from start to finish (although she clearly wanted to include a mystery element alongside the dementia theme to keep readers engaged).

While the story’s subject matter is a serious one, Karolina and Emma were keen to point out that the narrative also contains humour and isn’t as bleak as it might sound. Emma spoke of how writing the book took a tremendous amount of willpower and discipline on her part. She received much support from her partner, who brought her cups of tea in the evenings as she wrote and ensured she didn’t leave her room until she’d completed her allotted hour of writing.

There was plenty of time for questions from the audience, and the number and diversity of these questions illustrated just how much interest there is in this story and Emma’s approach to the book. The evening finished with a book signing, and Emma was very generous with her time and keen to chat as she signed. Oh, and the book itself is a thing of beauty – Viking and Penguin Books have done a terrific job with it!

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All in all, it was an excellent evening – very interesting, informative and heartening. If you have an opportunity to see Emma at a future event, grab it with both hands – she’s an excellent and engaging speaker and it was a delight to meet her. And now I can’t wait to read the book! We’ll be discussing it at our book group in mid-July, so I’ll post my review near the time (update: I’ve added a link to my review here).

In the meantime, a few other bloggers have reviewed Elizabeth is Missing, so just click on the links if you’d like to read their thoughts: Naomi at The Writes of Women, David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread and Helen at MadaboutheBooks. It sounds as if we’ve got an excellent read to look forward to.

Nagasaki by Éric Faye, tr. by Emily Boyce

Shimura Kobo, an unmarried man in his mid-fifties, lives alone in a quiet suburb of Nagasaki. He’s a loner who prefers his own company to socialising with colleagues after work. He values order and routine in his life, too, leaving for work at the same time each morning and eating dinner ‘at a reasonable hour: never later than 6.30pm’. Perhaps he would live a more spontaneous, more fulfilling life if he were married? But sadly this is not the case.

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Shimura’s life seems to be slipping quietly by without incident. But then he begins to notice small changes within his home. A few items of food seem to have disappeared from his fridge: some fish he’s sure he bought; the occasional pot of yogurt here and there. At first, Shimura doubts himself and puts it all down to tiredness and a lapse in memory. But he’s a precise man, one who analyses meteorological charts for a living, and he sets about gathering evidence by keeping a log. It’s not long before he discovers that someone appears to be helping themselves to his fruit juice. As he has no partner and his family seldom visit, he’s baffled and rather unsettled by these little disturbances to his retreat.  It’s all somewhat disquieting for him:

I remained mystified and no closer to an explanation. I was rattled. The inside of my fridge was, in a sense, the ever-changing source of my future: the molecules that would provide me with energy in the coming days were contained within it in the form of aubergines, mango juice and whatever else. Tomorrow’s microbes, toxins and proteins awaited me in that cold antechamber, and the thought of a stranger’s hand taking from it at random and putting my future self in jeopardy shook me to the core. Worse: it repulsed me. It was nothing short of a kind of violation. (Gallic Books)

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, Shimura decides to install a webcam in his kitchen, an action that exposes the emptiness of his life:

From inside the glass cabinet where I had installed it, the camera unveiled a chilling picture of my solitude which made me shiver if I dwelt on it.

As Shimura sits in his office with one eye on his kitchen via the webcam, he questions himself. Was that object in a slightly different position earlier? Or is he imaging things as his mind plays tricks on him?

Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all? You should report it, you know, go to the police: I’ve had three pots of yogurt stolen in the last few months. Come on now, calm down. Lately, you’ve been all on edge.

Nagasaki is a spare, yet skilfully-crafted and haunting novella. The mystery of the missing food is solved at a fairly early stage, at which point the narrative shifts to show us two different perspectives. Firstly, we get a glimpse of how events affect Shimura as the experience prompts him to reflect on his situation, his loneliness and the disappointments in his life. The ‘barren aridity’ of his existence has ‘suddenly been revealed for all to see’ and he knows he will never be quite the same person again. Secondly, we learn more about the underlying story behind the puzzle of the unsettling occurrences in our protagonist’s home. These two narrative strands are thought-provoking and leave the reader with much to ponder, both about the characters’ lives and broader questions about the society in which we live.

While Faye’s novella can be easily read in one sitting, I started it late one evening and only had time to get to the halfway point before needing to take a break for dinner. The rather disquieting nature of events in the first half had me studying the fridge for signs of disturbance or missing items and double-checking the door and window locks! And it’s all the more unsettling (and distressing) to know that this excellent novella is based on a true story reported in Japan in 2008 (as noted in the introduction).

My thanks to fellow bloggers Claire McAlpine, Stu at Winstonsdad’s and Tony Malone, all of whom recommended this book – if you’d like to read their reviews of Nagasaki, just click on the links.

Nagasaki is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: personal copy.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah, Adichie’s third novel, gives us the story of a young Nigerian woman, Imefelu – her life, her loves and her experiences as an African woman living in America. As the novel opens, Ifemelu is planning her return to Lagos. She’s been living in America for the past thirteen years, having moved there to study, and she’s just finished with Blaine, her partner of three years. As Ifemelu prepares for her journey, thoughts of her childhood in Nigeria and life in America run through her mind.

Imefelu’s early years in Nigeria are characterised by the strength of her relationship with teenage boyfriend, Obinze (who remains to this day the love of her life). I loved this section of the book where we see key moments in Imefelu and Obinze’s relationship through secondary school and their early years at University.

As a result of strikes and disruption to her studies in Nigeria, Imefelu decides to continue her education in America, and she gains a scholarship to study in Philadelphia. And it’s here that Americanah’s focus begins to shift. As we follow Imefelu’s life as an immigrant in America, the novel starts to examine attitudes towards race, identity and all the prejudices and assumptions that surround these issues.

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Looking back at the sections I’d marked while reading Americanah, I noticed that virtually all of the passages relate to this aspect of the book. To give you an example, allow me to introduce Imefelu’s former schoolmate, Ginika, who moved to America a few years earlier. When the two women are reunited in Philadelphia, Ginika, a half-caste, tries to prepare her friend:

“There’s some shit you’ll get from white people in this country that I won’t get. But anyway, I was telling them about back home and how all the boys were chasing me because I was a half-caste, and they said I was dissing myself. So now I say biracial, and I’m supposed to be offended when somebody says half-caste. I’ve met a lot of people here with white mothers and they are so full of issues, eh. I didn’t know I was even supposed to have issues until I came to America. Honestly, if anybody wants to raise biracial kids, do it in Nigeria.” (Americanah, 4th Estate)

Imefelu is struck by how much Ginika has changed since moving to the US. ‘Ginika had come to America with the flexibility and fluidness of youth, the cultural cues had seeped into her skin.’ Ginika behaves like her American friends now – the way she dresses, her poise, the American-accented words that fly out of her mouth.

At first, Ifemelu feels out of place in America, and she struggles to decode the layers and nuances of meaning that seem to elude her in this new world. On registering for school, she encounters a startling example of misplaced assumptions about her intelligence, and this opens her eyes to how others may perceive her race, accent and identity:

But when Ifemelu returned with the letter, Cristina Tomas said, “I. Need. You. To. Fill. Out. A. Couple. Of. Forms. Do. You. Understand. How. To. Fill. These. Out?” and she realised that Cristina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy-limbed and drooling.

“I speak English,” she said.

“I bet you do,” Cristina Tomas said. “I just don’t know how well

Ifemelu shrank. In that strained, still second when her eyes met Cristina Tomas’s before she took the forms, she shrank. She shrank like a dried leaf. She had spoken English all her life, led the debating society in secondary school, and always thought the American twang inchoate; she should not have cowered and shrunk, but she did. And in the following weeks, as autumn’s coolness descended, she began to practice an American accent. (Americanah, 4th Estate)

And there’s more. While searching for a job, Ifemelu meets a well-intentioned, white American woman, Kimberley, whose attempts to establish a connection come across as somewhat misguided and patronising (despite the Kimberley’s best intentions):

“Hello, I’m Ifemelu.”

“What a beautiful name,” Kimberley said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberley was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colourful reserve of colourful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich”. She would not think Norway had a “rich culture”. (Americanah, 4th Estate)

During her time in America, a soul-destroying event causes Imefelu to retreat into herself and she cuts off all contact with Obinzie, refusing even to read his emails or answer his calls. Following a long and desperate search for part-time work, she finally secures a job (as Kimberley’s babysitter), finds her feet and starts dating. First there’s Curt, a white American she meets through Kimberely, followed in time by Blaine, an African American and assistant professor at Yale.

Adichie is keen to show us that race is not discussed honestly in America. At a dinner party, Ifemelu encounters a female poet from Haiti, her Afro bigger than Ifemelu’s. The poet, clearly a liberal, claims she dated a white man for three years while in California, and that race was never an issue for them as a couple. Imefelu is incensed, and even though she realises the woman has said this ‘to keep others comfortable, and to show they appreciate How Far We Have Come’, she strikes out:

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter because you are alone together, because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive…

“We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.” (Americanah, 4th Estate)

In due course, Ifemelu starts a blog (Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America) to relay her experiences and stimulate debate. In effect, Adichie is using Ifemelu’s blog as a means of communicating and highlighting some of the issues she wishes to raise, and it’s an interesting approach. That said, speaking personally, I found the sections detailing Ifemelu’s own experiences of living in America, and how she chooses to deal with the prejudices and assumptions of others, more compelling than the blog posts. (And the same is true of Obinze’s time as an immigrant in Britain, which forms another strand within the story.) The characters’ own experiences, thoughts and responses feel much more nuanced than Ifemelu’s Raceteenth articles, but these posts do play a valuable role in raising concerns and arguments in a stimulating and provocative way. Here’s an example from an article entitled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness’:

Don’t say “We’re tired of talking about race” or “The only race is the human race.” American Blacks, too, are tired of talking about race. They wish they didn’t have to. But shit keeps happening. Don’t preface your response with “One of my best friends is black” because it makes no difference and nobody cares and you can have a black best friend and still do racist shit and it’s probably not true anyway, the “best” part, not the “friend” part. (Americanah, 4th Estate)

The final chapters of the novel focus on Imefelu’s homecoming to Lagos where she’s bound to run into Obinze. Ifemelu still feels a ‘small, still-burning light’ for this man, but at first glance her teenage sweetheart now appears to have the perfect life. Obinze’s a successful businessman with a beautiful, devoted wife and young daughter. But in reality, he feels tired, bloated, weighed down by his family, his big house and all the trappings of a successful life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Americanah; it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, perhaps a bit loose and meandering in parts, but there’s a strong emotional spine within the narrative. When Naomi (at The Writes of Women blog) reviewed this book, she talked of feeling emotionally invested in Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship and the pair’s fate, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

Americanah is published in the UK by 4th Estate. Source: personal copy.

A German riesling from von Kesselstatt – a match for ‘The Mussel Feast’

As you may have gathered by now, I’ve been reading the books longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and one of the shortlisted titles is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch. Although The Mussel Feast missed out on the prize itself, I was delighted to learn that the judges honoured this book with a special mention.

The Mussel Feast is a modern German classic, first published in Germany in 1990, but only recently translated into English and brought to us by Peirene Press. It’s a great little novella, one which packs much nuance and depth into its 100 pages.

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In the opening scenes, a mother and her two teenage children, a girl and a boy, are waiting for the imminent arrival of their father. Mother has spent hours scrubbing four kilos of mussels in ice-cold water and preparations are underway for a feast of mussels as they are her husband’s favourite meal. She doesn’t care for mussels herself, but her husband has been away on a business trip, one which was destined to be the final step on his path to a big promotion. The novella is narrated by the daughter and it soon becomes clear that all is not well within this family. While they wait for father to return, the three members of the family start to talk, expressing thoughts they’ve never dared to mention before.

As time passes, they grow restless, rebellious even, so they open a bottle of one of father’s favourite wines. It’s a riesling, a Spätlese meaning ‘late harvest’. As the wine flows, mother and her children start to let their hair down and the story of their life unravels.  I won’t reveal any more of the narrative, but if you’re interested, you can read my review of The Mussel Feast here.

The Mussel Feast got me thinking about riesling. It’s one of my favourite grape varieties, and I love its chameleon-like nature. Some rieslings are dry, others intensely sweet, and it can successfully straddle the middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum, too.

Last week I returned to a favourite German riesling, a bottle of Nies‘chen Riesling Kabinett (2012 vintage) made by the von Kesselstatt estate. This wine is a Kabinett, so it’s a little less concentrated and lighter in body than a late-harvest Spätlese, but it was the only German riesling I had to hand at the time. (Note: Kabinett and Spätlese are different styles of German wine; these terms form part of the Prädikatswein system that categorises German wines by the ripeness, or ‘must weight’ of the grapes.)

The grapes that go into this von Kesselstatt riesling hail from an estate-owned vineyard in the Ruwer where the soil is hard and slatey and this gives the wine a slightly mineral note. On the nose, this wine smells quite floral – elderflower with some zest of lime, too. This riesling is medium dry (or off-dry), with a good balance between the acidity and sweetness. In terms of taste, the wine offers a succession of different sensations; an initial wave of acidity followed by some sweetness, and then more acidity to give a long, mouth-watering finish. It’s a bright and refreshingly light wine, but there’s plenty of passion fruit and citrus flavour here.

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It’s a very pleasant wine to drink now, but I think it’ll be even better in another two or three years from now, once it’s had sufficient time to develop a little more flesh and richness. ‘I’d like a few more curves’ say my notes. Earlier this year, I tasted the 2009 vintage of this von Kesselstatt riesling and it was a richer, more rounded wine. Given time, I’m sure the 2012 will head the same way.

Would this von Kesselstatt Kabinett be a fitting match for The Mussel Feast? While it’s not a Spätlese (as featured in the book), it is made from riesling and this grape variety certainly works well with seafood. And if the mussel broth contained a decent kick of chilli, something to counterbalance the edge of sweetness in this wine, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be worth a shot.

Wine stockist: I bought the Nies‘chen Riesling Kabinett 2012 from The Wine Society.

The Mussel Feast is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy.