Monthly Archives: July 2014

Liveforever by Andrés Caicedo (tr. by Frank Wynne)

Andrés Caicedo, a Columbian novelist born in 1951, wrote Liveforever (his only novel) in the early 1970s. Liveforever was first published in Spanish in 1977, and on the day of publication, Caicedo received the first printed copy of the book. Shortly afterwards on the same day, he took his own life by way of an overdose of Seconal tablets. Caicedo was twenty-five years old at the time. In the years since his death, Caicedo’s reputation has grown, and he is now considered one of the most original writers in Latin American literature. In his excellent introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition of Liveforever (translated into English for the first time), Juan Gabriel Vásquez describes the book as a genuine example of a cult novel – a book passed from person to person, at first through Columbia and later throughout Latin America.

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Liveforever is narrated by María del Carmen Huerta as she looks back over two years of her life as an adolescent living in Cali, Columbia in the mid-seventies. At the beginning of María’s story, we see her living with her middle-class parents in the respectable area of Cali, all set to study architecture at University. One day, María skips her study group and as the night descends she gets drawn into the frenetic world of rumba. From here, we follow the magnetic Mariá – a blondissima with a lustrous mane of blonde hair – as she enters an underworld fuelled by drugs, sex, and most importantly, dance. Here we see a young woman who comes alive at night. She longs for the clock to strike 6pm so she can go in search of music and lose herself to the magic of rumba. There is a sense that María is an unstoppable force, a blondissima possessed by the rhythm and sheer energy of the rumba:

I would forever be the centre and the reason for the rumba, not its victim. I would be the spirit of harmony and endless pleasure. I was the soul that gives rise to the rumba, its lover, the one who’d always win out, always in control, always in demand, overwhelmed by healthy exhaustion, sleeping the few short hours of the just, lulling myself with plans for the next rumba, the one tonight, the one where I’ll perfect my system. I wasn’t going to fritter away the rumba: I planned to wreathe it with crowns, with kingdoms of recklessness, my skin flushed with the red glow of night, my hair a wild enchanted flower, a weed that dazzles, confuses, bewilders and brings sleep to the unwary. My hair would grow free and strong, and with every step take on a dazzling lustre that came from the very roots of my soul. My soul would grow like a field of daisies on the scorched lawn of the wild rumba, forbidden territory: anyone who picked one of my flowers to fill himself with energy for the bomba would certainly face the consequences. (pg. 116, Penguin Classics)

Alongside the pulsating rhythms of the dance, María encounters scenes of violence, extended parties and the seedy side of Cali culture. Caicedo’s prose is especially vivid when it comes to describing the effects of drugs on his characters, and there are a couple of occasions when he blurs the margins between reality and what appears to be a hallucination. The inhabitants of this world trip out on marijuana, LSD, magic mushrooms, cocaine, anything available, and we see how drugs accentuate María’s senses on the dance floor:

Leopoldo Brook offered me a hit and I happily accepted. Get hooked on snorting blow and you’ll find yourself with a bad taxi habit. Feet and buses are no good any more for dealing with distances and emergencies. But you’ll also find yourself twisting on the dance floor and not caring what anyone says, surefooted, head high, an air of sophistication filling your chest, your every sense heightened; you’ll feel a devouring passion, a serenity as instantaneous as it is illusory, your heart hammering like a horse that’s bolted, and all-consuming anguish that — you believe – is worthy only of the great and the unforgettable. Suffering dignifies us, so let’s have another hit. And another and another till we explode. (pg. 68)

Liveforever captures a certain time, place and culture through its depiction of the suburbs of Cali. It’s a tough, disturbing environment, and we follow María as she continues to descend into ever-darkening territory. There’s something elusive about this young girl as she flits from place to place, from one man to another. The narrative, too, shares the same quality – whenever we feel we’re getting a fix on where María’s story might be heading, she darts off in a different direction sweeping us along to another part of town. And occasionally the story itself spins off, giving us brief digressions on topics such as the internal politics of the Rolling Stones. But, let’s not get too sidetracked…

Caicedo’s writing pulsates with intensity, reflecting Maria’s frantic search to find herself in this maelstrom. The prose is threaded with snatches of song lyrics, and this accentuates the rhythm in Caicedo’s use of language – there are sections where the prose soars and dances to its own beat. And Frank Wynne has done a terrific job with the translation here, skilfully navigating the slang of the city at the time and maintaining some Spanish words (e.g. pelada meaning ‘little girl’) for authenticity.

It’s a pretty extraordinary novel; one that will divide readers I suspect as Liveforever is, at times, explicit in its portrayal of a disconnected, vulnerable and sometimes violent section of society. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a very striking passage which, in light of Caceido’s suicide, seems terribly prescient, and we can only imagine what was going on inside the author’s mind as his words tumbled onto the page:

Hey you, make your childhood more intense by loading up on adult experiences. Couple corruption to the freshness of your youth. Rappel down the possibilities of precocity. You’ll pay the price: by nineteen all you’ll be left with are tired eyes, emotions spent, strength sapped. By then, a gentle pre-planned death will seem welcome. Get in ahead of death, make a date with it. No one loves an ageing teenager. You alone know you’ve confused the squandered years and the thoughtful years in a furious whirlwind of activity. Living simultaneously forwards and in reverse. (pg. 152)

I read this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July. Stu at Winstonsdad’s and Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List have also reviewed this novel – just click on the link if you’d like to read their reviews.

Liveforever is published in the UK by Penguin Books (Penguin Modern Classics). Source: personal copy.

July reading round-up: #SpanishLitMonth. Plans for August: #WITMonth and more.

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been participating in Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month which has been running throughout July – a great opportunity to read some books written in the Spanish language (not just those by Spanish authors). As we’re nearing the end of July, I thought it timely to do a round-up of links to the book reviews I’ve posted to tie in with #SpanishLitMonth. So here they are:

  • The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (I read this one in April, and Stu kindly hosted my review as a guest post; I published it here at the end of June as a taster for Spanish Lit Month)
  • Nada by Carmen Laforet, translated by Edith Grossman
  • Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean
  • Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated by Chris Andrews

And I’ll be posting my final contribution later this week:

  • Liveforever by Andrés Caicedo, tr. by Frank Wynne

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Several other book bloggers have also participated in #SpanishLitMonth. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the reviews, and my ‘to buy’ list has expanded, for sure. Richard has been posting weekly round-ups with links to all the posts, so do take a look at his site if you’re interested in reading more.

Before I move away from all things Spanish, I’ve been very remiss recently when it comes to posting anything about wine, so I’ll aim to write a short piece about a couple of my current favourite Spanish whites – next weekend, all being well.

As July draws to a close, a new month will be upon us, and August sees a focus on Women in Translation (#WITMonth), championed by Biblibio. As you know, I enjoy reading translations (alongside books in the English language), and I’m currently trying to balance my reading to include a mix of books by female and male writers. So I’ll be joining #WITMonth in August to read and review some literature in translation from women writers.

So far, I’ve lined up the following reviews for August:

  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (second book in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels)
  • Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
  • Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Possibly one or two others if I can manage it.

And if you’re interested in joining #WITMonth and are looking for ideas on books to read, there’s plenty of information and suggestions on Biblibio’s blog. Alternatively, I’ve reviewed a few translations of books by women writers, and can recommend the following:

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (first book in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels)
  • Nada by Carmen Laforet, translated by Edith Grossman (see #SpanishLitMonth above for a link to my review)
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell
  • The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Deborah Dawkin
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch

I’ve also reviewed Back to Back by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell, which I thought very good, albeit rather intense and penetrating.

So that’s what ‘s coming up on the translation front. But if you’re interested in books in the English language, fear not. I have a few other reviews lined up for August, namely (in no particular order):

  • The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler
  • Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

And finally (for completeness), links to books in the English language I’ve reviewed in recent months:

Have you been following Spanish Lit Month?

What are your reading plans for August, translations or otherwise?

Are you thinking of joining in with Women in Translation (#WITMonth)? If so, which books are you considering?

Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (tr. by Chris Andrews)

Rodrigo Rey Rosa is a Guatemalan writer of significant acclaim. I haven’t read any of his other works, but Severina with its bookish theme appealed to me. So when I saw a copy in the LRB bookshop, I picked it up with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month in mind.

Bookshops are infested with ideas. Books are quivering, murmuring creatures. That’s what one of my business partners used to say. (pg.9, Yale University Press)

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Severina is narrated by an unnamed bookseller, a man who has recently split up with the latest love of his life. One day, he notices a new customer in the bookstore; there’s just something about this young woman, and right from the start he has her down as a thief, even though she doesn’t steal anything that day. From one day to the next, the bookseller waits for this mysterious girl to return – somehow he knows she’ll be back. Finally, on the afternoon of a poetry reading, she reappears:

She stood by the curtains that separated the main part of the store from the little space where the readings were held. This time she was wearing a rather loose-fitting dress made from a single piece of blue cotton, which came to down to her knees (perfectly rounded knees they were, shaped with evident care), a broad silver-plated belt, and black leather sandals. She was carrying a sequined handbag. She stayed until the end. She went to get a drink at the bar, exchanged glances and greetings, and, before leaving, slipped two little books from the Japanese literature section into her bag. The speed of it was impressive. Then she walked out straight through the door in no hurry at all. The alarm didn’t go off; I wondered how she’d done it. I let her go: again, I was sure she’d be back. (pg. 4, Yale University Press)

And sure enough, two or three weeks later, she’s back again; this time a copy of The Thousand and One Nights makes its way into her bag. On the girl’s next visit to the store, the bookseller finds himself alone with the girl and decides to take action:

She didn’t hear me. I came up behind her so close I could smell the scent of her hair.

“Where have you hidden them this time?” I asked. She started, spun around, and bumped into me. “What!” she cried. “You frightened me! What do you want? Are you crazy?” When she saw that I was smiling, she laughed.

“Sorry.”

She put her hand on her chest, covering her neckline. “You really scared me.”

“I really want to know where you’ve hidden them.”

Now she was cross; a fine line appeared between her thick, dark, shapely eyebrows. She pushed me aside and started walking hurriedly toward the door. I reached out, pressed a button, and although she ran the last few steps the security grille came down just in time to block her exit. She stopped and shoved at it.

“This is outrageous,” she said and turned to look at me. She took a cell phone from the pocket of her trousers and dialled a number. “Either you let me out or I’m calling for help.”

“Calm down.” A spotlight was shining in her eyes; without turning away. I reached out and switched it off. She was very beautiful. Corned like that, I found her irresistible. I smiled. “Easy now, easy.” (pgs. 6-7)

And so the bookseller falls in love with this young woman who seems attracted to him, too. And yet, try as he might to get close to her, she remains somewhat elusive and evasive. Her reasons for stealing books remain a mystery; she hints at complications in her life, but seems reluctant to reveal much more. Even her name might be an alias – the young woman says her name is Ana, but once again, the bookseller wonders if this is true.

Ana lives with an older gentleman, a man she claims to be her father. Intrigued to discover more about this mysterious girl and her companion, the bookseller rents a room in the pensión where they are lodging. But as soon as our narrator moves into the pensión, the couple disappear, leaving the bookseller somewhat confused and frustrated. At first our narrator thinks he should forget all about this woman, but several unanswered questions linger in his mind:

I kept going over the books that she had taken from me and trying to imagine the complete list of every title she had ever stolen. It was as if I thought this would help solve the mystery of a life that seemed bizarre and fantastic to me. (pg. 37)

And so begins the search for this girl for whom stealing books seems to be ‘a mode of existence.’

Severina is a beguiling novella, best experienced as a one-sitting read. On the surface, Rey Rosa’s prose appears clear and lucid, but dig a little deeper and the narrative seems to have an almost dreamlike quality. The young woman haunts our narrator’s days and nights, and at one point he wonders whether he has imagined the whole episode. There is an air of ambiguity about this story with its themes of identity, love and lives lived exclusively through and for books. And I’m sure a second reading – the story runs to just under 85 pages – would reveal additional insights.

Severina gives us a very literary story containing many references to books, and at one point the woman tells of how she once took a volume from Borges’s library – a book that comes complete with handwritten notes in the margins.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Severina; it’s an ideal story for a spare hour or two. Guy at His Futile Preoccupations and Scott at seraillon have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Severina is published in the UK by Yale University Press. Source: personal copy.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (review)

Wallace Stegner, an American author born in 1909, is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose (1972). He wrote for six decades – novels, short stories, biographies and essays. Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel, published in 1987 when the author was seventy-eight years old, and it’s the first of his books I’ve read.

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Let me say upfront that on reading the first 60 pages of Crossing to Safety I already knew it had the potential to be one of my favourite books of the year, and I’m sticking with this thought. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving.

The story opens in 1972. Larry Morgan, successful author and college Professor, and his wife Sally have journeyed to Battell Pond, Vermont, the home of their dear friends Sid and Charity Lang. It’s a place the Morgans have visited many times in the past, and on their return Larry recalls how he and Sally met the Langs back in the late 1930s. From here, Larry narrates their story through a series of flashbacks starting with the Morgans’ move to Madison, Wisconsin in 1937.

Larry, a bright, hard-working graduate and budding author, has gained his first role, a nine-month slot teaching English in the University of Wisconsin. He’s married to Sally, a calm, humane and loving woman whom he met at Berkeley College. Soon after their arrival in Wisconsin and desperately short of money, the Morgans meet another young couple at a similar stage in their lives – Sid Lang, another young member of the English Department, and his vibrant, beautiful and headstrong wife, Charity. The Langs are comfortably off, their warmth and generosity knows no bounds, and they quickly take Larry and Sally under their wings:

When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gracefully in.

Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagreness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world. (pg. 37, Penguin Classics)

And so begins a deep and lifelong friendship between the two couples. These early years are full of promise for the Morgans and Langs. They share hopes, dreams and a desire to contribute; they wish to leave their individual marks on the world. Stegner captures this mood in vivid, luminous prose, which I hope to illustrate through the passage quoted below – it’s a prose style somewhat reminiscent of James’s Salter’s in Light Years. Here’s Larry as he recalls the foursome skating on Lake Montana in the presence of iceboats and a little airplane (both Sally and Charity are pregnant at the time):

I remember the gray, snow-spitting afternoon, the bite of cold wind on chin and cheeks and brows, the cold of feet cramped  into too-small borrowed skate shoes, the throttled-down whistle and mutter of the plane landing behind me, the vision of a racing ice-boat shearing away with one runner off the ice and the operator spread-eagled on the deck, and the sight of Sally and Sid leaning and stroking, and Charity gliding by, portly and exhilarated, encouraging me while I flounder flabby-ankled, and fall down, and get up, and fall down again.

But I remember even better the hour afterward in our basement, hot buttered rum and Sally’s cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven. Red faces, tingling skin, exuberant vitality, laughter, and for Sally and me the uncustomary pleasure of giving instead of taking. (pg. 60)

But as time passes, we discover that not everything in the garden is rosy. Charity is a force to be reckoned with; always organising others, always needing to control and direct key decisions. She’s desperate for Sid to succeed, to secure tenure at Wisconsin, and her heart is set on building a future for their family. While Sid would prefer to spend his time writing poetry, Charity pushes him to write academic papers, ideally articles that stand a good chance of publication, as she knows the higher-ups in the English Department value such things.

As the novel progresses, Stegner reveals further tensions in the Langs’ marriage, and these pressures are visible to Larry and Sally, too:

Eden. With, of course, its serpent. No Eden valid without serpent.

It was not a very big serpent, nor very alarming. But once we noticed it, we realised that it had been there all along, that what we had thought only the wind in the grass, or the scraping of a dry leaf, was this thing sliding discreetly out of sight. Even when we recognized it for what it was, it did not seem dangerous. It just made us look before we sat down. (pg.163)

To a certain extent, the Langs’ marriage is built on mutual dependence. Sid needs Charity to give structure to his life, to provide direction; Charity needs someone to manage. The trouble is ‘she’s never wrong’. There’s a different dependence between Larry and Sally, their relationship is less strained and they feed on each other’s love and support. Sally becomes dependent on her husband for physical care, and it’s clear that she’s the bedrock of Larry’s world. Sally and Charity also share a strong bond illustrated here by Larry’s reflections on the relationships that exist between the two couples:

Charity and I like each other well and somewhat warily. Half of our pleasure in each other’s company comes from resisting each other. But Charity and Sally are stitched together with a thousand threads of feeling and shared experience. Each is for the other that one unfailingly understanding and sympathetic fellow-creature that everybody wishes for and many never find. Sid and I are close, but they are closer. (pg. 278)

As well as showing us the value of deep friendship, Crossing to Safety explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks that confront them during their lives. There is no great melodrama here – no infidelities, no acts of malicious violence, no hatred or vengeance. Their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. In this respect, Crossing to Safety reminds me a little of John Williams’s Stoner, a remarkable book that gives us the story of a man’s seemingly less than remarkable life. Like Stoner, the final section of Crossing to Safety touches on our mortality. It raises questions as to how each of these individuals might manage if their partner were to die. How might the one left behind cope without their soulmate? Could any of us survive if faced with the same fate?

There’s a point in this novel when Charity’s son-in-law, Moe, asks Larry why he hasn’t penned the one book that’s screaming to be written, the story of Sid, Charity, Larry and Sally’s lives. Larry contemplates the following question: ‘How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?’ Well, that’s exactly what Wallace Stegner has done with Crossing to Safety, a book that captured my heart. So fully invested was I in the Morgans and the Langs, I didn’t want their story to end.

Crossing to Safety is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

In Never Any End to Paris— first published in Spanish in 2003 and newly translated into English — Vila-Matas presents us with a fictionalised account of the two years he spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer. But before transporting us to Paris in the mid-seventies, the novel takes a brief trip to Key West, Florida, where, in the present day, Vila-Matas enters the annual Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. Our author is desperate to prove to his wife and friends that he looks more like the idol of his youth with every passing day, but his efforts end in humiliation. And right from the opening page, Vila-Matas sets the tone for this hugely enjoyable book:

I don’t know how many years I spent drinking and fattening myself up believing – contrary to the opinions of my wife and friends – that I was getting to look more and more like Hemingway, the idol of my youth. Since no one ever agreed with me about this and since I am rather stubborn, I wanted to teach them all a lesson, and, having procured a false beard – which I thought would increase my resemblance to Hemingway – I entered the contest this summer.

I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself. I went to Key West, entered the contest and came last, or rather, I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’. (pg 3, Harvill Secker)

After this loss of face, Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he spent in this city trying to live the life of a writer like the one Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable Feast. Vila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’, and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. Now, the idea of a novel in the form of a lecture might sound rather dry, but allow me to reassure you – it is anything but! Vila-Matas is a wonderful writer, and this is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

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Cutting to 1974, Vila-Matas arrives in Paris, and ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of Marguerite Duras’ house (a very cultural garret previously inhabited by a number of illustrious bohemian tenants). Our aspiring writer is trying to emulate his idol, but unlike Hemingway, who was ‘very poor and very happy’ in Paris, Vila-Matas finds himself ‘very poor and very unhappy’ in the city. Nevertheless, Vila-Matas believes in the elegance of despair as he tries to persuade himself that there’s something cool, almost worthy and intellectual about his desperate and impoverished life as a budding writer:

I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour of black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Satre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco. Sometimes, sitting on the terrace of some café, as I pretended to read some maudit French poet, I played the intellectual, leaving my pipe in the ashtray (sometimes the pipe wasn’t even lit) and taking out what were apparently my reading glasses and taking off the other pair, identical to the first and with which I couldn’t read a thing either. But this didn’t cause me too much grief, since I wasn’t trying to read the wretched French poets in public, but rather to feign being a profound café-terrace intellectual. I was, ladies and gentlemen, a walking nightmare. (pg. 22)

Holed up in Duras’ garret, Vila-Matas sets about trying to write his first book, The Lettered Assassin, in which the narrative centres on a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it. There is a wonderful passage in Never Any End to Paris in which Vila-Matas runs into Duras and attempts to impress her with his idea for The Lettered Assassin:

One day, I bumped into Marguerite Duras on the stairs – I was on my way up to my chambre and she was on her way down to the street – and she suddenly showed great interest in what I was up to. And I, trying to sound important, explained that I intended to write a book that would cause the death of all who read it. Marguerite looked stunned, sublimely astonished. When she was able to react, she said to me – or at least I understood her to say, because she was speaking her superior French again – that killing the reader, apart from absurd, was quite impossible, unless, for example, a swift and sharp poisoned arrow were to fly out of the book directly into the heart of the unsuspecting reader. I was very annoyed and even began to worry I’d be out of the garret, fearing her discovery that I was a dreary novice would lead her to evict me. But no, Marguerite simply detected in me a colossal mental confusion and wanted to help. She lit a cigarette slowly, looked at me almost with compassion, and eventually said, if I wanted to murder whoever read the book, I would have to do it using a textual effect. She said this and carried on down the stairs leaving me more worried than before. Had I understood correctly or had I misunderstood her superior French? What was this about a textual effect? Perhaps she had been referring to a literary effect that I would have to construct within the text to give readers the impression that the book’s very letters had killed them. Perhaps that was it. But then, how could I achieve a literary effect that would pulverise the reader in a purely textual way? (pgs. 19-20)

After a week of despair, Vila-Matas bumps into Duras again, and this time he receives some advice from his landlady in the form of a thirteen-point list of considerations for writing a novel: a handwritten note that looks ‘like a doctor’s prescription’. A bullet-point list that fills our author with a dreadful sense of fear and panic. How will he ever manage to get to grips with everything on Marguerite’s checklist, especially as the meaning of one or two of her points is unclear – linguistic register, for example? Cue much agonising and procrastination on the part of Vila-Matas as he struggles to write The Lettered Assassin.

Vila-Matas’ lecture also reflects on the nature of irony, and he deftly weaves these musings into his elegant treatise. As Vila-Matas looks back on his bohemian days with compassionate irony, we hear of his encounters with other writers and famous types: Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges and Georges Perec all feature, as does Paloma Picasso. There are several nods to other literary works and authors, too. Our author, on the other hand, doubts as to whether he will ever see his writing in print.

The title of this terrifically engaging book, Never Any End to Paris, comes from A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway’s notion that ‘the memory of Paris is a feast that follows us around’, a sense that there is never any end to Paris. And I would have been very happy to remain in Vila-Matas’ company for longer than the 200 pages of this book – highly recommended, my tip for next year’s IFFP longlist.

I read this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July. Stu has also reviewed this one, as has Grant at 1streading – just click on the links if you’d like to read their posts.

Never Any End to Paris is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway organised by the publisher – my thanks to Harvill Secker.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (review)

Elizabeth is Missing, Healey’s impressive debut novel, is narrated by Maud, an eighty-two year old woman with dementia. The book opens with a brief prologue set in the present day in which Maud finds the broken lid of an old make-up compact in her friend, Elizabeth’s, garden. It’s an item Maud recognises from a lifetime ago, one that triggers memories of a mystery from her past:

The broken lid of an old compact, its silver tarnished, its navy-blue enamel no longer glassy but scratched and dull. The mildewed mirror is like a window on a faded world, like a porthole looking out under the ocean. It makes me squirm with memories.

‘What have you lost?’ The woman steps, precarious and trembling, out on to the patio. ‘Can I help? I might not be able to see it, but I can probably manage to trip over it if it’s not too well hidden.’

I smile, but I don’t move from the grass. Snow has collected on the ridges of a shoeprint and it looks like a tiny dinosaur fossil freshly uncovered. I clutch at the compact lid in my hand, soil tightening my skin as it dries. I’ve missed this tiny thing for nearly seventy years. And now the earth, made sludgy and chewable with the melting snow, has spat out a relic. Spat it into my hand. But where from? That’s what I can’t discover. Where did it lie before it became the gristle in the earth’s meal? (pgs. 1-2, Viking)

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As the story itself gets going, we begin to build a picture of Maud’s day-to-day life with dementia. Maud’s short-term memory is poor, so she forgets when she’s eaten or made a cup of tea, and she often finds herself disoriented and at a loss as to her intentions. This results in her eating too much toast, leaving several cups of tea to go cold and buying far too many tins of sliced peaches when she forgets what she needs at the shops. Dementia sufferers often repeat certain patterns of behaviour, and Healey illustrates this through Maud’s tangle of thoughts and movements. Here’s Maud as she struggles while shopping for food:

Eggs. Milk – question mark – Chocolate.’ I turn my bit of paper about to catch the light. There’s a cosy cardboardy smell in the shop and it’s like being in the larder at home. ‘Eggs, milk, chocolate. Eggs, milk, chocolate.’ I say the words, but I can’t quite think what the things look like. Could they be in any of the boxes in front of me? I carry on muttering the list under my breath as I shuffle about the shop, but the words begin to lose meaning and are like a chant. I’ve got ‘marrows’ written down here too, but I don’t think they sell them here. (pg 7)

As a reminder of what to do (and what to avoid doing), Maud scribbles notes to herself which she keeps in her pockets.  And additional notes are dotted around Maud’s house, courtesy of her daughter, Helen, and carer, Carla: ‘coffee helps memory’, ‘lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m.’. However, Maud often struggles to make sense of her paper memory, as she finds it hard to recall the meaning of these jottings.  And Maud is especially troubled by some of her notes, the ones concerning her friend Elizabeth: ‘no word from Elizabeth’, ‘haven’t heard from Elizabeth.’ Consequently, Maud is convinced that Elizabeth is missing and that something terrible may have happened to her, especially when she finds her friend’s house empty and in the process of being cleared.

Maud sets about trying to get to the bottom of Elizabeth’s apparent disappearance, (frustrating her daughter in the process) and this theme forms one of two strands that run through the novel. The other thread concerns a mystery from Maud’s past, one signalled by the broken compact Maud unearths in the prologue. This vanity case belonged to Maud’s older sister, Sukey, who disappeared suddenly in the years following the end of the Second World War. At the time of her disappearance, Sukey was relatively newly-married to Frank, a rather shady removals operator with a lucrative sideline in the movement of black-market goods.

Despite Maud’s difficulty in remembering things from the present day, her long-term memory is much sharper, considerably more vivid, and the story moves back in time as Maud recalls the events surrounding Sukey’s vanishing. There’s some neat period detail and dialogue here, elements that feel true to Britain in the 1940s (as far as I can tell from my experience of novels and films produced at this time).

The narrative alternates between Maud’s present-day search for Elizabeth and the post-war years as Maud and her family look for Sukey. In general, Healey manages the transitions between these two timeframes quite skilfully; for example, Maud will see an object that transports her back to a particular scene from her past, one in which the same item (or a similar one) appears.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Healey ties the two strands together, although the way in which this happens feels a little implausible. I guessed where the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance was heading before our arrival at the resolution, and consequently, this element of the story could have been a little more compelling, more intriguing.

These are fairly small quibbles, however. Elizabeth is Missing is a very good debut, ultimately very moving and not without humour (despite the distress of Maud’s condition). Where this novel really excels is in its depiction of the inner thoughts and feelings of a woman living with dementia, and we see how the mental and physical effects of dementia take their toll on Maud:

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to quick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other, and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it.

‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’

I don’t answer; my teeth are still tight together. I feel I might start screaming, but breaking something, that’s a good idea. That’s exactly what I want to do. I pick up my butter knife and stab it into the black side plate. The china breaks. Helen says something, swearing I think, and somebody rushes towards me. I keep looking at the plate. (pgs. 18-19)

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Elizabeth is Missing is our book group’s choice for July, and I’m sure we’ll have a lively discussion about it when we meet later this week. A couple of us were lucky enough to attend an event where Emma spoke of the book’s themes and sources of inspiration – there’s a link to my write-up of the evening here if you’re interested.

Several 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, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library, Susan at A Life in Books and Helen at MadaboutheBooks.

Elizabeth is Missing is published in the UK by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three years old when Nada, her first novel, won the prestigious Premio Nadal literary award in 1944. The book, which caused a bit of a sensation on its release, heralded the birth of an exciting new voice in Spanish Literature. My edition of Nada is eloquently translated by Edith Grossman and comes with a useful introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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As the story opens, we join Andrea, an eighteen-year-old girl, as she arrives in Barcelona. Filled with all the hopes and expectations of a new life in the city and the prospect of studying literature at the University, she makes her way to her grandmother’s apartment where she is to live. It’s the middle of the night, and as she approaches the flat in the Calle de Aribau, a sudden fear overtakes her emotions. As Andrea enters her family’s home, a strange collection of ghoulish figures emerge from the shadows – in addition to her grandmother, Andrea is confronted by her aunt Angustias, her uncle Juan and his wife, Gloria, and the maid, Antonia. Faced with her uncle Juan, Andrea sees a man with a face ‘full of hollows, like a skull in the light of the single bulb in the lamp.’ (pg. 6, Vintage Books)

The flat itself is filthy and decrepit. Cobwebs hang from the ceilings; the rooms are bathed in an eerie greenish light; the stained walls of the bathroom show ‘traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair.’ (pg. 8)

It’s a brilliant, but disturbing, opening to the story, and we feel for Andrea as she tries to reconcile this harrowing picture with her dreams of the city:

I don’t know how I managed to sleep that night. In the room they gave me was a grand piano, its keys uncovered. A number of gilt mirrors with candelabra attached – some of them very valuable – on the walls. A Chinese desk, paintings, ill-assorted furniture. It looked like the attic of an abandoned palace; it was, I later found out, the living room.

In the centre, like a grave mound surrounded by mourners – that double row of disembowelled easy chairs – a divan covered by a black blanket, where I was to sleep. They had placed a candle on the piano because there were no light bulbs in the large chandelier. (pgs. 8-9)

And a few lines later:

Three stars were trembling in the soft blackness overhead, and when I saw them I felt a sudden desire to cry, as if I were seeing old friends, encountered unexpectedly.

That illuminated twinkling of the stars brought back in a rush all my hopes regarding Barcelona until the moment I’d encountered this atmosphere of perverse people and furniture. (pg.9)

We follow Andrea as she tries to survive in this nightmarish environment in which feuds and arguments erupt from nowhere – this is a family damaged by secrets, suspicions and prejudices. She longs to break free from the ever-watchful eye of her authoritarian aunt Angustias, and yet Andrea realises that her aunt might be trying to offer some form of protection from the ensuing chaos:

When I was completely awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, I found myself in one of my moments of rebellion against Angustias, the strongest I’d had. Suddenly I realised I wouldn’t put up with her any more. That I wouldn’t obey her any more after the days of complete freedom I’d enjoyed in her absence. The disturbances of the night had put my nerves on edge and I felt hysterical too, weepy and desperate. I realised I could endure everything: the cold that penetrated my worn clothes, the sadness of my absolute poverty, the dull horror of the filthy house. Everything except her control over me. That was what had suffocated me when I arrived in Barcelona, what had made me fall into ennui, what had killed off my initiative: that look from Angustias. That hand that quashed my movements, my curiosity about a new life…Yet Angustias, in her way, was an upright, good person among those crazy people. (pg 75)

Andrea finds brightness through her friendship with Ena, a sophisticated and intelligent girl from her university class, and the days and weekends she spends with Ena and her boyfriend, Jaime, offer a stark contrast to life on the Calle de Aribau:

Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea (pg. 110)

But on weekdays, Andrea’s mood descends as she’s driven to distraction with hunger, and she quarrels with Ena. When Ena visits Andrea’s home to make up with her friend, Andrea is absent, and Ena spends the evening with the enigmatic Roman, another of Andrea’s uncles who also resides in the flat. Andrea, who has become increasingly disturbed and repulsed by Roman’s predatory behaviour, is puzzled by Ena’s fascination with Roman, and there are hints of a deeper mystery behind this development.         

Nada portrays a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, a loose collective torn apart and struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Whilst the war itself is rarely mentioned, we sense its recent presence in the background. It’s there in the suffocating and decaying environment of Andrea’s family’s home, in the fractured lives of her family, and in the poverty and hunger of her day-to-day life. We follow Andrea as she tries to navigate a path for herself, longing for her to escape.

In his introduction, Mario Vargas Llosa describes Nada (which means ‘nothing’) as a ‘beautiful, terrible novel’, and this reflects the Andrea’s experiences of postwar life in Barcelona. It’s a wonderfully evocative book, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. I’m very glad to have discovered Nada by way of Claire at Word by Word and Elena at Books & Reviews. Stu at WinstonsDad’s and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos have also reviewed it – just click on the links if you’d like to read their thoughts on this book.

I chose this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July, and I’ll be reviewing another two or three books between now and the end of the month.

Nada is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.

Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (review)

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories is a collection of short stories by the American author Edith Pearlman. I can’t recall exactly when I first heard of this writer, but it was a year or so after her collection won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (an American literary award) in 2011. Pearlman’s career in writing spans four decades and over 250 of her short stories have been published in magazines, literary journals, anthologies and online publications. I’ve often seen her described as one of literature’s best-kept secrets or undiscovered greats, but I’m so glad to have found her through this excellent collection of stories, published in the UK by Pushkin Press.

Binocular Vision contains a total of 34 stories, 13 of which are new to this collection. Many of the stories are set in the fictional suburb of Godolphin, Boston, but others take us to Central America, wartime London and Europe. We meet a young girl separated from her parents, lost in an unfamiliar place; a former US army officer returned from the Second World War, only to find himself battling against cancer; the owners of a second-hand toy shop, a couple who have experienced great sadness in their past – so many individuals, too many to mention here.

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Pearlman’s characters are distinctive, finely-sketched and utterly believable. She has a sharp eye for detail in her descriptions of people, settings and mood. In Settlers, the opening chapter alone gives us the sense that its lead character, Peter, is somewhat solitary and forlorn:

One early Sunday morning Peter Loy stood waiting for the bus downtown. It was October and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen-plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate, not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his height and thinness and longish hair he’d look like Sherlock Holmes when wearing it. Instead he looked like a dowager. (pg. 40, Pushkin Press) 

How skilfully Pearlman captures a scene in just a few sentences. In Home Schooling, two eleven year-olds observe a group of four girls who have just whirled into a pizza parlour:

They swept to the counter to order their pizzas. We studied their various backs (erect, round-shouldered, slim, bisected by a braid) and their various stances (jumpy, slouching, queenly, hands in back pockets) and their noses as they turned their profiles this way and that, and their languor or purpose as they visited the jukebox or ladies’ room, and their ease as they more or less assembled at their table, one always getting up for something, where are the napkins anyway, talking, laughing, heads together, heads apart, elbows gliding on the table. The girl with glasses – I was pretty sure her name was Jennifer, so many girls were Jennifers – sat in a way that was familiar to me, her right knee bent outward so that her right foot could rest on the chair, her left thigh keeping the foot in place like a brick weighing down a Christmas pudding. This position caused a deep satisfying cramp; I knew that pain. (pg. 234) 

Binocular Vision is a wonderful collection of beautifully-crafted, diverse stories, each one like a finely polished gem honed to perfection. Pearlman’s prose is superb; she writes with great compassion and insight into the human condition, and her work feels rich with meaning. Many of her narratives are quietly powerful, but with real emotional heft, too. I often found myself taking a little gasp or intake of breath while reading the collection. For example, in one of the early stories, a man is visiting the home of a couple he has recently met: 

Photographs lined the passageway from kitchen to bathroom. Snapshots, really, but blown up and matted in ivory and framed in sliver as if they were meant to hang in a gallery. All were of the same child – blond, light-eyed. At two she was solemn, in a draperied room, sharing a chair with a rag doll. At four she was solemn against the sea; this time the doll was a naked rubber baby. At six she smiled, clutching Raggedy Ann. At eight the girl with her Barbie stood straight as a stick in front of a constructed pond – could it have been the one at Luxembourg Garden? Slatted chairs, smoking pensioners, and a toy boat siling off to the right.

No further pictures.

He found himself unable to swallow. (pg. 107)

And yet there is rage, too. In Elder Jinks, a couple, Gustave and Grace, meet late in life and marry a few months later. On returning early from a business trip, Gustave discovers a different side of Grace’s character, one that disgusts him, and she leaves:

And surely he had been deranged to marry a woman because of her alluring eyes. He’d mistaken a frolicsome manner for lasting charm. She was merely frivolous, and the minute she was left unsupervised…He stomped into the living room. That rose-coloured garment in progress now shared its chair with a wine bottle, good vineyard, good year…empty. He’d like to rip the knitting out. The yarn would remain whorled; he’d wind it loosely into one big whorl. When she came back she’d find a replica of Faraday’s induction coil, pink. (pgs. 381-382)

The final story in the collection, Self-Reliance, is exceptional, and it contains one of the most astonishingly vivid and haunting passages I’ve ever read, anywhere. The protagonist is a retired gastroenterologist who has recently purchased a house by the water in New Hampshire. The woman’s daughter worries about her mother living on her own in the middle of nowhere, but to say anything else would spoil the narrative. In her excellent introduction to this collection, Ann Pratchett writes of giving two public readings of Self-Reliance – one at a literary event for the launch of a Best American Short Stories anthology and the other at a public library. One both occasions Pratchett brought the house down with Edith Pearlman’s Self-Reliance. Pratchett writes of this story:

Every word in every sentence was indispensable, every observation subtle and complex. The rhythm of the language carried the reader forward as much as the plot. Every time I thought I had mastered all of the nuances, the story offered up another part of itself to me, something quiet and undemanding that had been standing back and waiting for me to find it. (Introduction by Ann Pratchett)

If you haven’t already discovered Edith Pearlman, I hope I’ve managed to convince you to give her a try. Binocular Vision is a real treat, a collection I can see myself revisiting during the coming months.

Binocular Vision is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

Very Inspiring Bloggers

When I first started this blog a couple of months ago, I wasn’t sure how things would go. Two months on, I’ve discovered some fantastic blogs and added so many books to ‘The List’, I’ve lost count! One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is exchanging thoughts on books (and the occasional conversation about wine, too) through your blogs and twitter.

I’m still thrilled and amazed that anyone is interested in reading my views on books – thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to read, comment on or share any of my posts. It’s great to hear your thoughts and to chat with you about books.

Earlier this week, I was delighted to be nominated for the ‘Very Inspiring Blogger Award’ by two bloggers whose blogs I hold in very high regard. So, thank you Cathy at 746 Books and Marina Sofia at findingtimetowrite for nominating me – if you don’t already follow these two blogs, please do take a few minutes to check them out as they’re both excellent (and I’m not just saying that, they truly are).

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One of the principles of being nominated for this award is that I should tell you seven things you may not know about me. So here we go…

  1. I’m a doctor, but not a medical one – I have a Ph.D. in chemistry. Sadly, my attempts to synthesize a breakthrough in antibiotic therapy ended in disappointment, and I moved on to other things.
  2. Ten years ago, I abandoned the corporate world for life as a freelancer in customer research and analysis. Despite the uncertainty, it’s the best decision I ever made.
  3. In my spare time (typically Fridays) I volunteer at our local community library.
  4. In my other life, I would be Vivian Sternwood from The Big Sleep…dream on Jacqui, dream on.
  5. My favourite colour is blue; any shade of blue will do except navy.
  6. I’m allergic to saffron and shellfish – the two together would probably tip me over the edge. No paella for me, unfortunately.
  7. It’s probably no surprise to you that I like wine, but people often ask me to name my favourite wine. I find it impossible to single out just one wine as my preferences vary depending on my mood, the occasion, the season…so many things. But if I could only drink wine from one country, it would be Italy. No contest.

And here is my list of nominees – all blogs I enjoy visiting for different reasons:

1streading’s Blog – Grant’s very professional reviews cover a wide range literary fiction – translations and books written in the English language. An excellent blog.

Babbling Books – Brian’s blog is a fairly recent discovery for me. Brian loves to discuss books, and his reviews are very informative and enlightening.

Bookemstevo – Another fairly recent discovery for me – very eloquent and insightful reviews here, mostly literary fiction.

Dolce Bellezza – I’m so glad to have met Bellezza through the IFFP shadow group. Bellezza reviews a wide range of literary fiction (both new and old), and she has a wonderful way with words.

Follow the Thread – David is interested in literary fiction (both novels and short fiction), especially narratives with a speculative flavour in terms of prose, form or structure.

Just William’s Luck – Alongside Max’s blog (Pechorin’s Journal), Will’s blog was one of the first I followed. Will has been blogging for several years and now vlogs (video blogs) at Just William’s Luck on YouTube.

A Life in Books – Susan’s blog covers book reviews, recommendations and news, and her background in the book world shines through.

The Little Reader Library – Lindsay loves how words and language can be used to create stories, and she reviews a very diverse range of books, many of which are new. I find Lindsay’s reviews especially useful for my work with the local library.

MadabouttheBooks – Helen is a bibliophile by nature and enjoys sharingher thoughts on recent reads, mostly literary fiction. She loves chatting about books!

Messenger’s Booker (and more) – Tony follows lots of book awards, and he reviews longlisted titles – an interesting blog for fiction in translation.

Pechorin’s Journal – Max’s blog was the first literary blog I followed, and it remains a firm favourite of mine. Max writes about every book he reads – literary fiction (often in translation), crime (mostly noir and hardboiled) and science fiction.

Tony’s Reading List – Another advocate of literature in translation. Tony’s reviews are a pleasure to read, and they often introduce me to new authors.

WinstonsDad’s – World-lit supremo, Stu, is my first port-of-call for literature in translation. Stu champions translations, and he instigated the legendary #TranslationThurs hashtag.

Word by Word – I love reading Claire’s insightful reviews and her words seem to flow with ease. Claire’s love of language is very evident from her writing.

The Writes of Women – Naomi is a passionate champion of books by women writers. Her perceptive reviews cover fiction and non-fiction, literary and commercial, new and old – all books written by women.

I would have listed Cathy at 746 Books and Marina Sofia at findingtimetowrite, but they’ve already nominated me, and I think the idea is for me to highlight other blogs! I haven’t included any wine blogs as my two favourite wine bloggers have stopped blogging for a while (and most of my wine conversations take place on twitter anyway).

If I’ve nominated your blog, there’s no obligation for you to participate; I don’t want anyone to feel any pressure to nominate others – it’s entirely up to you. I just wanted to take the time to highlight some of my favourite blogs and to say ‘thank you’ for your support.

If you have been nominated and would like to nominate others for the award, here’s what you should do:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other inspiring blogs and let them know they have been nominated
  • (Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated.)

The Art of Killing Well by Marco Malvaldi (tr. by Howard Curtis)

Pellegrino Artusi, the protagonist of Malvaldi’s delightful story set in 1895, is a successful textile merchant with a serious passion for good food. When he meets the Barone di Roccapendente while taking the waters at an Italian spa, he receives an invitation to spend a weekend at the baron’s castle in the Tuscan countryside. Having travelled around Italy collecting and assembling recipes for his cookery book, Artusi is looking forward to a weekend of fine food and a boar hunt in the company of the baron.

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Alongside the baron, the castle is inhabited by his three children, Gaddo, Lapo and Cecilia, his mother, Nonna Speranza, a couple of old spinsters and an assortment of household staff. As they await the arrival of the baron’s guest, we begin to get the measure of this family – squabbling and sniping are commonplace. With the exception of Cecilia, who is bright, kind and perceptive, the baron’s family are an eccentric bunch. Here’s Lapo, a vain, foolish and arrogant fellow, as he speculates about Artusi’s character:

“…A merchant who likes good food. He’s a man who accumulates. Money in the bank, and fat on his belly. You’ll see. They’ll have to call us to prise him out of the bathtub, assuming he knows how to use one.”

“What are you saying, Signorino Lapo?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me. He is from Emilia-Romagna, after all. Coarse people” – he bit off the end of his cigar and spat it out – “who think only about eating, working and accumulation possessions.” (pg. 9, MacLehose Press)

The baron’s eldest son, Gaddo, is prone to delusions of grandeur and foresees a promising future for himself as a famous poet. When Gaddo hears that a ‘first-rate man of letters’ will be arriving at the castle for the forthcoming boar hunt, he assumes it can be none other but Giosue Carducci, the ‘Great Poet’ and Gaddo’s idol. Consequently, the appearance of Pellegrino Artusi, a mere cookery writer, comes as a major blow to the baron’s eldest son:

‘It was enough to make on beat one’s head against the wall.’ (pg16)

Malvaldi’s writing is full of biting wit, and the narrative contains some wonderfully sharp observations on each of the principal players. In this scene, Artusi, following his arrival at the castle, joins the baron’s family for dinner:

The one eating listlessly was Gaddo, who might have the sensitivity of spirit to appreciate beauty but was now busy casting sidelong glances at the self-styled man of letters as the latter stuffed himself with pie, his white whiskers moving up and down in time to the rhythm of his jaws.

The one eating briskly and noisily was Lapo, who preferred beautiful things of flesh and blood rather than on walls, and was now watching his sister and thinking that if she didn’t dress like a penitent she might almost look like a woman, and then it might actually be possible to find her a husband and get her out of his hair – with that female arrogance of hers, she was always finding fault with him. (pg. 19)

I could continue, but you get the picture, I’m sure.

The story is punctuated by extracts from Artusi’s diary, which he pens at the end of each day; here’s an excerpt from the cookery writer’s musings on his first evening in the company of this rather idiosyncratic family:

The baron was as gracious as always, as if we were at Montecatini taking the waters; but over the rest of the family, if this were a letter and not a diary, it would be appropriate to draw a veil. One of the two sons, Gaddo, seems to hate me for no apparent reason. But at least he limits himself to sarcasm, which is more than can be said for his younger brother, who has accused me almost openly of being a usurer. As for the distaff side, the baron’s daughter is probably not a bad person, but I fear she is much too clever for the rest of the family, except perhaps for the dowager baroness, Speranza, who sends shivers down one’s spine at the mere sight of her; then there are the two old maids of the family – there always have to be old maids in these places… (pg. 31)

Artusi retires to bed hoping the atmosphere will improve during his stay, especially with the prospect of a boar hunt on the agenda. But the following day gets off to a dramatic start; the residents are awakened by a bloodcurdling scream as Nonna Speranza’s nurse discovers a body — that of the baron’s butler, Theodore — in the castle’s cellar. Having examined the butler’s body, the local doctor suspects foul play, and the police are called to the scene. At first, the attending inspector, Artistico, is irritated at being summoned by the doctor, and once again, Malvaldi adds a bitterly comic tone to the proceedings:

Ispettore Artistico’s first reaction when the doctor had sent for him had been one of annoyance. To tell the truth, the doctor had always rubbed him up the wrong way: firstly because he was a socialist, secondly because he was one of the most boring and pedantic people he had ever known, and last but certainly not least, because every time the inspector was out walking with his daughter and met the doctor, the doctor invariably kissed her hand in the most brazenly lecherous manner imaginable. More than once the inspector had been on the verge of cutting short this greeting by thrashing him with his stick. He had even imagined himself scalping the doctor and running off with his beard as a trophy. (pg. 52)

However, once the inspector surmises a murder may have been committed, he relishes the prospect of investigating a noteworthy case. At long last Artistico has a real murder on his hands – after all, his only other murder involved the killing of the baker’s donkey! That’s all I’m willing to give away about the plot, except to say there are a few unexpected (often hilarious) developments to come over the course of the investigation.

I loved The Art of Killing Well with its sparkling wit, sideswipes at the nobility and cast of eccentric characters. It’s a hugely enjoyable, playful story, and Malvaldi writes with much charisma and verve. There are several references to food and a sprinkling of Italian politics, too. Pellegrino Artusi was an Italian silk merchant and gastronome in real life, and he self-published his cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, in 1891. The Art of Killing Well finishes with a short series of Artusi’s recipes, and I was delighted to find more of his writing on my own bookshelves: Exciting Food for Southern Types by Pellegrino Artusi (published by Penguin Books).

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I devoured The Art of Killing Well in a couple of sittings, and it left me craving a plate of wild boar washed down with a nice glass of Chianti Classico. An excellent book – highly recommended.

The Art of Killing Well is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.