Monthly Archives: August 2014

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. by Stephen Snyder)

This review was originally published as a guest post on The Writes of Women blog (25th March 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish it here – I’ve held it till August to tie in with Biblibio’s Women in Translation month.

When the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa was one of two female writers from Japan to make the shortlist this year. The other was Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone – my review of Strange Weather; Naomi’s review.

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Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed, and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier, but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year (see here for Naomi’s review). In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15, Harvill Secker)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories, Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, Old Mrs. J (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings that have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’ (pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

Several other bloggers have reviewed Revenge including fellow IFFP-shadow participants: Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List, David Hebblethwaite, Dolce Bellezza and Tony Messenger.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: personal copy.

A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author)

Books Reviewed:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Ghosts by César Aira (tr. by Chris Andrews)

Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (tr. by the author)

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz 

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker 

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (tr. by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen) + an additional post on the politics

Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. by William Weaver)

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. by Basil Creighton)

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

Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant (tr. by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit)

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin 

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. by Ruth L.C. Simms)

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (tr. by Jonathan Wright)

Drowned by Therese Bohman (tr. by Marlaine Delargy)

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. by Geoffrey Sainsbury)

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. by Faith Evans)

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. by Faith Evans)

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Providence by Anita Brookner

The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

Liveforever by Andrés Caicedo (tr. by Frank Wynne)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

The Complete Stories by Truman Capote

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

The Long Good-bye by Raymond Chandler

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov (tr. by Hugh Aplin)

Parfums by Philippe Claudel (tr. by Euan Cameron)

What a Carve Up! / The Winshaw Legacy by Jonathan Coe

Chéri by Colette (tr. by Roger Senhouse)

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane (tr. by Ros Schwartz)

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (tr. by David Bellos)

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. by George Miller)

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. by Francis Wyndham)

Madame de ___ by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. by Duff Cooper)

The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. by Stephen Twilley)

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Run River by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion 

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (tr. by Joel Agee)

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. by Susan Bernofsky)

The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (tr. by Jordan Stump)

Nagasaki by Éric Faye (tr. by Emily Boyce)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald 

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

Back to Back by Julia Franck (tr. by Anthea Bell)

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier (tr. by Emily Boyce)

The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier (tr. by Jane Aitken)

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. by Jodi Daynard)

All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda (tr. by Adriana Hunter)

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

The Hireling by L. P. Hartley 

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (tr. by Sophie Hughes)

In Love by Alfred Hayes

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (tr. by Martin Aitken)

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

The Very Dead of Winter by Mary Hocking 

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (tr. by Tess Lewis)

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue (tr. by Michael Emmerich)

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. by Michael Emmerich)

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood 

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (tr. by Andrew Bromfield)

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. by Howard S. Hibbert)

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabta (tr. by Edward G. Seidensticker)

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. by Allison Markin Powell)

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. by Don Bartlett)

A Man in Love (My Struggle: Book 2) by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. by Don Bartlett)

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy (tr. by George Szirtes)

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (tr. by Ignat Avsey)

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (tr. by Alison Entrekin)

Ten by Andrej Longo (tr. by Howard Curtis)

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. by Christina MacSweeney)

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The Drowning Pool (Lew Archer book 2) by Ross Macdonald

The Way Some People Die (Lew Archer book 3) by Ross Macdonald

The Ivory Grin (Lew Archer book 4) by Ross Macdonald 

Find a Victim (Lew Archer book 5) by Ross Macdonald 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine (tr. by Geoffrey Strachan)

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi (tr. by Howard Curtis)

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

School for Love by Olivia Manning 

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

Escape by Dominique Manotti (tr. by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz)

A Heart So White by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

All Souls by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

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

The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers

Testing the Current by William McPherson

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (tr. by Sam Taylor)

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (tr. by John Cullen)

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (tr. by Michael F. Moore)

Divertimento 1889 by Guido Morselli (tr. by Hugh Shankland)

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (tr. by N Caistor & L Garcia)

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Daniel Balderston)

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. by Stephen Snyder)

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (tr. by Brian FitzGibbon)

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (tr. by Emily & Fleur Jeremiah)

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. by Deborah Dawkin)

— 

One Fine Day by Mollie-Panter-Downes

Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym 

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

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

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys

Tigers Are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sábato (tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden)

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. by John Cullen)

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan  (tr. by Irene Ash)

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. by Heather Lloyd) + additional thoughts on the translation

Improper Stories by Saki

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter 

Last Night by James Salter

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. by Adrienne Foulke)

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. by Avril Bardoni)

Vienna Tales (short story anthology) – Schnitzler, Stifter, Roth, and more (tr. by Deborah Holmes)

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margo Bettauer Dembo)

Red Lights by Georges Simenon (tr. by Norman Denny)

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. by John Petrie)

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon (tr. by Marc Romano and Lawrence G Blochman

How to be both by Ali Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

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

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (tr. by Philip Roughton)

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb (tr. by Len Rix)

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor 

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor 

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi (tr. by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson)

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. by Anne Marie Jackson)

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

The Grifters by Jim Thompson 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (1) – Nora

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland

Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope 

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. by Elizabeth Rokkan)

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Jonathan Dunne)

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

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann (tr. by Michael Hofmann)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates 

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. by Anthea Bell)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. by Anthea Bell)

Chéri by Colette (tr. by Roger Senhouse)

Today sees my next contribution to August’s Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), a brilliant event hosted by Biblibio: Colette’s Chéri, first published in France in 1920.

In the opening pages of this novella, we are introduced to Léa de Lonval, a courtesan in her late-forties, and her young gigolo, Fred, affectionately known as Chéri.

Chéri Peloux, a rather vain and idle twenty-five-year-old with a penchant for pearls, has been living with Léa, a ‘friend’ and sparring partner of his mother‘s, for six years. Léa has, in many ways, been the making of Chéri, transforming him from an undernourished adolescent into a handsome young lover. But now their situation is about to change. Chéri is to be married to Edmée, the daughter of Marie-Laure (another acquaintance of Léa’s), and this development leaves Léa feeling somewhat concerned about her advancing age and the end of her days as a courtesan:

‘What’s the matter?’ Chéri asked.

She looked at him in astonishment. ‘Nothing, I don’t like the rain, that’s all.’

‘Oh! All right, I thought…’

‘What?’

‘I thought something was wrong.’

She could not help giving a frank laugh. ‘Wrong with me, because you’re getting married? No, listen…you’re…you’re so funny.’

She seldom laughed outright, and her merriment vexed Chéri. He shrugged his shoulders and made the usual grimace while lighting a cigarette, jutting out his chin too far and protruding his lower lip.

‘You oughtn’t to smoke before luncheon,’ Léa said.

He made some impertinent retort she did not hear. She was listening to the sound of her own voice and its daily lectures, echoing away down the past five years. ‘It’s like the endless repetition in opposite looking-glasses,’ she thought. Then, with a slight effort, she returned to reality and cheerfulness.

‘It’s lucky for me that there’ll soon be someone else to stop you smoking on an empty stomach.’

‘Oh! she won’t be allowed to have a say in anything,’ Chéri declared. ‘She’s going to be my wife, isn’t she? Let her kiss the sacred ground I tread on, and thank her lucky starts for the privilege. And that will be that.’

He exaggerated the thrust of his chin, clenched his teeth on his cigarette-holder, parted his lips, and, as he stood there in his white silk pyjamas, succeeded only in looking like an Asiatic prince grown pale in the impenetrable obscurity of palaces. (pgs. 30-31, Vintage Books)

There’s so much in the passage I’ve just quoted: Léa’s inner sadness and resignation at the prospect of Chéri’s forthcoming marriage; her determination, outwardly, to put a brave face on things; Chéri’s vanity and air of self-importance. And there’s Chéri’s comment about the role of his bride-to-be. A wife is expected to serve and attend to her husband’s needs; her own voice and opinions are of little importance in this society. In fact, I didn’t feel I got to know Edmée very well at all during the course of this story, but perhaps that’s the author’s intention?

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As the novella progresses we are treated to some wonderfully comic interplay between the main players, especially the three middle-aged women: Léa, Chéri’s mother (Madame Charlotte Peloux) and Marie-Laure, the mother of Chéri’s young bride. Colette portrays Léa and Charlotte Peloux as friendly adversaries, somehow drawing comfort from one another despite their differences. In this scene, at a gathering at Madame Peloux’s house, the guests discuss Chéri and Edmée’s wedding and the mother of the bride, Marie-Laure:

‘Madame Charlotte told us all about the wedding ceremony,’ bleated Madame Aldonza. ‘The young Madame Peloux was a dream in her wreath of orange blossom!’

‘A madonna! A madonna!’ Madame Peloux corrected at the top of her voice, with a burst of religious fervour. ‘Never, never, has anyone looked so divine. My son was in heaven! In heaven, I tell you! … What a pair they made, what a pair!’

‘You hear that, my passion? Orange blossom!’ Lili murmured. ‘And tell me, Charlotte, what about our mother-in-law, Marie-Laure?’

Madame Peloux’s pitiless eyes sparkled: ‘Oh, her! Out of place, absolutely out of place. In tight-fitting, black, like an eel wriggling out of the water – you could see everything, breasts, stomach – everything!’

‘By Jove!’ muttered the Baroness de la Berche with military gusto.

‘And that look of contempt she has for everybody, that look of having a dose of cyanide up her sleeve and half a pint of chloroform inside her handbag! As I said, out of place – that exactly describes her. She behaved as if she could only open spare us five minutes of her precious time –she’d hardly brushed the kiss off her lips, before she said, “Au revoir, Edmée, au revoir, Fred,” and off she flew.’ (pgs. 43-44)

However, it is the changes in Léa and Chéri’s relationship which form the heart of this book. Léa has had a number of other lovers in the past, but Chéri just might be the love of her life. At one point, he openly admits:

‘What I should have liked, or rather what would have been…fitting…decent…is to be your last [lover].’ (pg. 33)

Alone for the first time in many years, Léa is unable to settle, anxious that her beauty is fading. Which of the old crones at Madame Peloux’s house will Léa resemble in ten years’ time?

She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known: grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living: years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless. (p. 47)

That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, apart from saying that my sympathies were with Léa throughout. Luckily for her, she is financially independent at a time when many women had to marry for financial support and survival.

Chéri was my first experience of Colette, and I’d happily read another at some point. I enjoyed the richness of Colette’s prose and the wonderful evocation of the period.

Other information on ColetteLizzi at These Little Words posted a very interesting piece on Colette (which prompted me to try one of her books), and Max at Pechorin’s Journal has reviewed Gigi and The CatGigi sounds as if it would make a delightful companion piece to Chéri.

My edition of Chéri (tr. by Roger Senhouse) is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.

Drowned by Therese Bohman (tr. by Marlaine Delargy)

Where to start with Drowned? Well, I should say upfront that it’s a psychological novella by the Swedish editor and literary critic, Therese Bohman. Drowned is a little different to the types of books I typically choose, but a reading friend recommended it and I was keen to give it a shot.

The story is divided into two parts, and the first section opens with Marina, who narrates the story, arriving in Skåne (in the Swedish countryside) to visit her older sister, Stella. The two sisters have not seen one another in some time, and Stella now lives with Gabriel, a relatively famous novelist in his mid-forties. Gabriel is a good fifteen years older than Stella, an age difference that appears to have caused the girls’ parents some concern.

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The differences between the two sisters are evident from the opening pages of this novella. In the blistering heat of midsummer, Marina arrives by train feeling listless, grubby and headachy from the journey, whereas Stella appears cool and elegant. Marina seems ambivalent about the demise of her relationship with boyfriend, Peter (who has gone to Spain with friends), and shows little enthusiasm for her studies at Stockholm. By contrast, Stella invests much energy in her role as a landscape planner; she is a keen gardener, both at home and at work where she heads up the planning section of the council and parks department.

Gabriel works from home in the couple’s somewhat isolated idyllic cottage surrounded by a garden bursting with plants and flowers, and these images form one of the key themes within the book. Following the success of his first novel, Ophelia (another reference point), Gabriel is frustrated by the process of re-writing his second. Marina read Ophelia some years ago in high school, and while her memories of the book are somewhat vague, she can recall a ‘cloying sense of love bordering on obsession’ so well written it was almost as if she had experienced it herself.

In the heady and intense summer heat, it’s not long before a precarious attraction develops between Marina and Gabriel. In this early scene, Gabriel has been painting the henhouse in the garden and on seeing Marina, he realises there is a smear of paint on his forehead:

I move a step closer and run my thumb gently over the mark on his forehead. He looks at me, no longer smiling. There is a strong smell of paint, as if the hot, still air is intensifying the smell, making it linger. The lock of hair falls into his eyes again, and I gently push it aside to get at the paint. I can feel his breath against my cheek, he is close now, bending his head toward me so that I can reach. His forehead is brown from the sun, his whole face, his arms, he is wearing a faded black T-shirt and he smells wonderful, warm.

“Has it gone?”

“Yes.”

I hold up my hand to show him, red paint on my thumb and forefinger, and he suddenly grabs hold of my wrist, twists my hand around, and looks at my fingers. It is a rapid movement, decisive, his grip is hard, just like when I met him on that first evening, the firm handshake. Perhaps he isn’t aware of how strong he is.

“Pretty nail polish,” he says.

I did my nails last night, a cool pink, shimmering like mother-of-pearl in the sunlight.

“Thanks,” I say quietly.

My cheeks flush red. (Other Press, pg. 33)

There is a vague sense of unease in the relationships between each of the three main characters. Relations between the two sisters feel a little strained, and I’ve already touched upon Marina and Gabriel. As for Gabriel and Stella, at times the writer is loving and attentive towards his partner, but on other occasions he wonders what he’s supposed to do to make her happy. Moreover, Stella hints to her sister that she finds Gabriel somewhat unstable and difficult to live with.

Bohman brings a claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere to this first section of Drowned. Aromas pervade the air, and the heady, oppressive, almost fecund mood is augmented by descriptions of plants and flowers as they creep and spread into every available space:

There is a vase of sweet peas on the table now, spreading a perfume that seems to grow more intense as the day goes on. They clamber up a length of chicken wire in the kitchen garden, getting entangled in one another and in the wire, winding their tendrils like lianas around everything they can reach, greedily, clinging on tightly, some are impossible to pull free when you’re picking them. (pg. 72)

The second section of the book moves forward to November as Marina returns once again to the house in Skåne. The torrid heat has long gone, but this part of the story remains atmospheric as a result of a plunge in temperature:

This is late fall, raw and rainy. I can no longer smell the rotting leaves, it is no longer possible to tell that it was once summer. The entire landscape is in a state of torpor, it has resigned itself, let go. No fall colours, only brown and gray, no leaves left on the trees, they are lying on the ground now, sodden in the puddles, crushed, a mush of fallen leaves covering the lawn. (pg 111)

I enjoyed this psychological novella about how secrets, obsessions and guilt can bind people together. Bohman explores the darker aspects of our relationships, and she does so in a way that held my interest throughout. There are a few themes I would have liked to discuss further in this review, but it’s very difficult to do so without disclosing key elements of the plot. Drowned is an unsettling read, and in some ways it reminds me a little of Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room (tr. by Deborah Dawkin), certainly in terms of the novella’s somewhat claustrophobic and unnerving atmosphere – while Drowned maintains an air of ambiguity, The Blue Room is a more slippery read and harder to pin down.

I’ll wrap up with one final point. Occasionally during the narrative, Marina reflects on memories of her relationship with Stella when they were children, and I found myself looking for hints and clues from the past. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of these sections:

I think about when I was little, when it was winter and Stella and I were waiting in the backseat of the car for Mom and Dad, who had gone off to do some shopping or something, and the windows got all misted up on the inside and we drew flowers and animals and hearts, and Stella wrote the names of the boys she was in love with. Dad used to tell us to try not to breathe until he had closed the car door and we would laugh and try, timing each other to see how long we could hold our breath, Stella always won. (pg. 136)

I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s focus on Women in Translation (#WITMonth), which is running throughout August.

Drowned is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy.

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Renata Adler is an American author, journalist and critic – she worked for The New Yorker for over four decades. Her first novel, Speedboat, published in 1976 won the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel.

The notes on the back of my NYRB Classics edition state that when Speedboat arrived in the mid-seventies, it was ‘like nothing readers had ever encountered before.’ Speedboat doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. What we have here is a series of fragments from the life of an American investigative journalist, Jen Fain, seen through the eyes of this woman as she is our narrator, our guide through this fascinating work.

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Episodic in style and form, Speedboat presents a collection of Jen’s reflections, observations and vignettes from a variety of stages in her life ranging from her days at boarding school and college, her time as an investigative journalist, as a speech writer for a political candidate and more. We encounter the inhabitants of Jen’s brownstone in New York, friends and acquaintances, taxi drivers, and some of the subjects of her journalistic dispatches from around the world. Jen’s lovers and partners also feature, but these characters appear to be on the periphery of her story, coming and going into the frame from time to time.

Timelines move backwards and forwards giving the novel a sense of elasticity and fluidity as we flit from one situation to the next, from one topic to another. One of the pleasures of reading Speedboat stems from not knowing where it is going to take us and whether we will return subsequently to the same period in this woman’s life or move on indefinitely. In this example, Jen touches on her days as a student in Paris – It’s a brief stopover, and we don’t know if we’ll hear more at a later stage:

One night, in Paris, during the last days of the Algerian crisis, I was studying in a common room at the Cité Universitaire—where I used to live and where four apparently interchangeable Americans incessantly played bridge. A bomb went off. The explosion was enormous. Windows smashed. Doors fractured. The reception desk blew up. The lights went out. The first words after the thunder and reverberations in the darkness were an imperturbable, incredulous, “Two hearts.” (pgs. 30-31)

Adler’s slices of prose vary in lengthanything from a sentence or two to a couple of pages. And they vary in tone, toosome are underscored with laconic wry humour, others convey a darker mood. Several fragments are keenly observed:

The wallflower sat reading in the Paris restaurant. There used to be so many categories of wallflower: the anxious, smiling, tense ones who leaned forward, trying; the important, busy, apparently elsewhere preoccupied ones, who were nonetheless waiting, waiting in the carpeted offices of their inattention, to be found. There were wallflowers who clustered noisily together, and others who worked a territory, resolute and alone. And then, there were wallflowers who had recognised for years that the thing was hopeless, who had found in that information a kind of calm. They no longer tried, with a bright and desperate effort, to sustain a conversation with somebody’s brother, somebody’s usher, somebody’s roommate, somebody’s roommate’s usher’s brother, or, worst of all, with that male wallflower who ought—by God who ought—to be an ally, who could, in dignity and the common interest, join forces to make it through an evening, but who, after all, had higher aspirations, and neither the sense nor the courtesy to conceal it, who in short, scorned the partner fate and the placement had dealt him, worst of all. The category of wallflower who had given up on all this was very quiet, not indifferent, only quiet. And she always brought a book. (pg. 151)

Adler is especially good on the use of language: the implied meaning behind particular words in newspaper reports and reviews; the unintended impact of certain phrases in our conversations:

It certainly does not do to have too low a threshold for being insulted. Even the affectionate insult, or the compliment with any sort of spin on it, can reverberate in memory in awful ways. “I love your little fat legs,” Paul said to Joanne. He had watched her walking toward him on the beach. He was so in love with her that, although he meant it, he may not even have heard what he said, exactly. She never forgave him. She slept with him for another year and then married his enemy and rival, the only man Paul had ever hated in the world. “You have beautiful eyes and lovely hands,” Leroy said to Jane, “and when you smile, to me you’re beautiful.” She never forgave him, either. She married him. Their life together was hell for fifty years. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re lovely?” is, of necessity, a minefield. There is no conceivable proper answer. It all ends in disaster anyway. (pg. 130)

At first there appears to be no clear connection from one episode to the next. But as the novel progresses, we begin to build a collage of a life refracted through the lens of a disaffected America in the mid-seventies. The fragmentary form of the novel on its own could imply a feeling of dissonance and unrest. And perhaps more significantly, many of Adler’s vignettes are underscored (or signed off) with a weariness, an uncertainty, a sense of fear, even, that seems indicative of this period in American politics and culture:

When I wonder what it is that we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives (pg. 68)

Jim works for the candidate just about full time now. I’m surprised that I hate it, but I do. For a time, our people used to mill about saying “The system works. The system works” –the way kids used to run off the field shouting “We won. We won. We won,” when the game had been called on account of rain, or darkness, or because somebody had decided to take his baseball home. I am sure it does work, or I hope it does, and I used to think it did; but I was glad when we could all stop saying that. (pg. 148)

People seem to be unhappy in so many different ways. (pg 145)

Speedboat is a revelation; broad in scope, intimate in detail. Adler brings a deep intelligence to this work, and the quality of her writing is top notch. It’s a book to savour, one I’d love to revisit in the future.

I can’t recommend Speedboat highly enough, although it might not be to your taste if you like plot-driven narratives and novels that follow fairly conventional principles. If you’re in the mood for something different, however, something that seems way ahead of its time in terms of pushing the boundaries of the novel form, then Speedboat could be for you.

Speedboat is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (review)

I’ve already reviewed My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s recent series of Neapolitan novels. The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel, was first published in Italy in 2002 and translated into the English in 2005.

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The Days of Abandonment is narrated by Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old woman originally from Naples, now living in Turin. She has been married to Mario for fifteen years, and they have two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. In a quietly devastating opening paragraph, Mario informs Olga that he wants to leave her:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink. (p. 9, Europa Editions)

At first, Olga is convinced that Mario isn’t serious; after all, this has happened before. Six months after the couple got together, Mario suddenly announced that he no longer wished to see Olga, only to return five days later claiming ‘there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense.’

Consequently, in the early stages of their separation, Olga continues to behave affectionately towards Mario ‘ready to sustain him in his obscure crisis’ as he returns periodically to visit the children. But Olga soon feels a sharp animosity growing inside her, a bitterness only heightened when she learns Mario has left her for another woman, and her demeanour starts to alter:

I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully. I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.

Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate to the few acquaintances who still tried coldly to console me that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut. I hated the idea that he knew everything about me while I knew little or nothing of him. (pg. 26)

In an effort to calm herself, Olga begins to re-examine her relationship with Mario in the minutest detail in an attempt to understand where she has gone wrong and why her husband has left. But it’s not long before her need to self-analyse gives way to feelings driven by resentment and rage:

A tangle of resentments, the sense of revenge, the need to test the humiliated power of my body were burning up any residue of good sense.  (pg. 48)

As Olga struggles to maintain a grip on her life, those around her bear the brunt of her frustrations; she strikes out at Mario, strangers who cross her path, and she comes perilously close to abandoning her children in the gardens of the local museum (near a statue of Pietro Micca):

And I began to shout that, if in their opinion I was no good, they should go to him [their father], there was a new mother, beautiful and smart, certainly from Turin, I would bet she knew everything about Pietro Micca and that city of kings and princesses, of haughty people, cold people, metal automatons. I screamed and screamed, out of control. (pg. 65)

And a few lines later:

Ah yes, I wished to wound them, my children, I wished to wound above all the boy, who already had a Piedmontese accent, Mario, too, spoke like a Turinese now, he had eliminated the Neapolitan cadences utterly. Gianni acted like an impudent young bull, I detested it, he was growing up foolish and presumptuous and aggressive, eager to shed his own blood or that of others in some uncivilized conflict, I couldn’t bear it any more.

I left them in the gardens, beside the fountain, and set out quickly along Via Galileo Ferraris, toward the suspended figure of Victor Emmanuel II, a shadow at the end of parallel lines of buildings, high up against a slice of warm cloudy sky. Maybe I really wanted to abandon them forever, forget about them, so that when Mario finally showed up again I could strike my forehead and exclaim: your children? I don’t know. I seem to have lost them: the last time I saw them was a month ago, in the gardens of the Cittadella.

After a little I slowed down, turned back. What was happening to me. I was losing touch with those blameless creatures, they were growing distant, as if balanced on a log floating away upon the flow of the current. Get them back, take hold of them again, hug them close: they were mine. (pgs 65-66)

From here, Olga descends into a deep depression and finds herself staring, falling even, into the darkest recesses of a terrible abyss. There is an excruciating scene in which she seeks sex with one of her neighbours, not out of any feelings of desire (in fact she finds this man quite repulsive) but out of a desperate need to negate the insult of being deserted by Mario.

Tormented by thoughts of Mario and his new life, Olga is unable to think clearly or concentrate on anything else. Confusion and disorientation reign as this woman’s previously ordered life crumbles around her. Having neglected to pay the bill she finds the phone is no longer working; ants infest her apartment, and there are a couple of scenes involving door locks which I’ll avoid discussing for fear of revealing further details about this section of Olga’s story.

I had only to quiet the view inside, the thoughts. They got mixed up, they crowded in on one another, shreds of words and images, buzzing frantically, like swarms of wasps, they gave to my gestures a brute capacity to do harm. (pg. 93)

While the title, The Days of Abandonment, clearly refers to Mario’s desertion of Olga, there’s also a sense that the phrase refers to Olga’s surrender to her own state of mind:

Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings. Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened…I didn’t know how to find answers to the question marks, every possible answer seemed absurd. I was lost in the where am I, in the what am I doing. I was mute beside the why. (pg. 107)

At various stages of her abandonment Olga is hounded by her memories of a once contented woman from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman whose husband ran away to Pescara for the love of another. This woman’s husband ‘had abandoned her, had cancelled her out from memory and feeling’ leaving her with nothing, not even her name; she became known as the ‘poverella,’ a poor woman torn to pieces by the loss of her husband. At one stage, Olga even questions her own identity as she struggles to separate reality from the imaginary: is she becoming the ‘poverella’ of her childhood?

Occasionally though, Olga regains a sense of proportion, a feeling that she can recover from this terrible experience and pull herself out of this place. Will she succeed? Well, that’s not for me to say, but if you read this exceptional novel, you’ll find out for yourself.

I was expecting The Days of Abandonment to be very good, but it is extraordinarily good. This is no-holds-barred fearless writing, a novel that delves deeply into the human psyche. Ferrante writes with devastating candour, exploring our perceptions of a woman, a mother with responsibilities, who finds herself face-to-face with a crisis. The story is shocking and violent in places, and the language explicit at times, but my word it feels necessary to convey the intensity of Olga’s story. A disturbing, but utterly unforgettable and compelling book, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein.

Biblibio and Tony Malone have also reviewed this novel, which I read as part of August’s Women in Translation #WITMonth, championed by Biblibio.

The Days of Abandonment (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (review)

In Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter presents us with the story of Sophie Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’, the most famous aerialiste of her day, and what a dazzling, sprawling tale it is. The novel opens at the tail end of the nineteenth century, and the scene is Fevvers’ dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall, London. Here, in a setting littered with her dirty underwear, Fevvers entertains American journalist, Jack Walser, with the tale of her biography to date. There is an aura of mystery surrounding the mercurial Fevvers – here we have a creature who claims to be part woman, part bird, and her slogan adds to the mystique: ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’ Walser is all set to gain the inside track on the aerialiste’s story, and if at all possible, to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Fevvers claims she was ‘hatched out of bloody great egg’ to the sound of Bow Bells, and the aerialiste paints a vivid picture of her backstory. We hear of Fevvers’ early years raised in a brothel, and how, aged thirteen, her wings burst through and she learns to fly. We follow the young Fevvers as poverty forces her to join Madame Schreck’s Museum of Women Monsters, where she is sold to the rather sinister Mr Rosencreutz.

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As Fevvers recounts her tale to Walser, she is aided by foster mother, Lizzie, and Carter whips up a quick pen-portrait of the aerialiste’s guardian in just a few lines:

Lizzie was a tiny, wizened, gnome-like apparition who might have been any age between thirty and fifty; snapping, black eyes, sallow skin, an incipient moustache on the upper lip and a close-cropped frizzle of tri-coloured hair – bright grey at the roots, stark grey in between, burnt with henna at the tips. (pg. 10, Vintage Books)

This first section of the novel (London) is a glorious piece of writing, full of incident and intrigue, and the artist recounts her story with considerable brio. Fevvers is a wonderfully earthy, bawdy individual – she swigs champagne, belches away and flirts with Walser as the hours of the night slip by:

She pulled a coil of hair out of her chignon and wrapped it round her finger, twisting it and biting it thoughtfully; then, suddenly, she whirled away from the mirror on her revolving stool and leaned confidentially towards Walser.

‘Now, sir, I shall let you into a great secret, for your eyes alone and not for publication, because I’ve taken a liking to your face, sir.’ At that, she batted her eyelids like a flirt, She lowered her voice to a whisper, so that Walser needs must lean forward in turn to hear her; her breath, flavoured with champagne, warmed his cheek,

‘I dye, sir!’

‘What?’

‘My feathers, sir! I dye them! Don’t think I bore such gaudy colours from puberty! I commenced to dye my feathers at the start of my public career on the trapeze, in order to simulate more perfectly the tropic bird. In my white girlhood and earliest years, I kept my natural colour. Which is a kind of blonde, only a little darker than the hair on my head, more the colour of that on my private ahem parts.

‘Now that’s my dreadful secret, Mr Walser, and to tell the whole truth and nothing but, the only deception which I practice on the public!’

To emphasise the point, she brought her empty glass down with such a bang on the dressing-table that the jars of fards and lotions jumped and rattled, expelling sharp gusts of cheap scent, and a cloud of powder rose up into the air from a jogged box, catching painfully in Walser’s throat so that he broke out coughing. Lizzie thumped his back. Fevvers disregarded these proceedings. (pg 24-5)

Towards the end of the novel’s London section, Fevvers joins Colonel Kearney’s circus, signing a six-figure deal to tour Russia and beyond. And Walser, who still senses something feral, almost dangerous about Fevvers (especially when he’s alone with this formidable creature) decides to go undercover and tag along as a clown.

As the action moves to St Petersburg (in part two), Carter introduces us to a variety of remarkable characters and anecdotes. We meet the inhabitants of Clown Alley, chimps, tigers and all manner of circus performers. As one might expect, there are thrills and spills aplenty, and Carter treats us to more of her lush, rich prose. In this scene, the Strong Man is caught in flagrante delicto with the Ape Man’s partner as a tiger escapes and pursues, Sybil, Colonel Kearney’s pet pig:

The tiger ran into the ring, hot on the scent of Sybil.

It came out of the corridor like orange quicksilver, or a rarer liquid metal, a quickgold. It did not so much run as flow, a questing sluice of brown and yellow, a hot molten death. It prowled and growled around the remains of the chimps’ classroom, snuffing up its immense, flaring nostrils the delicious air of freedom fragrant with the scent of meat on the hoof. How yellow its teeth were; the festering teeth of carnivores.

The Strong Man tore off the woman’s clinging arms, clutched his loincloth round his privates and made for the auditorium door. He was a fine specimen, in prime condition; he swung from tier to tier, past Walser struck like a pillar of salt, up and away. The exit banged to behind him. Walser heard the sound of the shooting of the bolts.

Now the only way out of the ring was that by which the tiger had entered it.

I am in a perfect death trap, thought Walser. (pg.129)

At the end of their stay in St Petersburg, an eventful final evening leaves the circus somewhat depleted as they depart for Japan – a journey that takes the troupe across Siberia by rail (forming part three of the story).

I love the first two sections of this energetic and humorous novel. Carter blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary, and even though the story becomes increasingly surreal, I was fully engaged right up to the end of events in St Petersburg. But then, just as I was anticipating a grand finale, partway through the final section the story veers off course deep into the realms of fantasy. During the troupe’s travels across the Siberian hinterland, Carter really lets rip with her imagination, but for me, this is where the narrative gets lost in the wilderness.

Despite my reservations about the Siberian section – Carter does pull it back, just – I would recommend Nights at the Circus for its sheer verve and imaginative scope. There are several references to gender and feminism threaded through the novel, too. The women in this novel tend to form the strongest, most supportive relationships with other females, whereas their encounters with men are often characterised by violence and/or abuse of some kind. As the story draws to a close and we approach the dawn of the 20th century, Fevvers foresees a future when ‘all the women will have wings the same as I’. Lizzie, however, believes the new era will be more complicated and predicts struggles on the horizon:

‘This old witch sees storms ahead, my girl. When I look to the future, I see through a glass, darkly.’ (pg. 339)

Reading Nights at the Circus is an intoxicating, heady and entertaining experience, and I’m sure it won’t be long before I return to Angela Carter.

Nights at the Circus is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy