Monthly Archives: October 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (book review)

With the centenary of the start of the First World War in mind, the members of my book group have been reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque, born in Germany in 1898, drew on some of his own experiences in WW1 to write this incredibly powerful and unforgettable novel, first published in 1929. It’s also a great choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which will be running throughout November, but I’ve posted this review today in time for this week’s book group discussion.

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All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated by Paul Bäumer, an eighteen-year-old German boy who – along with several of his schoolmates – is marched down to the local recruiting office by his schoolteacher to enlist in the war. These young boys are swept up by the ideology and beliefs of their teacher and other authority figures around them, people who profess to be acting in the best interests of their country by forcing the boys to support the war effort. But as the brutal reality of war hits home, Bäumer and his friends realise they have been sold out and abandoned by their elders’ generation; in effect, a ‘moral bankruptcy’ has taken place:

They were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilized behaviour and progress – into the future. […] Our first experience of heavy artillery fire showed us our mistake, and the view of life that their teaching had given us fell to pieces under that bombardment.

[…]

But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well. (pgs. 8-9, Vintage Books)

As the novel moves forward, we follow Bäumer and his unit as they try to survive both the physical and mental effects of the war. There is a strong sense that Bäumer represents a universal soldier; he could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the next few seconds might bring.

All Quiet is particularly strong on both the physical and psychological horrors of war. There are several distressing (but necessary) scenes that convey the injuries, fatigue, fear and hallucinations these soldier experiences in the fields and trenches. As we join this scene, Bäumer and his comrades have been trapped for days in a dugout on the front, their nerves shredded as a result of the confinement:

Another night. The tension has worn us out. It is a deadly tension that feels as if a jagged knife blade is being scraped along the spine. Our legs won’t function, our hands are trembling and our bodies are like thin membranes stretched over barely repressed madness, holding in what would otherwise be an unrestrained outburst of endless screams. We have no flesh, no muscles now, we cannot even look at one another for fear of seeing the unimaginable. And so we press our lips together tightly – it has to stop, it has to stop – perhaps we’ll get through it all. (pg. 77)

And once they escape, more horror and conflict awaits. In order to survive and maintain some semblance of sanity, Bäumer and his comrades are forced to adopt the mindset that they are fighting Death itself. Dwelling on the human aspects of conflict would only lead to a breakdown, and the soldiers know they cannot succumb to these thoughts if they are to survive. Cut adrift from the rest of the world, their actions are automatic; they have become automatons fighting a faceless enemy. If they try to come to terms with the horror, they fear it will kill them:

We are not hurling our grenades against human beings – what do we now about all that in the heat of the moment? – the hands and the helmets that are after us belong to Death himself… (pg. 79) 

The brown earth, the torn and mangled brown earth, shimmering greasily under the sun’s rays, becomes a backdrop for our dulled and ever-moving automatic actions, our harsh breathing is the rasping of the clockwork, our lips are dry and our heads feel worse than  after a night’s hard drinking – and so we stumble onwards, while into our bullet-ridden, shot-through souls the image of the brown earth insinuates itself painfully, the brown earth with the greasy sun and the dead or twitching soldiers, who lie there as if that were perfectly normal, and who grab at our legs and scream as we try to jump over them. (pg. 80)

Somewhat inevitably, Bäumer is deeply affected by the horror and senselessness of it all (even though he tries to suppress these feelings at the front), and this is painfully apparent when he returns home for a brief spell of leave. When Bäumer arrives home unannounced, his sister calls for their mother and he is overcome with emotion:

I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and my rifle. I grip them as hard as I can, but I can’t move another step, the staircase blurs before my eyes. I thump my rifle-butt against my foot and grit my teeth in anger, but I am powerless against that one word that my sister has just spoken, nothing has any power against it. I try with all my might to force myself to laugh and to speak, but I can’t manage a single word, and so I stand there on the stairs, wretched and helpless, horribly paralysed and I can’t help it, and tears and more tears are running down my face. (pg. 109)

This young man realises that he has become brittle and damaged by the war, and as he struggles to come to terms with his feelings, it’s as if a great chasm has opened up between the memories of his former life and his current perception of the world. Bäumer finds it so difficult to connect with his family and the people back home that he prefers to be alone, and he wonders if he will ever be able to build a life for himself after the war. Other (older) soldiers have wives and children to return to, but Bäumer is part of the lost generation, the boys who went straight from school to war, those with no other experience of adult life to cling to.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a deeply affecting book, almost unbearably so at times for all the reasons I have already mentioned. We gain an insight into a war characterised by terror, both the fear of waiting for conflict and the shock of coming face-to-face with it. Alongside this portrayal, the novel also captures the camaraderie between soldiers in moments of battle and quieter times. We follow Bäumer as he carries an injured soldier (his closest friend in the unit) to safety. We see the soldiers cooking a feast while under fire as they stand guard over a supply station in an evacuated village. The taunting of their training commander, the vindictive Himmelstoss (now posted out to the conflict), provides a few moments of light relief.

Above all else though, we are left with a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. As I was reading All Quiet, I couldn’t help but mark several sections of the text, and I ended up with far too many quotes to include here. But I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage that gets to the essence of this book for me. I wish I had read this novel many years ago; I’m sure I’ll read it again.

I am young, I am twenty years of age; but I know nothing of life except despair, death, fear, and the combination of completely mindless superficiality with an abyss of suffering. I see people being driven against one another, and silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another. I see the best brains in the world inventing weapons and words to make the whole process that much more sophisticated and long-lasting. And watching this with me are all my contemporaries, here and on the other side, all over the world – my whole generation is experiencing this with me. What would our fathers do if one day we rose up and confronted them, and called them to account? What do they expect from us when a time comes in which there is no more war? For years our occupation has been killing – that was the first experience we had. Our knowledge is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what can possibly become of us? (pg. 180)

All Quiet on the Western Front (tr. by Brian Murdoch) is published in the UK by Vintage Books . Source: personal copy.

All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden

In the opening pages of All the Days and Nights, the latest novel by British writer Niven Govinden, we hear from Anna Brown, a renowned artist living on the East Coast of America. The year is 1980 and Anna realises that John, her partner and muse for the last fifty years, has left their home (as he has previously threatened to do). It soon becomes clear that John has embarked on a quest to view Anna’s portraits of him, pictures which now hang in museums and private collections across America.

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Govinden adopts a very interesting approach in conveying Anna and John’s story by moving between passages written as first- and second-person narratives. The use of the second-person narrative – in which Anna addresses John through the use of ‘you’ – gives a feeling of closeness and immediacy, almost as if she is speaking directly to the reader. As she relays John’s journey across the US, everything we see and hear feels as if it is being refracted through Anna’s lens. It’s as if Anna is imagining what is happening to John, seeing these events in her mind’s eye.

As the novel progresses, we also hear Anna’s perspective on her life with John: how he arrived on spec in search of manual work and ended up staying for fifty years; how comfortable and open he is with everyone in the local community, while Anna prefers isolation as she needs her own space in which to breathe.

One of the key themes of this novel centres on the search for meaning. Anna is dying, and being a stubborn individual she is struggling to face up to her own mortality. John’s quest to view Anna’s paintings is driven by the need to define his relationship with this woman, and by viewing these images he hopes to understand the essence of his life with Anna. What exactly did Anna capture in these portraits and will John recognise himself? What emotions and facets of their relationship has she drawn upon, exploited even, in the name of art? Does John’s life contain any meaning at all beyond that of his role as a subject for Anna’s paintings?

All the Days and Nights also offers an exploration of the creative process and the relationship between artist and muse. We see Anna’s determination and dedication to her craft, the intense physical and mental demands she makes of her subjects as they strive to maintain a position for several hours.

As Anna enters the final phase of her life, she wishes to complete one final painting, and with John absent, she calls upon Ben, her agent and lifelong friend, to pose as a sitter. As she works on this final piece, there is a sense that Anna is attempting to atone for certain failings in her relationship with John.

I admired the insight and sensitivity Govinden brought to his previous book, Black Bread White Beer, a novel about a young couple dealing with the emotional fallout from a miscarriage. All the Days and Nights, however, feels like a significant leap forward in terms of emotional heft and the pull of the writing. This is an intensely poignant and absorbing novel; I liked it a great deal.

Susan at a life in books has also reviewed this novel.

All the Days and Nights is published in the UK by The Friday Project. Source: proof copy (not for quotation) kindly provided by the publisher.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (book review)

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is such a brilliant classic, I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to add to the multitude of reviews already covering this book, but in the end I decided to capture a few thoughts in this post.

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The novel takes us back to New York in the late 19th century where we meet Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lily spends much of her time with a wealthy society set, namely Judy and Gus Trenor, Bertha and George Dorset and other assorted players in the same social sphere. However, Lily is a woman of very limited financial means; she enjoys the finer things in life, but is conscious of the need to rely on the generosity of her friends in return for gracing their social gatherings with her beauty and charm. Above all else though, she fears the threat of poverty:

No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. (pg. 23, Wordsworth Classics)

Between visits to the Trenors at their Bellomont estate, Lily (an orphan) finds herself dependent on her aunt, the somewhat mean-spirited and passive Mrs Peniston. In order to secure her future, Lily knows she must net a wealthy husband, but Lawrence Selden, the man to whom she is attracted, has insufficient funds to support her desired lifestyle. Nevertheless, Lily is smart enough to see a potential end to her financial worries; she believes she can marry the prosperous Percy Gryce whenever she chooses and although she doesn’t love or desire him, she knows this move would relieve her of a heavy burden:

She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free for ever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. (pg. 43)

At a fairly early stage in the novel, Lily seems all set to allow Mr Gryce to offer his hand in marriage. However, the reappearance of Lawrence Selden throws Lily off course at a key moment, prompting her to see her situation (and possible future life with Gryce) in a new light, one in which she envisages a desperately dull and boring existence despite the financial security it offers:

How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience:

[…]

How different they had seemed to her a few hours ago! Then they had symbolised what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement. […] She closed her eyes an instant, and the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning; (pg. 49)

A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer-book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. […] There was nothing especially arduous in this round of religious obligations; but it stood for a fraction of that great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path. (pg. 51) 

For a variety of reasons Gryce’s proposal of marriage never materialises, and this seems indicative of a certain aspect of Lily’s character; over the years she had squandered a number of opportunities for marriage in the belief that she could do better for herself. As Mrs Fisher, another member of the society set, comments:

‘…An Italian prince, rich and the real thing, wanted to marry her; but just at the critical moment a good-looking stepson turned up, and Lily was silly enough to flirt with him while her marriage-settlements with the stepfather were being drawn up. […] That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.’ (pg. 164)

In The House of Mirth, Wharton gives use a fascinating insight into the workings of this sector of American society at the time, a society in which appearances and others’ perceptions of one’s character are crucial. In fact in many ways, perceptions are more important than the truth in this rather cruel and unforgiving world. At an early stage in the novel, we learn that Lily must be seen to maintain an honourable and unblemished reputation for her to be fully accepted by society. She commits the indiscretion of joining Selden for tea in his rooms and when she bumps into Mr Rosedale (another player in the society set) on leaving Selden’s building, she invents a story to cover her tracks, one that Rosedale suspects is a white lie:

Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather more than she could afford. She was vexed to see that, in spite of so many years of vigilance, she had blundered twice within five minutes. (pgs. 13-14)

And it is other society members’ perceptions of Lily that ultimately play a key role in the narrative. Lily is drawn into playing bridge at the Trenors’ Bellomont estate, and as her gambling debts and expenses mount, she asks Gus Trenor to invest her meagre finances in the stock market. At first Lily believes her ‘investment’ to be a wise move as Trenor passes on the profits, but this transaction is far from transparent and Trenor clearly expects more than a little something from Lily in return for his efforts. As the ramifications of this episode unravel, Lily – through no real fault of her own – is once again at the mercy of the perceptions of others; a victim of scandalous rumours, ostracised and virtually abandoned by the society that once embraced her, she finds it increasingly difficult to establish a foothold in life. Lily realises that ‘a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.’

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, but it’s a brilliant story and Wharton executes it perfectly – her prose is magnificent. There are so many additional nuances to the narrative that I haven’t even touched upon here, and I can see myself rereading the novel to revisit Lily at some point.

Wharton has created a wonderful character in Lily Bart, one of my favourites this year (along with Cassandra from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding). Lily is a beautiful and fascinating creature, yet she is also frivolous and a little naïve despite her intelligence and wit. There are times when she doesn’t always make the best choice in life, but she seems to emerge with her own scruples intact. Ultimately though, she falls prey to the politics and conventions of society at the time and Wharton dissects this rather harsh culture with great skill, precision and candour. Bertha Dorset, another fully-realised character, is also worthy of a brief mention at this point as it she who plays a key role in Lily’s fall from grace.

Finally, I loved the dynamics of the bond between Lily and Lawrence Selden: their obvious attraction to one another; their knowledge that they cannot marry as Lily must find a wealthy husband; the role of chance and missed opportunities in their relationship. Interestingly, Selden is the one character in the book who is permitted to circulate in society, but also observe it from a distance. Here’s Lily as she studies Selden (at a time when she is still considering marrying Gryce):

It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside of the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden’s distinction that he had never forgotten the way out. (pg. 48)

So there we are; a few thoughts on The House of Mirth, another one for my end-of-year highlights. Cathy at 746 Books and My Book Strings have also recently reviewed this book.

My copy of The House of Mirth is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy.

Parfums by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is a French writer and film-maker. While I’ve yet to read any of Claudel’s novels (which include Brodeck’s Report and Grey Souls), I am familiar with I’ve Loved You So Long, a film he wrote and directed in 2010. It features a standout performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as a woman struggling to adjust to a new phase in her life following an extended period of alienation from her family and society. So when Claudel’s memoir, Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells dropped through my letterbox, I was keen to give it a whirl.

This beautifully-written memoir consists of sixty-three vignettes each of which captures a scene or two from Claudel’s life, and it reads like a collection of memories, each one evoked by a certain smell. The title of each vignette represents the aroma concerned, and the topics range from floral (Acacia) to animal (Fried Bacon) to mineral (Pink Sandstone). Other smells capture places (Ironmonger) or particular stages in Claudel’s life. Gym, for example, reflects the author’s memories of the school gymnasium where young boys and girls brush up against one another and the odours of teenage hormones and feet mingle with the whiff of rubber mats.

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Many of the vignettes focus on memories from Claudel’s childhood. These are mostly happy times which convey images of Claudel cycling through the countryside of Lorraine in north-east France, fishing in the local river and picnicking in the forests of the Vosges. In Garlic, one of my favourites from the memoir, Claudel’s Grandmère cooks a steak for Philippe. It feels like an early memory, possibly one that captures the young boy’s first taste of steak (as his feet fail to reach the ground when he sits at the kitchen table). It’s a wonderful scene, so vividly realised that the reader can almost smell the cubes of garlic as they ‘diffuse their intangible miracle over the hot, golden meat.’

The naked clove of the garlic resembles the canine tooth of a big cat, and the weapon used for the crime chisels out of it tiny pearly, slighly greasy cubes that scarcely have time to give off their aromas because my grandmother throws them promptly into the dented, black frying pan, over the steak that is already sizzling. Explosion. Smoke from a blacksmith’s forge. Eyes smarting. The kitchen of the small house at 18 rue des Champs Fleury disappears in billows of fumes. My mouth waters. The smell of garlic, of burning butter, of blood and fluids, is converted into a delicious juice from the meat as it merges with the melting fat. Hollow with hunger, I wait. (pgs. 13-14)

Like life itself, Claudel’s memories vary in tone with some vignettes capturing darker memories. In Cellar, he recalls visiting ‘The Aunts from Saint-Blaise,’ a trio of spinsters who live together in a large house complete with a dark, dank cellar. Clearly a frightening place for a young boy:

I step onto earth that you would think had been turned over by a gravedigger’s shovel. The cavern discharges its deep, pit-like breath over me, heavy, clinging, seeped in clay and mud. I shiver. I stop moving. I try to remain in the abyss for as long as possible. My heart, a small caged animal, thumps against its fleshy bars. The cellar attempts to enchant me with its whiff of must and saltpetre, of muffled condensation, a siren from the depths with a night-time kiss that oppresses me and winds itself around me. (pg. 35)

Rather than following a chronological path through Claudel’s life, the chapters move backwards and forwards in time. This movement gives the memoir a fluid, almost spontaneous feel leaving the reader free to guess what might be coming next.

Claudel brings a beautifully poignant tone to this memoir and some vignettes could be read as a lament to loss: the passing of certain traditions; the loss of a way of life as progress alters the shape of a town; the loss of a loved one. In Pullover, Claudel recalls how an old pullover that his Uncle Dédé used to wear when renovating the family home now serves as a reminder of this much-loved man. One day Dédé failed arrive at the house as expected; he had died during the night. All that remains is his work jumper:

My uncle was there, shockingly present in the cold whiff of his cigarette, the lingering traces of some cheap aftershave, the cement dust, the wallpaper paste, rising up through an alchemy subliminally accumulated in the fabric. I can’t throw it in the dustbin or wear it. I put it aside in the cupboard, near the attic, from which I frequently retrieve it so that I can touch it, breath it in and, thereby, rediscover the uncle I had loved dearly since childhood, who watched me grow up like a second father, though freed of all responsibility and all the worries of fatherhood, and who, as a result, was less demanding and more amusing than my father. To grieve is like tossing a fistful of life at the games death plays. We know that death will be blinded for a brief instant, but it does us good. And we carry on. (pg. 134)

As you can probably tell by now, Claudel’s prose is very lyrical and poetic, so much so that these vignettes read like prose poems especially given the evocative and sensual nature of the parfums. Personally, I love the way Claudel writes although I appreciate his prose style might not be to everyone’s taste. If you like the passages I’ve quoted in this review, then there’s a good chance you’ll like Parfums. Less so if you’re not particularly fond of lyrical, poetic prose.

Claudel offers the view that smells define us, they help us understand one another. In the modern world, there’s a tendency to tolerate only those aromas which are pleasant and socially acceptable, but by taking this approach we risk obliterating certain aspects of our character and experiences. Parfums is a celebration of smells both good and bad; it’s a celebration of life.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s has also review this memoir.

Parfums (tr. by Euan Cameron) is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Back in July, I read a few books to tie in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month. All well and good except I ended up with several other books on my shopping list on the back of other bloggers’ reviews. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate was near the top of that list thanks to Grant’s review, and when I spotted it in the new Foyles, I couldn’t resist.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, first published in 1946, is the only known work of fiction by Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo and her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and what a little gem it is.

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The novella is narrated by Dr. Humberto Huberman, a physician who also happens to be a writer. As the story opens, Huberman is travelling to the Hotel Central in the Argentine resort of Bosque del Mar with the intention of working on his latest screenplay, an adaptation of Petronius. The hotel – owned by the doctor’s cousin, Andrea and her husband, Esteban – is marooned on a bed of sand ‘like a ship on the sea’, and at first sight the good doctor believes he has discovered the ‘literati’s paradise,’ the perfect setting in which to finish his play.

A number of other guests are staying at the hotel, most notably two sisters, Mary and Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel and Dr. Cornejo, another gentleman known to the group. It’s not long though before our narrator senses tensions within this party. Firstly, he overhears a disagreement between Mary and Emilia’s fiancé at the beach. Mary is determined to go swimming, but Atuel seems overly concerned for her safety in light of the currents. Cornejo, on the other hand, sees no little danger in the situation and encourages the girl to take to the waters. A little later, as Huberman returns to his room, he hears the two sisters insulting one another furiously, and as night descends, the atmosphere at the hotel takes a rather sinister turn:

Suddenly, the howling of the dogs was drowned out by an immense moan; it was as if a gigantic, supernatural dog, out on the deserted beaches, were grieving all the world’s sorrow. The wind had come up.

“A windstorm. We must close the doors and windows,” declared my cousin.

A drumming sound, like rain, beat against walls.

“Here it rains sand,” noted my cousin. Then she added: “Just as long as we don’t end up buried…”

Nimbly, the rotund typist closed the windows. She looked at us, smiling, and said: “Something is going to happen tonight! Something is going to happen tonight!” (pg. 32, Melville House)

And she’s right. When Emilia discovers Mary’s body the following morning, Huberman swiftly inserts himself into the proceedings by declaring that the young woman has been poisoned. By now we’ve gathered that our narrator is a somewhat supercilious and pedantic busybody, one who feels compelled to involve himself in the investigation, at least until the police arrive.

Bioy Casares and Ocampo have much fun with this set-up, and Huberman’s character in particular. The narrator’s observations on Atuel, whom he considers a prime suspect, are deliciously sharp and barbed:

“Don’t touch anything!” I shouted. “You are going to muddle the fingerprints.”

I gave Cornejo and Atuel a severe look. The latter seemed to be smiling with veiled slyness. (pg. 41)

“The manner makes the man,” I thought. Atuel’s manner, like that of an overly debonair tango crooner, was beginning to exasperate me. (pg. 42)

And while Humberto waits for the arrival of the police, he seems equally concerned with the impact of events on the hotel’s schedule for meals and afternoon tea:

My plan was precise: take tea; visit Emilia before the police arrived; receive the police. Yet I feared that my cousin’s inexplicable delay in preparing, recipe in hand, some scones that aspired to equal Aunt Carlota’s justifiable famous ones, might perhaps signal the downfall of this most reasonable plan. (pg. 50)

Naturally, once Commissioner Aubrey and Doctor Montes (the police physician) arrive, our narrator could step aside and leave the investigation to the authorities. Huberman, however, continues to believe that the case will benefit from his observational skills and powers of reasoning, especially since Montes appears to have arrived in a state of inebriation:

The doctor was drunk; he had arrived drunk.

Cecilio Montes was a man of medium height and fragile build. He had dark wavy hair, large eyes, extremely pale skin, a finely boned face and a straight nose. He was dressed in a greenish cheviot hunting- suit, quite well cut, that, once upon a time, had been of high quality. His silk shirt was dirty. The hallmarks of his general aspect were slovenliness, neglect, ruin – a ruin that yet allowed glimpses of a former glory. I asked myself how this character, an escapee from a Russian novel, had appeared in our midst; (pg. 53)

What follows is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect, even Huberman initially. There are twists and turns aplenty, and a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. It’s all tremendous fun.

On the surface, the novella reads like a traditional murder mystery; look a little closer, however, and we can see how the writers are gently poking fun at the genre. Once the heat is off and he can align himself with the police team, our narrator draws upon his knowledge of crime fiction to aid and abet the investigation. For instance, when the Commissioner relays his initial hypothesis on the murder, Huberman goes a little too far in trying to challenge a logical argument with an emotional response:

“Your explanation is psychologically impossible. You remind me of one of those novelists who focus entirely on action but neglects the characters. Do not forget that, without the human element, no work of literature would endure…” (pg. 67)

I thoroughly enjoyed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. It’s atmospheric, too; at one point, our narrator gets lost in a sandstorm, swept up in a labyrinth of sand, mud and marine life. The hotel seems to be sinking into the sand, almost as if it is being subsumed by its surroundings. As Andrea warns Huberman soon after his arrival at the hotel: ‘If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.’

In many ways this book reminds me of Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, which I reviewed a few months ago, another delightful novella involving a mysterious death. I can recommend both.

I read this book to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine and Uruguayan lit.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell) is published in the UK by Melville House Publishing. Source: Personal copy.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra at the Wedding (first published in 1962) will make my end-of-year highlights, no doubt about it. As this novel opens, Cassandra Edwards, a graduate student at Berkeley, is preparing to drive home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith. From the opening pages, she seems in two minds as to whether to take the trip, and as she looks at the Golden Gate Bridge, we begin to sense that something is desperately wrong:

Besides, my guide assures me that I am not, at heart, a jumper; it’s not my sort of thing. I’m given to conjecture only, and to restlessness, and I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited… (pg 4, NYRB Classics)

Cassandra narrates the first section of the novel, and as she travels home we learn more of her relationship with Judith. The two twins used to share an apartment in Berkeley and seemed inseparable, content to live their lives for each other with little need for outsiders. But then Judith departed for New York leaving Cassandra cut adrift and in a state of procrastination over her thesis on French novels. In this respect, Cassandra is also living in the shadow of her deceased mother, Jane, a famous writer and influential figure in the twin’s lives.

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Identity is a key theme in this novel. As the twins were growing up, their parents, Jane in particular, refused to have the girls dress alike. And as Cassandra tells her grandmother (at a later stage in the novel) “they were concerned to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” (pg. 65)

But despite her parents’ best efforts there are hints that Cassandra is losing a sense of her own identity. During her journey home, Cassandra stops as a bar and catches her face in the mirror, and at first she sees the face of Judith looking at her very thoughtfully:

By a firm act of will I forced the face between the shelves to stop becoming Judith’s and become mine. My very own face – the face of a nice girl preparing to be a teacher, writing a thesis, being kind to her grandmother, going home a day early instead of a day late or the day I said, and bringing something decent to wear. But it can give me a turn, that face, any time I happen to catch it in a mirror; most particularly at times like this when I’m alone and have to admit it’s really mine because there’s no one else to accuse. (pg. 8)

Moreover, Baker develops this theme of identity as the novel progresses. On Cassandra’s arrival home, we meet her amiable, brandy-soaked father, her slightly befuddled but well-meaning grandmother (Rowena) and Judith, of course. In this scene, Cassandra asks her father what he thinks of her sister’s fiancé, Jack Finch – Judith is not present here:

“Rowena,” my father said to my grandmother from behind me, “Cassie is very much concerned to find out what Jack Finch is like.”

“He’s all wrapped up in Judy,” gran said in a fluty voice, “and that’s the most important thing.”

[…]

“Is Jude wrapped up too?” I said. I said it possibly a little too loudly or pointedly just to let her know how a phrase like wrapped-up sounds to the sensitive ear; but though I meant it only for her, it was my father who answered.

“I don’t think we need to be too much concerned,” he said. “They seem to understand each other.”

This was the second time he’s used the word concerned, and I considered asking him why he kept using it on me. Was the implication that what Judith did was no concern of mine, because if that was what he meant I should make it very clear that I could not possibly be less concerned. If a person of her stature and of her gifts chooses to sell herself short and go all the way of suburbia, who am I to speak up for what I think of as virtue? Who am I? Or possibly, who am I? Make it who was I, because once I was somebody. (pgs. 39-40)

Cassandra is a very complex character. She is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel. Her thoughts and actions are full of contradictions, and at times she deludes herself. At heart, Cassandra is emotionally dependent on Judith, and deep down her sister’s departure to New York (some nine months ago) and imminent marriage feel like acts of betrayal. The presence of a grand piano in Cassandra’s apartment – an instrument jointly purchased by the twins – remains a constant painful reminder of Judith’s desertion. The twins were meant to live their lives together, travel to Paris and beyond. How could Judith ever imagine life being any other way?

As the story unfolds, it appears as if Cassandra is all set to derail her sister’s wedding. In this scene, Cassandra is alone with Judith following a kerfuffle over their wedding outfits:

I twitched and got her arm off my shoulder quite fast and quite suddenly. After all, I didn’t have to sit here with some bride and listen to her saying wedding dress over and over.

“Will you just do this,” she said, and she was pleading now – “wear the dress you bought? Let me get something else, but you wear that one, will you please – for me?”

I turned and looked at her. The pounding was very strong now and my eyes felt as if they’d caught fire. I had my glass in my hand, about a fourth full.

“For you?” I said. “Who’s that?” and I drained the glass at a shot and threw it as hard as I could down onto the terrace between us and the pool. It shattered with a real smash and I felt one of the pieces hit me in the leg. (pg. 77)

And here we see how Judith – who by contrast to Cassandra is calm, reasonable, sensible yet vulnerable in her way – finds her sister rather overwhelming and draining on occasions:

“I’m going alone,” she said. “I thought I told you.”

“You told me so many things,” I said.

She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re –”

“I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.”

“You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you – kind of a circus. Only –”

She stopped, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to prod her. Maybe the best would be to keep her stopped, but before I thought how to do it it was too late.

“The trouble is that just when it’s all fun, all high and wild, you do a switch and have to be rescued all of a sudden…” (pg. 121)

That’s about as much as I’m prepared to say about the plot, save to say there’s plenty to come. In the second section of the book, Judith takes up the role of narrator and we hear a very different voice, one that is mature and measured.

Cassandra and the Wedding is a brilliant novel; so layered and nuanced I’m already on my second read. It’s a novel about the process of maturing as a young adult. Cassandra has to balance the pull of her relationship with Judith against the need to break free to establish her own identity, and the reverse applies, too. There are allusions to Greek mythology; the girls’ father is a retired philosopher, and their names are not insignificant. And the novel’s ending has an air of ambiguity about it, one that makes it all the more intriguing.

Cassandra, with her distinctive voice, is one of my favourite characters from literature, and while the novel exposes her, replete with flaws, Baker adds some wonderful comic touches. I’ll finish with one of Cassie’s one-liners – of which there are many – following her grandmother’s declaration that it’s ‘God’s plan’ for Judy and Jack to be together:

“What do you suppose God’s planning for me?” I said. “Besides poverty, chastity, obedience, brain damage and death?” (pg. 96)

Cassandra at the Wedding is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Peirene Press specialise in high-quality fiction, mostly European – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. They curate their books by theme, and Under the Tripoli Sky (a novella by Libyan-born writer Kamal Ben Hameda, first published in French in 2011) is the third in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series. I’ve already reviewed the second book in this series, The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, and the first (The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov) is in my tbr pile.

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Under the Tripoli Sky takes us back to the 1960s where we meet Hadachinou, a young Muslim boy living in Tripoli with his parents and two elder brothers. The novella takes the form a series of vignettes in which Hadachinou observes his mother, aunts and other women in the community as they go about their days cooking and taking care of their homes and families. Hadachinou’s mother often seems oblivious to the young boy’s presence when other women are around, thereby giving him ample opportunity to listen to their discussions and gain a sense of their lives. It soon becomes clear that many of the women suffer at the hands of their husbands and other men in the community. For instance, Hadachinou’s Aunt Hiba feels the need to hide her face and back away from people in shame, even her young nephew:

She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband, Uncle Saïd, who went through life with a big full belly, chain-smoking and raining down blows and instructions on the unfortunate woman. He beat her whatever state he was in, drunk of first thing in the morning, and on any grounds. Not enough salt in the couscous or, no, too much! She’d overdone the flavouring or, no, she hadn’t put in enough! (pg, 27)

And as Hadachinou’s characterful great-aunt Nafissa summarises, ‘the only thing men are interested in is destroying with one hand what they’ve created with the other.’

They swagger about in front of their wives and children, but when they get together in their bistros and their mosques they draw in their horns. They’re deceitful and servile when they don’t have any power, and depraved and offensive when they do.’ (pg. 35)

Hadachinou’s mother takes comfort from her friendship with her childhood friend, Jamila, and the novella contains some beautiful passages as the young boy watches the women discussing their secrets and hopes for the future:

I stepped forward cautiously and saw them through half-open curtains, in the muted light of the living room. Wrapped in a single peaceful moment, like a beautiful calm sky after whirlwinds and storms, wind and rain have cleared. Simply there together: my mother and her soul sister, her alter ego, Jamila. Two innocent, well-behaved girls who wanted nothing else than to spend time together uninterrupted, their bodies resting full length on a humble old carpet and their arms dancing about to articulate their words more fully. (pg. 51)

The women in the community come together over tea and pastries, and family life tends to revolve around the preparation and serving of a selection of tempting dishes. This is not a book to read when you’re feeling hungry as the evocative descriptions of food will have you heading for the kitchen:

Fella really loved honey sweets, particularly the ones flavoured with rose water. She often cooked them herself on an old stove in her tiny kitchenette, using a slow flame to simmer the caramel made of pure spring water, acacia honey, lavender and rose water. Then she generously offered it to everyone in the neighbourhood. (pg. 29-30)

But at the centre of many of the novella’s vignettes lies the tension between the men and women in the community, a relationship characterised by episodes of abuse and violence. We hear a number of distressing and brutal stories: a man who forces himself upon his wife; a woman who kills her violent husband; a woman who takes her own life in a terrifying manner in order to avoid an arranged marriage. And this tale of a woman who seeks medical help without first gaining the permission of her husband:

Do you know what one local man did to his wife when she went to hospital to see a doctor without his permission? She was having trouble breathing, poor thing, and was often terribly out of breath. Every time she complained about it to her husband, he brushed her aside with a “stop being such a pain! I’ve got better things to be doing…Go on, piss off, filthy thing!” And when he found out that she’d dared go to the doctor, he sliced off her nose and rejected her, saying, “Now you’ve got no nostrils you’ll be able to breathe perfectly well.” (pgs. 85-86)

During the novella, there is a sense that Hadachinou is going through a period of self-discovery, and when Siddena, a fifteen-year-old black girl comes to live with his family to help with the household chores, the young boy is attracted to this fascinating girl. While Under the Tripoli Sky is a coming-of-age story, there is a distinct maturity to Hadachinou’s voice which suggests he is looking back on his days as a young boy a number of years down the line.

Under the Tripoli Sky presents an interesting and sensitively-written insight into the different cultures in Tripoli in the 1960s (the city is inhabited by Muslims, Jews, Christians and the American military). The threat of violence and tension lingers, both within the homes of the families we meet and the city itself (there are references to Mussolini’s arrival in Tripoli many years before). Some sections of Under the Tripoli Sky may make for uncomfortable reading, but as is often the case with translated fiction, this novella offers us a window into another part of the world.

Grant at 1streading has also reviewed this book.

Under the Tripoli Sky (tr. by Adriana Hunter) is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.