Monthly Archives: May 2015

Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

I took a chance on Rendezvous in Venice – I’d heard very little about it, but all the signs were good. The wistful cover image caught my eye when one of my favourite bookish tweeters bought the novel and posted a photo on Twitter. I loved the title with its hint of a secret meeting between lovers and Venice setting (who can resist a novel set in Venice?). It’s published by Pushkin Press, a trusted and reliable source of literature. I seem to do well with their novels, so I snapped it up. Luckily it turned out to be an absolute gem – it’s a beautifully nuanced story and a delight from start to finish.

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First published in French in 2003, Beaussant’s novel is narrated by Pierre, a young man with a passionate interest in art. Pierre learnt everything he knows about paintings from his Uncle Charles, a quiet, gentle and solitary art historian who is no longer alive. During the fifteen years he spent working as Charles’ assistant, Pierre acted as faithful and attentive pupil. He was always willing to listen as his uncle recounted ‘the history of the world through the gaze of a painted woman.’

Following Charles’ death, Pierre makes a startling discovery in one of his uncle’s private notebooks. A line catches his eye: ‘I will never return to Venice…’ Moreover, there is mention of a woman waiting by a canal. At first, Pierre wonders if his uncle’s notes refer to a painting, a tableau by Canaletto, perhaps. But as he reads on, Pierre realises that his uncle’s notes say ‘I’ and ‘me’ – Charles was writing about himself. The woman is for real – her name is Judith, and she is waiting for Charles. Here’s a short extract from Charles’ notebook:

She is waiting for me. And I, from the bridge, I watch her waiting for me. I am still recovering from a bad night in the train. It is cold, that damp cold which is colder than cold. That woolly mist of Venice in the winter penetrates me. I stay up there. From the bridge I contemplate the most beautiful sight a man can imagine, especially if, like me, he is moving towards what one calls ‘maturity’: an attractive young woman, not only attractive but desirable, tender and sweet, who is waiting for him. She seems so absorbed in her waiting that she pays no attention to anything around her, not even to me, already there and looking at her. (pg. 21)

The notebook reveals details of a deep and passionate affair between Charles and Judith, a short-lived but intense romance that appears to have taken place some 25 years ago when Charles was in middle age. This revelation comes as a complete surprise to Pierre as he cannot imagine his uncle in a close relationship with a younger woman. Women were not absent from his uncle’s thoughts, Charles loved them, but they were always women in paintings – Bronzino’s Eleanor of Toledo, for instance.

Rendezvous is a short novel, and the story is so delicate that I’d like to allow readers to discover it for themselves. Save to say as the narrative unravels, Pierre is left wondering just how well he knew his uncle, this man who seemed so focused on technique, the brushstrokes and layering of colours on the canvas.

Is my uncle, the one I knew, the one I loved, the one who taught me everything I love, was he only a dried-up heart, a lonely soul who hid behind his smile? Was the ever-so-engaging smile of my dear old uncle only a mask? (pg. 106)

Instead, I’d like to mention a few other points about Rendezvous. Alongside the intriguing storyline, this novel also offers a wonderful meditation on art. It contains reflections on a number of Italian Renaissance artists and their paintings, including Botticelli’s Primavera and Piero di Cosimo’s portrait of Simonetta, which resides in Chantilly, France.

There are references to novels and the appearance of art in literature, too. In a beautiful scene from Rendezvous, Pierre recalls Charles discussing the passage in Anna Karenina when Konstantin Levin meets Anna for the first time. Levin has never seen Anna; he only knows what people say about her. While he is waiting for Anna to appear, Levin sees her portrait and is overcome by her image.

Suddenly he hears a voice behind him. He turns around and there she is: alike, different, alive. He doesn’t know what to look at any longer. He looks at what is between: between Anna and Anna’s portrait. If you read the long chapter carefully where Tolstoy narrates Anna and Vronski’s stay in Italy, you will understand that what is ‘between’ is him, Mikhailov, the painter. You are forced to think about him, there, alive, brush in hand, between Anna and her portrait. Levin knows nothing about him, he doesn’t know him, but he is forced to guess at that presence. (pg. 42)

It is Charles’ belief that Tolstoy offers his readers one of the deepest and most profound insights into the art of painting: the potential to see what is ‘between’ the artist and their subject.

Rendezvous also explores our tendency to build stories around the paintings we view, to imagine the lives we are glimpsing even if they are caught in a moment of time. In another wonderful passage, Pierre learns how his Uncle Charles constructed a life for the five-year-old girl featured in a small Flemish painting, Little Girl with the Dead Bird, a girl he named Margreet. He saw a corner of her heart closing down forever at the death of her beloved bird. He envisaged her life: conversations with her mother; her relationship with the bird before its death; her marriage at sixteen to the nephew of a burgomaster. All this he could read and project by studying the painting – the lack of sparkle in the young girl’s eyes, the lines on her forehead and turn of her mouth. Here’s Pierre at an early stage in the novel as he considers his uncle’s insight into art:

I understood his passion for the art of portraiture by watching him contemplate faces in the street and on buses. This man, who liked nothing better than faces frozen in a painting, could see there a thousand times more than in a face, living, moving and changing. “A minor painter paints what he sees,” he used to say. “One recognizes a great painter in that, in what he shows, he puts everything there is, and everything else. He paints a young princess and the whole woman is present, even what she doesn’t know about herself, even what she hasn’t yet lived, even what she perhaps won’t live but should have lived because her face said so. Because of a fault in destiny, it’s possible it will never happen. (pg. 42)

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I rather loved Rendezvous in Venice. It’s an elegant story, delightfully subtle and full of ravishing images. There is a timeless quality to the narrative as if Charles and Judith’s affair could have taken place thirty years ago or fifty years earlier. The writing is exquisite; it’s a joy to read. This is a must for any lover of Renaissance art and Venice.

As one might expect, this novel is also a wonderful evocation of Venice. At times, it feels as if the reader is roaming the streets of the city with these characters. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the beauty of the writing as Pierre recalls walking with his uncle in the evening light.

We crossed the small tangled canals of the San Maurizio and Sant’Angelo neighbourhood, with their tiny bridges, and my uncle leaned on his elbows on the railings of one of them. This was the time of day, I knew, when he let himself go a little, when his imagination wandered freely. He drew on his pipe, and the reflection of the water’s undulations brought momentary flushes of light to his face, colouring the small puffs of smoke he spread around him with the pinkish gleam of night fall. (pg. 30)

Rendezvous in Venice (tr. by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Earlier this year, I read Joan Didion’s debut novel Run River. I loved the characters, the melancholy tone of this novel, its sense of place…I didn’t want it to end. All this left me keen to read more of Didion’s work, both her fiction and non-fiction. First published in 1970, Play It As It Lays was Didion’s second novel. It’s very accomplished, but it’s also very intense – a searing novel with a harrowing story at its heart.

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Play opens with a short chapter narrated by Maria. If we stick to the facts, Maria is a thirty-one-year-old model-turned-actress with a young daughter named Kate. Maria’s ex-husband, a film director by the name of Carter, put her in a couple of little movies, but she hasn’t worked for a few years. She’s in a psychiatric institution now, and the only thing that keeps her going is Kate. (Kate is mentally challenged and stuck in a potentially regressive treatment facility – we’re in the late ‘60s here.)

Maria tries to play along with the psychiatrists, to be ‘an agreeable player of the game,’ even though she knows they will misinterpret the facts. They wish to formulate reasons for her behaviour, make connections where none exist – that’s their job. The people at the institution are interested in her past, but Maria has trouble with her life ‘as it was’. She knows it doesn’t lead anywhere.

The majority of the remainder of the novel takes the form of a sequence of short, sharp chapters on the ‘as it was’. These are mostly written in the third person, which gives the story a sense of veracity and detachment as if we are observing snapshots of a selection of scenes from Maria’s past. The supposed reason for Maria’s confinement is revealed in the second chapter, a brief statement from one of Maria’s friends, Helene. But that’s not the most important thing about Maria’s story; at least I don’t think it is.

Maria’s world is diffuse and disordered; it’s populated by shallow friends, people like BZ, the film producer and his wife, Helene. Didion perfectly captures the mood of the period. It’s there in the description of the crowd Maria encounters at BZ and Helene’s parties: the ‘sulky young men’ BZ has met on his travels to Tangier and Acapulco; Helene’s friends complete with their Pucci silk shirts, ‘periodically tightened eye lines’ and ‘husbands on perpetual location’.

Carter (Maria’s ex) is portrayed as a cold, mean and ruthless man, ‘a dropper of friends and names and obligations’. Short staccato scenes from Maria and Carter’s relationship are threaded through the novel. These episodes are shot through with a strong sense of emotional distance, the feeling that Maria doesn’t know what to do or how to reach Carter. The following picture typifies the state of their contact – the couple have had one of their many arguments:

Always when he came back he would sleep in their room, shutting the door against her. Rigid with self-pity she would lie in another room, wishing for the will to leave. Each believed the other a murderer of time, a destroyer of life itself. She did not know what she was doing in Baker. However it began it ended like that.

“Listen,” she would say.

“Don’t touch me,” he would say. (pg. 32)

Maria is plagued by fear, an unspeakable sense of peril in the everyday. She is haunted by the emotional fallout from a deeply traumatic event in her life, one she is struggling to come to terms with in her mind. (This episode is described in the novel in all its horrific detail.) She relies on drugs and alcohol to smother her dreams, to stop the nightmares from cutting through. There is a strong feeling of dislocation here as if Maria’s mind is disconnected from her body, both operating independently of another and with no clear direction. The following quote captures what I mean by this feeling of dislocation. Maria is calling a close friend, Les Goodwin, from a phone booth near a drive-in restaurant – as you may have guessed by now, there are other men in Maria’s life:

“Where’ve you been,” he said.

“Nowhere.” When she heard his voice she felt a rush of well-being. “I didn’t want to call you because –”

“I can’t hear you, Maria, where are you?”

“In a phone booth. I just wanted –”

“You all right?”

“No. I mean yes” A bus was shifting gears on Sunset and she raised her voice. “Listen. Call me.”

She walked back to the car and sat for a long while in the parking lot, idling the engine and watching a woman in a muumuu walk out of the Carolina Pines Motel and cross the street to a supermarket. The woman walked in small mincing steps and kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the vacant sunlight. As if in a trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing. She did not know why she had told Les Goodwin to call her. (pg. 66-67)

Following her split from Carter, Maria spends her days driving the California freeway. She has to be on the system by ten o’clock otherwise the day’s rhythm is all out of whack. She drives anywhere and everywhere; it creates an impression of momentum. Sometimes the freeway simply runs out leaving Maria in ‘a scrap metal yard in San Pedro’ or out in the middle of nowhere where the scorching roadway just stops. It’s an image that highlights the emptiness of Maria’s days at the wheel. Like Run River, I can’t imagine Play being set anywhere other than California. Didion gives the reader a vivid feel for the landscape: the images of distant mountains; the arid heat of the freeways; the diners and thrift marts dotted along the way.

In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her. Oli rockers creaked ominously. For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky. (pg. 76-77)

At the end of the day, Maria doesn’t know how to function, how to play the game of life:

I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?’ (pg. 10)

There comes a time when Maria imagines the life she might have had with Carter and Kate, something resembling the image of a normal family. It’s a heart-rending passage:

…but sometimes later, after he had left, the spectre of his joyless face would reach her, talk about heart’s needle, would flash across her hapless consciousness all the images of the family they might have been: Carter throwing a clear plastic ball filled with confetti, Kate missing the ball. Kate crying. Carter swinging Kate by her wrists. […] The images would flash at Maria like slides in a dark room. On film they might have seemed like a family. (pg. 137-138)

Play It As It Lays is a hard novel to describe, but it’s good; it’s blisteringly good. At times the prose and imagery are so intense they pierce the consciousness like a needle. Didion seems to have an innate ability to get inside the minds of women on the edge, women who are isolated and distanced from those around them. She writes about fragile, disconnected lives in a way that seems so raw yet strangely polished at the same time. At one point in Play, there’s a scene where Kate (Maria’s daughter) smashes a china doll against a large mirror – the floor is covered with pieces of ‘broken mirror and flesh-coloured ceramic’. It’s a metaphor for Maria’s existence, for the novel itself: a life fractured into a multitude of tiny jagged shards.

I’ve been reading this novel with Emma at Book Around the Corner – Emma’s review is here. It was Max’s review that prompted us to read Play.

I ought to finish now, so I’ll leave the final words on this brilliant yet brittle novel to Maria:

…I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up. (pg. 7)

Play It As It Lays is published in the UK by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy.

Finishing my #TBR20 – a few reflections

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been tagging my recent reviews with #TBR20. You may have heard about this initiative on twitter, or read about it posts by other bloggers (Emma and Max have joined recently – I’ve included links to their posts. Other participants are here). In essence, #TBR20 is a way of tackling the ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile of books by reading twenty books you already own before buying any more. It’s Eva Stalker’s idea – you can read Eva’s original post here. Eva started her #TBR20 in November with the aim of finishing by the end of March – you can read her latest post here (one month on from completing her twenty).

Like Eva, I already owned more unread books than I knew what to do with, so I decided to start a round of #TBR20 at the beginning of December. By the first week in April, I’d finished reading my twentieth book, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart (not my favourite book of the twenty, but an exhilarating read nonetheless). If you’re interested, here’s a picture of my twenty books (well, nineteen of them as I read Mary Costello’s Academy Street on kindle).

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One month on from finishing my #TBR20, I thought it would be useful to jot down a few notes on how it worked for me, partly for my own benefit but also because it might be of interest to others.

From the outset, I decided to pick my twenty books as I went along. I had a ‘draft’ set of twenty books piled up on the bookshelf, but I tinkered with it every now and again. My reading tends to be driven by my mood; I need variety, a change of pace or tone. I want books that take me to different periods and places. There are times when one book leads to another, something with a similar idea or theme or an interesting contrast. I found this relatively easy to manage by maintaining the flexibility to move a few books in and out of the pile.

This approach came into its own when I reached the end of January. I hit a difficult period at home. A mysterious pain appeared on one side of my body and refused go away. A protracted sequence of tests, hospital visits and periods of uncertainty followed. I’ll spare you the details, but it turns out that I have a crack in one of my ribs, a fracture that is taking some time to heal. It’s still there, and it’s rather painful.

Out went a few challenging or intense books; in came a few books I just knew I would enjoy. Novels like the warm and affectionate A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien; an escape to 1950s LA in the form of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye; and the comfort of rereading a favourite novel, A Heart So White by Javier Marias. (I checked with Eva, rereads are in line with the spirit of #TBR20 – it’s about valuing the books you already own even if you’ve read them before.) All three turned out to be terrific choices.

I also decided only to count the books I intended to review, mainly to tag and record them on here. In addition, I excluded a couple of review copies which I read and posted about while I was doing #TBR20. Library loans (which I used for books chosen by my book group) were also excluded. All in all, I ended up reading 24 books from my TBR/reread shelf (20 reviewed + 4 not reviewed), two review copies and two library loans. You can find links to all my reviews in this index here, or you can click on the #TBR20 tag at the bottom of this post.

So what have I learned from #TBR20?

  • Well, I’ve rediscovered a sense of excitement about the books I bought many months or years ago, several of which were personal recommendations or purchases prompted by other bloggers’ reviews.
  • My original ‘draft’ twenty did not include enough crime, hardboiled or noir to satisfy me; that’s where I would have struggled had I not made at least one tweak.
  • My current TBR includes more than enough choice and variety to satisfy my reading whims. I don’t need any more books. (That doesn’t stop me wanting a few more every now and again.)
  • I don’t feel attracted to the new releases just because they are ‘new’. I still crave books, but the ones I want to buy tend to be older releases, backlist titles by some of my new favourite authors (Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Ross Macdonald and Javier Marias spring to mind) or other reissues that have caught my eye.
  • I have missed the enjoyment of browsing in bookshops. This has been the biggest challenge, to keep away from temptation. I allowed myself just one visit to a bookshop during the four months of #TBR20, a trip to the new Foyles. Time for a small confession. It was my birthday in March, and I cracked – I used a birthday book token to buy myself a little something: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr. I nearly read it that very week, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf for a late summer treat. I just know I’m going to love it.
  • When I started my #TBR20, I set up a new wishlist for the books I wanted to buy. By the beginning of April, there were twenty books on that list, and that’s following a couple of rounds of pruning. I had intended to allow myself six new books, but temptation got the better of me and I ended up buying twelve (eek!), the others remain on the wishlist. Here they are – as you can see, I’ve gone a bit NYRB Classics crazy.

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  • I’ve already read three of them, all fantastic: Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn and Alberto Moravia’s Agostino (reviews to follow). I intend to keep the others for a while; they have joined the ranks of the great TBR.
  • I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.
  • As an alternative approach, I’m going to try to cut back on buying books (especially now that I’ve had a splurge). I’m still thinking about what might work for me over the next few months. Possibly a TBR10 or a ‘Three Out, One In’ approach? Maybe I’ll try a TBR10 and see how I get on. If it works out, I might push on through to another twenty, but I’ll need to choose the books I want to read as I go along. I know that much. There are still a good 200+ unread physical books (and around 50 e-books) in this house, so there’s plenty of scope for me to appreciate the ones I already own.

Good luck to those of you who are doing the #TBR20. I hope my thoughts are of some interest – do let me know your thoughts on #TBR20, tackling the reading pile or on any of the books I’ve mentioned. All are welcome.

Belinda Farrell has also posted her thoughts on finishing #TBR20 here.

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon (review)

First published in 1946, Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan features a forty-eight-year-old down-and-out actor named François Combe. François has come to Manhattan to escape the scrutiny of the Paris milieu following his wife’s decision to leave him for a much younger (and less talented) actor.

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One night, unable to sleep, he leaves his apartment at 3am and goes to a bar where he meets a woman named Kay. Somehow Kay instinctively knows that François is French, and she strikes up a conversation with him. Even though he finds her habits and slow movements rather annoying, François is strangely drawn to Kay. It’s as if he sees her as a reflection of himself, another wounded soul in a lonely city. He can sense it in her voice:

A low voice that made you think of a scar that hadn’t healed, of a hurt that lingers beneath consciousness, soft and familiar, deep inside. (pg 8)

They have a few drinks, smoke a few cigarettes and leave the bar together at 5am. After drifting through the sidewalks for a couple of hours, they end up taking a room at a shabby hotel. (Kay has been locked out of the apartment she shared with a girlfriend and François doesn’t want to take her to his place, not yet). When François wakes up the next day, even though he has known Kay for less than 24 hours, he is a little fearful of the thought of losing her. Perhaps he is also afraid of losing something of himself:

Strange, they’d gone to sleep in this room as the night ended and woken up again as the night began. He was almost afraid to leave it – frightened of forgetting some part of himself there that he might never be able to find again. (pg.16)

What follows is a portrayal of François and Kay’s relationship as it develops over the course of a few weeks. It’s a connection based on loneliness and abandonment. We follow the couple as they drift around the sidewalks of the city: they move from bar to bar; they play the same song on the jukebox; they drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes. The novel’s title refers to the three bedrooms the couple visit as their relationship continues: first the hotel room, then François’ apartment and finally Kay’s room. As Kay sees the actor’s apartment for the first time, the depth of his solitude is painfully apparent:

The still-lighted lamp greeted them. The room was quiet, and the quietness was almost spectral. He had thought it would look sordid, but it was tragic, that was all, full of the tragedy of loneliness and abandonment. (pg. 45)

Kay has been around the block a few times – her face looks a little tired and worn for a woman in her early thirties. She claims to have been married to a Hungarian Count, a relationship that ended when she ran away following months of abuse. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that there is a possessive, almost obsessive, side to François’ character. He harbours feelings of jealously about the men in Kay’s past, men he has never met and probably shouldn’t be worrying about. He suspects her of lying to him. At times he is tender towards Kay; on one or two occasions, however, he is cold and abusive:

He watched her take her clothes off, and he remained cold. Yes, he could remain cold to her. She wasn’t beautiful or irresistible, as she thought she was. Her body, like her face was marked by life.

And now, thinking about her, he felt himself carried away by anger, by a need to wipe out everything, to consume everything, to possess everything. (pg. 37)

This is a strange story, quite dreamlike and hypnotic. There is a sense that François and Kay are existing outside of a reality, a world where time seems to expand and contract. Things that happened only moments earlier seem distant and far away. By day three of their relationship, it feels as if they have been together for several years.

In her introduction to Three Bedrooms, Joyce Carol Oates states that the novel is a fictionalised account of Simenon’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. It’s one of the reasons why I found this novel quite intriguing. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite reads of the year, but something about this couple’s story got under my skin. François and Kay are two people who need each other. They cling desperately together and they can’t help but bruise one another in the process.

The writing is spare but affecting. The earlier quotes should give you a feel for the style, but here’s another example, a short quote from a passage where François is trying to figure Kay out:

She seemed to be seeking out the despair of others, as if she wanted to rub against it, to wear it down before it could pierce her. (pg. 43)

Simenon’s descriptions of Manhattan are wonderfully atmospheric. This is a dark and melancholy place, the New York of brooding streets and seedy bars:

Two wide streets, almost deserted, with garlands of luminous globes running down the sidewalks.

On the corner, its high windows lit violently, aggressively, with boastful vulgarity, was a sort of long glass cage where people could be seen as dark smudges and where he went in just so as not to be alone. (pg. 6)

Simenon’s description of the Greenwich Village bar in which François meets Kay reminded me of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (a painting thought to have been inspired by a Greenwich diner).

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I’ll end with a short quote on the atmosphere in the bar, one that conveys a sense of loneliness in the city:

The place smelled of fairgrounds, of lazy crowds, of nights when you stayed out because you couldn’t go to bed, and it smelled like New York, of its calm and brutal indifference. (pg. 6)

Guy at His Futile Preoccupations has also reviewed this novel (along with several other romans durs by Simenon).

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (tr. by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman) is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 19/20 in my #TBR20.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (review)

I’ve been meaning to read Clarice Lispector ever since the new translations of her work appeared in 2012. With this in mind, what better place to start than her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, first published in 1943 when Lispector was just twenty-three years old? The book’s title and epigraph come from James Joyce’s novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but Lispector only discovered Joyce once she had finished writing Near. Nevertheless, the book’s epigraph and style led certain critics to compare Lispector’s work to that of Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other modernist writers.

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The focus of Near to the Wild Heart is Joana, a young woman who finds herself in a loveless marriage with her husband, Otávio. The novel is divided into two parts: the first section delves into key moments from Joana’s childhood while the second considers the nature of her marriage. That said, reflections on Joana and Otávio’s relationship are threaded through the novel thereby acting as a kind of spine to the story. We are introduced to Otávio in the second chapter. As soon as he leaves the house for the day, Joana is transformed; she focuses on herself and returns to the thread of her early years.

Joana’s childhood is a difficult one, and when her parents die she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. From a young age, Joana demonstrates a capacity for free thinking and for dazzling those who come into contact with her. Joana’s aunt, however, remains fearful of the young girl whom she likens to a ‘little demon.’

“…She’s a viper. She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her…” (pg. 43)

Otávio also recognises the steeliness in Joana’s character. But there is something magnetic about her too, something he finds attractive even if he can’t figure out why:

There was a hard, crystalline quality in her that attracted and repulsed him at the same time, he noticed. […] She wasn’t pretty, too thin. Even her sensuality must have been different to his, excessively luminous. (pg. 82)

Otávio doesn’t seem particularly interested in building a life with Joana. In a way Otávio sees a union with her as a means of living above himself and his past, he hopes she will teach him not to be afraid.

From an early stage in the narrative, it is clear that Joana is isolated in her marriage to Otávio (perhaps even isolated from life in general). She struggles to establish a connection with her husband:

Though Otávio wasn’t particularly stimulating. With him the next best thing was to connect with what had already happened. Even so, under his “spare me, spare me” gaze, she would open her hand from time to time and let a little bird dart out. Sometimes, however, perhaps due to the nature of what she said, no bridge was created between them, and on the contrary an interval was born. (pg. 25)

Ultimately, his presence, even the knowledge of his existence feels like a barrier to her freedom.

While Near does touch on key events in Joana’s life, it is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, the focus is on introspection; Joana’s inner feelings are brought to the surface. She seems to experience life with a rare intensity of emotion – there are times when her mood switches from a deep sense of happiness to one of pain and suffering. Also, there is a sense that she is trying to look within to find some meaning in her life – perhaps she hopes it will help her understand the essence of life itself:

I try to push away everything that is a life form. I try to isolate myself in order to find life in itself. […] The minute I close the door behind me, I let go of things instantly. Everything that was distances itself from me, diving deafly into my faraway waters. I hear it, the fall. Happy and flat I wait for myself, I wait for myself to slowly rise up and truly appear before my eyes. Instead of obtaining myself by fleeing, I find myself forsaken, alone, tossed into a dimensionless cubicle, where light and shadows are quiet ghosts. In my interior I find the silence I seek. But in it I become so lost from any memory of a human being and of myself, that I make this impression into the certainty of physical solitude. (pg. 61)

The novel’s style is impressionistic and Lispector uses a combination of descriptive passages and stream-of-consciousness to convey a feel for Joanna’s existence. The last quote should give you a feel for the ‘stream’ style – ‘stream’ is not usually my favourite style, but it works very well here. This next one is a snippet from one of the descriptive sections – Joana recalls the time immediately following the death of her father:

She lay belly-down in the sand, hand covering her face, leaving only a tiny crack for air. It grew dark dark and circles and red blotches, full, tremulous spots slowly began to appear, growing and shrinking. The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it. Even with her eyes closed she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly quickly, also with closed eyelids. Then they meekly returned, palms splayed body loose. It was good to hear their sound. (pg. 32)

The novel also contains a number of philosophical passages: Joana’s meditations on the nature of eternity, a sense of immortality vs. the certainty of knowing that you will die.

All in all, I found Near to the Wild Heart an intriguing but challenging novel. The writing is excellent – dazzling and poetic at times. It’s a book that demands concentration, possibly one to reread at some point as I’m sure I missed so much on my first reading. A novel I admired rather than enjoyed.

Even though I spent the best part of 200 pages in Joana’s company, I found it hard to get a grip on her (which is probably why this post reads like a series of fragments). Joana can appear cold, confident and autonomous, but I’m not convinced this is the full picture. She is misunderstood by others and unfairly judged to a certain extent.

Ultimately, I was left with an image of a life lived in intense fragments, each section disconnected from the next. A woman struggling to form connections in her life:

Her life was made up of complete little lives, of whole, closed circles, which isolated themselves from one another. (pg 91)

I carry on always ingratiating myself, opening and closing circles of life, tossing them aside, withered, full of past. Why so independent, why don’t they merge into just one block, providing me with ballast? Fact was they were too whole. Moments so intense, red, condensed in themselves that they didn’t need past or future in order to exist. (pg. 92)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book: Grant at 1streading, Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

Near to the Wild Heart (tr. Alison Entrekin) is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 20/20 in my #TBR20.