Monthly Archives: July 2015

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

I seem to have developed a bit of a thing for novels featuring life in the great British boarding houses of the 1930s and ‘40s. First came Patrick Hamilton’s brilliant Slaves of Solitude, one of my favourites from last year, and now the equally marvellous Of Love and Hunger from Hamilton’s contemporary, Julian Maclaren-Ross. It will make my 2015 highlights, for sure.

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First published in 1947, Of Love and Hunger is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man in his late twenties who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to sell vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. Life as a door-to-door salesman is soemwhat miserable; the pay is lousy and with sales being so hard to come by, the prospects of commission are pretty poor. It’s all a desperate racket of course, and Fanshawe has enough nous to see through the flannel being peddled his employers. On a good day, canvassing door-to-door might yield four or five ‘dems’ (in-home demonstrations, carpets cleaned for free), and once you’re inside, there’s the question of convincing the customer to sign. Not as easy as it might appear. Here’s an excerpt from one of Fanshawe’s calls.

This one was called Miss Tuke. 49, The Crescent. Small house, two storeys, villa-type; small dark drawing-room full of knick-knacks, thick old-fashioned hangings full of dust. No maid, no cleaner, woman in once a week. A cert, if I played it right.

Miss Tuke didn’t seem a bad old girl either. Bit jumpy: kept looking up at the ceiling as if expecting it might fall on her at any moment. Couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw what I got out of her carpet.

‘But I don’t understand. I had the carpet cleaned. Two days ago. I had a woman in.’

‘This dirt didn’t accumulate in two days, Miss Tuke.’ I told her. ‘It’s been in your carpet for years. The ordinary methods of cleaning won’t remove it.’

‘Then what can I do?’

‘There’s only one thing,’ I said, pointing to the cleaner. Miss Tuke looked at it and swallowed. I waited to let the idea sink in. It was too soon to start on her yet, but I felt in my pocket to make sure I’d an order-form ready when the time came. It was there all right. (pgs. 6-7)

I won’t reveal how this one turned out, but let’s just say things don’t go quite to plan.

The novel is set in a colourless seaside town near Brighton in the late 1930s, and with the country on the brink of WWII, a sense of uncertainty is simmering away in the background. Fanshawe’s current abode is a tawdry boarding house, a place where he remains under the gaze of the ever-watchful landlady, Mrs Fellows. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.

‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.

‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’

‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ (pg. 14)

Maclaren-Ross is excellent at portraying the dismal and somewhat futile nature of life as a door-to-door salesman. Everyone is on the fiddle: some salesmen are pulling names and addresses from the telephone directory, noting them down as ‘dems’ to meet their targets; others are hiring out cleaners instead of selling them; sales managers are flogging second-hand models to make a bit of extra cash on the sly. You name it, they’re doing it. Every now and again a sales manager swoops in for a pep talk with the troops and then disappears as quickly as possible. It’s all a load of bluster, and Maclaren-Ross captures it perfectly.

Another thing I love about this novel is the character descriptions. Maclaren-Ross can convey the sense of a person in just a few clipped sentences. Here’s a quick sketch of a couple of Fanshawe’s colleagues in the vacuum business, Barrington and Hall:

Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman. Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his shoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see his biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with. (pg. 5)

You get the picture. All this might be starting to sound a little bleak, but it isn’t. The novel is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house.

After only a few weeks with the firm, Fanshawe gets the sack. It’s not entirely unexpected, and he ends up signing on with the one of the competitors, a bigger outfit by the name of Sucko. Cue a string of hilarious scenes as Fanshawe pitches up at the Sucko School for training, a place where he learns everything there is to know about Sucko except how to sell the bloody thing!

Friday was the last day of the course. Graduation Day. The afternoon was given up to showing us the Sucko Floor Polisher, which we could sell as a sideline if all else failed. Commission on it was big, but so was the Floor Polisher. In fact it was enormous. I hoped to Christ we hadn’t to cart that about with us as well. The dem-case with the cleaner in it was heavy enough on its own. 28 lb, to be exact. Smith, who was a small chap, could hardly get it up off the floor. (pg. 104)

At first, transferring to Sucko appears to be a good move. There’s talk of a team of lady-interviews to book the dems, thereby enabling the salesmen to focus on the job of selling. But support is a bit thin on the ground in Fanshawe’s area, and his Group Leader, Smiler Barnes, is a slippery character. All in all it’s the same old fiddle, just on a bigger scale.

Running alongside Fanshawe’s quest to eke out a living, there is another strand in the novel. When Fanshawe’s colleague, Roper, gets the sack from the first firm, he goes away to sea for three months leaving his wife, Sukie, on her own. He asks Fanshawe to look after her, to call round or take her out every now and again. Fanshawe agrees albeit reluctantly. At first he isn’t sure about Sukie but soon warms to her as he gets to know her a little better. With her wide knowledge of books, Sukie encourages Fanshawe to put his talent for storytelling to use by writing a few stories on his time in India. (Brief flashbacks threaded through the novel reveal certain aspects of his former life as a journalist out in the East.) Of course, the inevitable happens, and Fanshawe falls in love with Sukie, a romance played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods.

Sukie lay back in her white blouse with her arms behind her head. ‘I love it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you love the sun? She closed her eyes. Her eyelids had little blue veins in them. Under her eyes was a blue shadow and the lids were shaded blue as well. Her arms were bare to the elbow. Strong and white. A little black hair showing under the armpit where I could see up the sleeve of her blouse. She was there within reach of my hand and there was nothing I could do except look at her. (pg. 132-133)

That’s about as much as I want to say about this strand – you’ll have to read the book to discover the outcome for yourself. 

All in all, Of Love and Hunger is a wonderful novel, one of my favourite reads of the year so far. The two lead characters, Fanshawe and Sukie, are beautifully realised and more complex than appears at first sight. As the novel progresses, we see a more sensitive, vulnerable side to Fanshawe as he falls for his friend’s wife. Sukie, on the other hand, is rather fickle, her moods change like the weather. At times, she is supportive and encouraging but she can also be a bit of a tease. There are hints of a fiery temper, too.

Maclaren-Ross’ clipped prose and use of slang gives the story an authentic feel. As you might expect, he captures the mood of the period perfectly. Many of the young men in the novel are scraping a living, just like Fanshawe. As the story draws to a close we are on the brink of change; war is coming, and there is a sense that many see military service as a new start in life. It saddens me to think of these men with so little ahead of them other than the prospect of war.

In wrapping up, I must thank a few people for bringing this terrific novel to my attention. Firstly, Kaggsy, via her review here, and secondly, Max, who recommended it in his comments on my Hamilton piece. Guy is another fan – his review is here.

Of Love and Hunger is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Benediction is the third book in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, a series of novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. I read the first two (Plainsong and Eventide) a year or so ago, but they have been widely reviewed elsewhere. Each novel can be read independently but what unites them is a strong sense of place and community.

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The central character in Benediction is Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store for more than fifty years. An honest, reliable, plain-speaking man, Dad is old and dying of cancer. As close friends and workmates come to say their farewells, Dad’s loving wife, Mary, and daughter, Lorraine, try to ease the pain of his final weeks at home.

He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was. (pg. 5)

As Dad’s story opens up, we learn a little more about his earlier years. Dad is a proud, upstanding man with traditional values; he is somewhat stubborn too, and like most of us he has regrets in life. As he faces his own mortality, it becomes increasingly clear that Dad is haunted by the ghosts of his past. Dad and Mary’s estranged son, Frank, casts the darkest shadow over their lives. Reflections on the years gone by reveal Frank’s homosexuality, a discovery that proves too difficult for Dad to come to terms with at the time. By contrast, Mary appears more willing to accept the situation in the slender hope of maintaining a relationship with her son. There are times when Dad and Mary visit Frank in Denver once he leaves home as a teenager, but the atmosphere is strained to say the least. The following conversation between Mary and Dad gives a feel for the lie of the land – they have just left Frank’s apartment, and the first voice we hear is Mary’s.

I am upset. I’m disappointed that we don’t have anything to do with him. Anything more than this. Than what happened back there. You give me money to give him and I put it in an envelope for Christmas and he hasn’t even thought to have anything to give us in return. We see him working at the café and we follow him up to his dirty little apartment room in a dirty old house and we drink tea and we talk for five minutes, then you go outside to warm up the car and that’s it.

What did you expect?

I wanted it to be nice. I told you that. Something present there between us and our son. We’re going to lose him, she said. Don’t you know that?

We lost him a long time ago.

You lost him. I didn’t. (pgs. 153-4)

Mary still lives in hope of reconciliation with her son especially as the end draws near for Dad.

Alongside Dad and Mary’s narrative, Haruf touches on the lives of other people connected to this couple. We meet Alice, an eight-year-old girl who has recently come to live with her grandmother in the house next door to Dad and Mary’s. Feeling lost and a little bewildered following the death of her mother from breast cancer, Alice welcomes the friendship of Lorraine (Dad and Mary’s daughter). The young girl is also befriended by kindly mother and daughter, Willa and Alene Johnson, friends of the Lewis family. In a touching scene from the book, the women take Alice on a picnic, and they all bathe together in a nearby stock tank. Haruf is especially good when it comes to portraying the lives of these women, their values and principles, their hopes and disappointments.

There is a final strand to the story, that of the town preacher, Lyle, and his family who have recently moved to Holt following a transfer from Denver. Lyle’s character is perhaps more lightly sketched and less convincing than others in the novel. That said, Lyle is clearly struggling to reconcile his own ideals with the prejudices he encounters amongst some of Holt’s more conservative residents.

Benediction is a novel that captures the pain and loss experienced by people in their everyday lives, a quiet, contemplative story of ordinary, plain-speaking folk. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Haruf’s books so special, but he brings a profound sense of compassion and humanity to everything he writes. Haruf’s prose is spare and unshowy, but there is a beauty in its simplicity. His characters feel authentic, their values and failings are clearly portrayed through their thoughts and actions. Small acts of kindness and affection speak volumes.

This is a melancholy, elegiac novel, almost unbearably moving at times especially as Dad’s life draws to a close. Haruf doesn’t hold back on the mental and physical suffering associated with a slow death, but this is balanced by the deep sense of empathy shown by Dad’s family and friends.

Plainsong remains my favourite of the trilogy, but Benediction is a fitting end to the series. I’ll finish with one last quote, a passage from Dad’s final weeks.

They helped him move out to the front porch and stood watching the rain falling on the grass and out in the graveled street. There were already puddles in the low places and the silver poplar trees were dark, streaming with water. Lorraine held her hand out to the rain and patted her face and then cupped both hands and caught the overflow from the gutters and held her hands up to Dad’s face. He stood leaning on his cane, his face dripping. They watched him, he looked straight out across the lawn past the wrought iron fence, past the wet street to the lot beyond, thinking about something.

Doesn’t it smell good, Mary said.

Yeah, he said softly. His eyes were wet, but they couldn’t say if that was from tears or rainwater. (pg. 81)

Benediction is published in the UK by Picador. Source: I won this book in a giveaway – my thanks to Kim at Reading Matters and Picador.

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

Set in Madrid in the late 19th century, Tristana, by Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós, is a classic story of a love triangle. As the novel opens, we are introduced to Don Lope Garrido, a handsome lifelong womaniser now living in somewhat reduced circumstances in rented rooms in the Chamberí district of Madrid. At fifty-seven (although he thinks of himself as perpetually aged forty-nine), Don Lope still cuts a dashing figure with his noble face, slim figure and his distinguished goatee beard. Here’s a great description of this gentleman:

He dressed as smartly and impeccably as his slender means permitted: a well-buffed top hat, a good-quality winter cape, dark gloves at every season of the year, an elegant cane in summer, and suits more appropriate to youth than to maturity. Don Lope Garrido – just to whet your appetite – was a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity than he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one, he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shoot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: “You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier…” (pg. 4)

Don Lope is aptly named as while ‘Garrido’ can mean ‘handsome and elegant,’ it also carries a suggestion of ‘garras’ meaning ‘claws’.

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Living with Don Lope are two women: his maid, Saturna, and a twenty-one-year-old girl named Tristana. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood enjoy speculating on the nature of Tristana’s relationship with Don Lope. Various theories are bandied about ranging from daughter to niece to wife. But in reality the young girl is Don Lope’s ward. As the orphaned daughter of a close friend of her Don Lope’s, Tristana is entirely dependent on her guardian’s generosity, a status which this serial seducer has exploited. Within two months of Tristana’s arrival, Don Lope has added her to his very long list of conquests; she is, in effect, his plaything.

The problem was that the good gentleman’s moral sense lacked a vital component, and like some terribly mutilated organ, it functioned only partially and suffered frequent deplorable breakdowns. In accordance with the fusty old dogma of a knight sedentary, Don Lope accepted neither guilt nor responsibility when it came to anything involving the ladies. While he would never have courted the wife, spouse, or mistress of a close friend, he considered that, otherwise, everything was permitted in matters of love. (pg. 17)

At first Tristana accepts this way of life almost without question, failing to appreciate the reality of her situation. She is young, pretty and innocent. But as her twenty-second birthday approaches, Tristana begins to experience an awakening, a longing for independence and a sense of freedom.

Then there came a time when, like the shoot of a perennial plant that pushes its way up into life on a warm spring day, her mind suddenly flowered and filled with ideas, in tight little buds to begin with, then in splendid clusters. Indecipherable desires awoke in her heart. She felt restless, ambitious, although for quite what she didn’t know, for something very far off, very high up, which her eyes could not see; (pgs. 20-21)

As a result, there are signs that Tristana is starting to find life as Don Lope’s mistress more than a little distasteful. An ambitious and intelligent young woman, she dreams of learning a skill or profession, of living life as a painter, a writer or a teacher. Meanwhile, Don Lope is beginning to feel the effects of his advancing age. Sensing Tristana’s growing appetite to spread her wings, he begins to tighten the net around his young captive fearing she may deceive him or flee the nest forever.

Sensing that he was now an old lion, he, who had never considered any other man his rival, was suddenly filled with anxieties and saw robbers and enemies hiding in his very shadow. Aware of his own decrepitude, he was devoured by egotism, like a kind of senile leprosy, and the idea that the poor young woman should compare him, even if only mentally, with the imagined exemplars of youth and beauty, soured his life. His good judgement, it should be said, did not desert him entirely, and in his lucid moments, which usually occurred in the morning, he recognized the inappropriateness and irrationality of his behaviour and tried to calm his captive with trusting, affectionate words. (pgs. 29-30)

One day while out walking, Tristana meets and falls for Horacio, an attractive young artist and kindred spirit. The two young lovebirds continue to meet on a daily basis, a romance nurtured through afternoon strolls and, in time, secret trysts in the painter’s studio. Horacio, too, has experienced a difficult childhood. Orphaned at a young age and poorly treated by his tyrannical grandfather, he has found an outlet for his creativity through art. Horacio encourages Tristana’s eagerness to learn and the two feed off one another in a sense of mutual fascination and desire. Their love affair is teasing and playful.

Inside her, emotion was kicking and stamping, like a living being far larger than the breast containing it, and she vented this emotion by laughing wildly or bursting into sudden, passionate tears. It was impossible to say if this feeling was a source of joy to them or a lacerating sorrow, because they both felt as if they had been wounded by a sting that plunged deep into their souls, and were both tormented by a desire for something beyond themselves. (pg. 48)

With her spirit fully awakened, and scarred by Don Lope’s predatory behaviour, Tristana longs for the day when she can make her own way in life. Despite her love for Horacio, she is keen to reach a state of ‘honourable freedom,’ unwilling to accept dependency upon any man however much she idolises him.

And what of her home situation?  Although she does not love her guardian, Tristana still feels tied to Don Lope in some way; she experiences a strange mix of emotions towards him. There are times when Tristana loathes Don Lope for taking away her virginity, but she also feels something bordering on affection as a daughter would for her father. In reality, Don Lope’s character is far from black and white; he is a curious blend of altruistic qualities and terrible failings. He seems to have two opposing consciences: one very pure and honourable in certain respects, the other rather reprehensible. In effect, he chooses which to apply depending on the situation putting them ‘on and off like shirts’.

Don Lope wielded such power over her, such mysterious authority, that in his presence, even though she had ample reasons to rebel, she could not dredge up so much as a breath of willpower. (pg. 60)

Don Lope soon guesses that Tristana has a suitor. The evidence of love is there; he can see it on her face and hear it in her voice. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot of this wonderful novel, but there are a number of moves and counterplays to come which keep the reader guessing.

Tristana is a joy to read, a subtle story of love, power, liberty, and creativity. As you may have gathered from my opening quote, Don Lope is a cunning strategist and not to be underestimated. At times, he behaves like a jealous lover, at others a watchful father or doting grandfather. He is a tricky character to pin down as we see various different facets of his personality. Tristana, too, is a complex individual, and her wishes change as the story moves forward. Even Don Lope’s maid, Saturna, is painted in a vivid and lively manner. She is Tristana’s confidante, and the conversations between the two women are one of the book’s many pleasures. The writing is sublime too: Galdós’ prose is elegant and sprightly; Margaret Jull Costa’s translation reads very smoothly.

This is my second contribution to Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, and I must thank Guy and Scott for recommending Tristana, which I suspect will make my end-of-year highlights. You can read their excellent reviews by clicking on the links.

Tristana (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 2/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Spanish Wines for #SpanishLitMonth: Albariño from Galicia

Last summer I wrote about a couple of favourite Spanish white wines to tie in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month: an unoaked Godello from Galicia and a Verdejo from the Rueda region. This year I thought I would focus on another favourite from Spain, wines made from the albariño grape variety grown in the Rías Baixas DO (Denominación de Origen) in Galicia, north-west Spain. Albariño wines taste of stone fruits, typically peaches, with a squeeze of lemon juice; sometimes there’s a slightly salty, mineral note from the sea air.

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Most of my favourite albariños tend to fall within the £12-£14 per bottle price range, but earlier this month I discovered a new one, slightly more modestly priced at £8.95 pb. It’s the Pazo de Villarei Albariño from the Salnés Valley in the heart of Rías Baixas. The Pazo de Villarei is textbook albariño: pure, clean and refreshing with plenty of lemony citrus flavour. This is an excellent introduction to the albariño grape, a wine that would suit lovers of unoaked white wines who are looking to branch out from Chablis, pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc.

As far as food matches go, albariño is the perfect partner for simple seafood dishes, but there’s enough richness here to cope with slightly stronger Mediterranean flavours too (garlic and olives, for instance). Seared tuna, paella or seafood risotto would also make excellent matches.

Wine stockist: I bought my bottle of Pazo de Villarei Albariño, 2013 from The Wine Society, priced at £8.95 per bottle. (No longer available, but the 2014 vintage is in stock, priced £8.50.) Or you can check alternative stockists via wine-searcher.

For the record, my other favourite albariños are made by Pazo de Señorans and Palacio de Fefiñanes, both come highly recommended.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

As many of will you know by now, I’m like a magnet for these beautiful Pushkin Collection books from Pushkin Press. Last year I bought Subtly Worded, a collection of short stories by Teffi (a pen name for the Russian author, Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya). I was planning to post this review in August to link up with Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, but I accidentally pressed ‘publish’ while drafting it yesterday! My #WITMonth has started a little early.

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Teffi was born in 1872 into an esteemed and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of 40 she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

The stories in Subtly Worded are grouped into five sections covering various periods in Teffi’s life starting with her early stories written before the Russian Revolution through to later stories of life as an émigré in Paris. The collection closes with a series of haunting works from the period prior to her death in 1952. As with other short story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn – rather, my aim is to give a flavour of themes along with some thoughts on the collection as a whole.

Teffi began her literary career by writing a series of satirical pieces and her talent for wit is evident in the early stories included here in Subtly Worded. ‘Will-power’, the story of an alcoholic who puts his inner mettle to the test, is tinged with irony. And in ‘The Hat’, one of my favourite stories from this collection, we are introduced to the poet without any poems:

The poet was someone very interesting.

He had not yet written any poems –he was still trying to come up with a pen name—but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious, perhaps even more so than many a real poet with real, ready-made poems. (pg. 35)

‘The Hat’ also offers a sharp and witty insight into the ability of a stylish new hat (or any such article of clothing) to alter a woman’s mood. In this scene, Varenka is admiring herself in her new hat, ‘a deep-blue hat with a deep-blue bow and a deep-blue bird, a true bluebird of happiness.’ She is anticipating the arrival of her friend, the poet with no poems.

She can be arch, she can be tempestuous, or dreamy, or haughty. She can be anything – and whatever she does she can carry it off with style. (pg. 36)

This story, which ends on an amusing note, seems to typify much of Teffi’s work from this period.

There are one or two more poignant pieces too. ‘The Lifeless Beast’ tells of a young girl who feels desperately lonely at home due to a breakdown in relations between her mother and father. Her only friend is a soft toy – a stuffed ram that she longs to bring to life.

He always looked at Katya with gentle affection. He never made any complaints or reproaches and he understood everything. (pg. 43)

But as the weeks pass by, and the ram turns grubby and worn he becomes a metaphor for the parents’ decaying marriage.

The second group of stories, those covering the period 1916-19, are especially interesting. ‘One Day in the Future’ takes a satirical look at the Communist movement. It describes a world where the old social orders are a reversed: doctors are reduced to the roles of servants; vice-admirals act as couriers; draymen and watchmen are elevated to a higher status.

His doorman had once been a singer at the Imperial Theatre. With the graceful magnificence of Verdi’s Don Carlos, he flung open the doors before Terenty.

The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor. Though that may have been why he talked with such enthusiasm about oats. (pg. 81)

One of the most fascinating pieces in the whole collection is ‘Rasputin’, an account of Teffi’s own encounters with this legendary figure. Here’s how she describes him:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, piercing, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes. Whenever he said something, he would look round the whole group, his eyes piercing each person in turn, as if to say, “Have I given you something to think about? Are you satisfied? Have I surprised you?” (pg. 104)

Rasputin is drawn to Teffi and cannot understand why she fails to respond to his charms – he is clearly not accustomed to meeting such resistance from anyone, let alone a woman. Teffi detects something deeply unpleasant and chilling about the atmosphere surrounding Rasputin: ‘the grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark beyond our knowledge.’ There is the sense that one could quite easily fall under his hypnotic spell and never be able to break free from it.

In the third section, the stories from Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, we learn a little of Teffi’s life as an émigré. ‘Que Faire?’ perfectly captures the mood amongst the community:

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him. (pg. 139)

This sense of mutual wariness seeps into everyday conversations amongst the lesrusses in which everyone’s name is prefaced by the phrase ‘that-crook , a habit that gives rise to comments such as this:

“Some of us got together at that-crook Velsky’s yesterday for a game of bridge. There was that-crook Ivanov, that-crook Gusin, that-crook Popov. Nice crowd.” (pg. 140)

Several of the remaining stories in this section are shot through with a strong sense of nostalgia, a deep longing for the days of Teffi’s childhood in her beloved homeland.

Section IV contains two Magic Tales from the 1930s, including ‘The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)’. This is another highlight of the collection, a haunting story that feels grounded in truth. In this extract, Teffi recalls a time during the Civil War.

That evening I wept for a long time. I was burying my past. I understood for the first time that all the paths I had taken, all the paths I had followed to reach my present position, had been entirely destroyed – blown up like railway tracks behind the last train of a retreating army. (pg. 218)

The final stories in this collection are deeply melancholic in tone. Once again, there is a strong sense that Teffi is drawing on her own life experience. This is especially clear in ‘And Time Was No More’, a poignant tale of dreams reaching back into the author’s time in St Petersburg.

Subtly Worded is a fascinating collection, notable for the sheer variety of stories it contains. What makes these pieces particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience. Subtly Worded is another gem from Pushkin Press, one of my go-to publishers for interesting literature in translation.

Grant (1streading) and Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) have also reviewed this excellent collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20, #TBR20 round 2.

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

First published in Spanish in 1989, All Souls is my third Marías (you can read my thoughts on the other two here: A Heart So White and The Infatuations).

The unnamed narrator of All Souls is a man in his late thirties recently married and living in Madrid with his wife and young son. The narrative is comprised of a series of reflections on the two years the narrator spent in Oxford as a visiting lecturer in translation, a fairly recent period in his life but one that seems to belong to another time.

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As with Heart, the experience of reading All Souls feels a little like observing a sequence of vignettes – each one conveying a vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is somewhat episodic. Perhaps the strongest thread running through the narrator’s recollections is his affair with fellow tutor, Clare Bayes, a somewhat careless, nonchalant and at times, indifferent woman whom he meets at a college dinner.

Clare had few scruples, but then no one who knew her would ever have expected anything else, for her charm lay in large measure precisely in her lack of consideration both for other people and for herself. (pg. 23)

It’s a relationship with no future, an affair mostly played out in the brief intervals between classes. They meet in hotel rooms, at the narrator’s house and in Clare’s home where they run the risk of being ‘discovered’ by Clare’s husband, Edward, another lecturer at the University.

As his teaching duties amount to very little, our narrator spends most of his time meandering around the streets of Oxford, visiting second-hand bookshops where he develops an interest in the work of Arthur Machen, author of supernatural and horror fiction. In time, this interest extends to the life and work of another writer, John Gawsworth. There is a mischievous undercurrent to some of the passages in All Souls, and you can see it here in this description of Oxford bookseller, Mrs Alabaster:

Mrs Alabaster was a smiling, authoritarian woman, with one of those very English smiles that you see adorning the faces of famous stranglers in films as they’re about to choose their next victim. She was middle-aged with greying hair, fierce eyes and capped teeth and, wrapped in a pink woollen shawl, she would sit at her desk, writing incessantly in an enormous accounts book. (pg. 75)

By way of a neat counterpoint, Mrs A’s husband ‘was equally smiling, but his smile was more like that of the strangler’s anonymous victim just before he realises his fate.’

Now that I’ve read a few of Marías’ novels, I am beginning to notice some common themes in his work. One of the most noticeable is a preoccupation with the passing of time or, to put it another way, a growing awareness of one’s own mortality. In this story, the title All Souls could be seen as having a dual meaning – not only the name of the University College but also a reference to the souls that haunt the pages of the novel. The narrator’s closest friend and confident, fellow-lecturer Cromer-Blake, is seriously ill and not long for this world. (We know this from the outset.) Moreover, during his time at Oxford, the narrator comes into contact with Professor Emeritus Toby Rylands, a respected literary scholar. Rylands too feels his own death is not very far away, the only difference being that unlike Cromer-Blake he has had plenty of time to get used to the idea.

For years now I’ve watched the days pass with that slow downhill feeling we all experience sooner or later. It doesn’t depend on age really, some people experience it even when they’re children; some children already have a sense of it. I felt it early on, some forty years ago, and I’ve spent all these years letting death approach and it still frightens me. The worst thing about the approach of death isn’t death itself and what it may or may not bring, it’s the fact that one can no longer fantasize about things still to come. (pg. 136)

The ability (or not) to keep secrets is another Marías theme. In The Infatuations and Heart, the focus is on our desire to conceal information from those closest to us. There is an element of this in All Souls, with a ‘reveal’ in the closing stages that took my breath away, but there are whispers of other covert activities too. Rylands is rumoured to have been involved with MI5 in the dim and distant past. With his mastery of Russian, another academic by the name of Dewar (aka the Inquisitor) is called to London to assist in interrogating Soviet citizens seeking political asylum in the UK. In one of the novel’s many wonderful set-pieces, the narrator imagines Dewar interrogating a nervy, freshly escaped ballet dancer still wearing their ‘Peter Pan outfit’ with ‘that look of Robin Hood’ they all seem to have. And on his arrival in Oxford, the narrator soon learns that the gleaning and trading of information is a major form of currency within the colleges.

Giving information about something is, moreover, the only way of not having to give out information about oneself, and thus, the more misanthropic, independent, solitary or mysterious the Oxonian in question, the more information about other people one would expect him to provide in order to excuse his own reserve and gain the right to remain silent about his own private life. The more one knows and tells about other people, the greater one’s dispensation not to reveal anything about oneself. Consequently the whole of Oxford is fully and continuously engaged in concealing and suppressing itself whilst at the same time trying to winkle out as much information as possible about other people… (pgs. 26-27)

Like the other Marías novels I’ve read, All Souls meanders around. The style is philosophical, reflective and at times surprisingly funny too. There is more sly humour here than in Heart (which contains a few darkly comic scenes involving translators and interpreters, another recurring theme in Marías’ work). All Souls contains three glorious set-pieces: the interrogation of Russian ballet dancers I mentioned earlier; a marvellous high table dinner featuring a drunken, lecherous warden and an insufferable college bore whose only topic of conversation is an obscure eighteenth-century cider tax; and finally, our narrator’s recollections of nights lost to the local discotheque, a place frequented by loose women, young Oxfordshire dandies and the occasional bachelor don.

…but on my fourth night there I spotted my own boss Aidan Kavanagh, the author of the horror blockbusters, performing a wild, loose-jointed dance out of time with the music. I couldn’t see very well – amongst all those bodies lit by that feverish light – and at first I thought with some alarm that his usually sober, anodyne clothes had given way to an eau de nil waistcoat and little else, but I realised immediately afterwards – with only a modicum of relief – that only his arms were in fact bare albeit to the shoulder: that is, he was as usual wearing a shirt and tie (apricot and bottle green respectively) beneath the eau de nil waistcoat, but it was a strange kind of shirt comprising only a shirt front. I wondered if he wore the same model to the faculty and determined to have a good look next time I met him in the Taylorian to ascertain whether or not his shirtsleeves were visible beneath his jacket cuffs. (pgs. 116-117)

Heart remains my favourite of the three Marías novels I’ve read so far, but there is much to enjoy in All Souls. Once again, particular images and passages recur and reverberate throughout the novel in a slightly different context each time: a woman glanced in passing; a hand tugging at a companion’s sleeve; the light of a fickle, mellow moon…there are many more.

There is some wonderful writing here too, not least in the narrator’s recollection of a chance encounter with a woman one night. Never before has Didcot railway station sounded more atmospheric or romantic.

In England strangers rarely talk to each other, not even on trains or during long waits, and the night silence of Didcot station is one of the deepest I’ve ever known. The silence seems even deeper when broken by voices or by isolated, intermittent noises, the screech of a wagon, for example, that suddenly and enigmatically moves a few yards then stops, or the unintelligible cry of a porter whom the cold wakes from a short nap (rescuing him from a bad dream), or the abrupt, distant thud of crates that the invisible hands quite gratuitously decide to shift despite the complete absence of any urgency, at a time when everything seems infinitely postponable… (pg. 15)

For alternative views of All Souls, which I read for Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, here are links to reviews by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos), Seamus (Vapour Trails) and Victoria (Tales from the Reading Room).

Please feel free to comment on All Souls, Marías or any of his novels, all are welcome – I’m convinced I want to read pretty much everything he has ever written.

All Souls is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20, #TBR20 round 2.