Monthly Archives: January 2016

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Like Elizabeth Taylor (whose Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek I reviewed fairly recently), Barbara Pym is another of those English novelists I’ve been meaning to try for some time. First published in 1952, Excellent Women was her second novel, and I believe many readers consider it to be one of her best.

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The novel is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, living alone in a flat in a down-at-heel part of London, ‘so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station’. Mildred is very sensible, diplomatic and accommodating; in short, she is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments or worries of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (pg. 1)

As the daughter of a clergyman, Mildred is closely involved with the local Anglo-Catholic church where she helps the pastor, Julian Malory, and his sister, Winifred, with various activities (jumble sales, church bazaars and suchlike). Having never married, Julian and Winifred share a home at the vicarage – they are Mildred’s closest friends.

Into Mildred’s unexciting but fairly settled life come Helena and Rocky Napier, a rather intriguing married couple who have spent the past few years living apart from one another. Helena, an anthropologist by profession, arrives first, moving into the flat below Mildred’s where she seems to spend many an evening entertaining her colleague, the rather standoffish Everard Bone. At first Mildred isn’t sure if she likes Helena, but she does her best to be polite and neighbourly. Rocky appears a few weeks later having just returned to England following an extended stint in the Navy.

It soon becomes apparent that relations between Helena and Rocky are somewhat strained; consequently, Mildred’s skills as an excellent woman come in very handy as she attempts to mediate between the couple. Even though it is hard for her to take sides in this situation, Mildred finds Rocky particularly easy to talk to. He is attractive and charming, and Mildred is clearly brightened by his company.

Matters are further complicated when the attractive widow, Allegra Gray, moves into the room at the top of the Malorys’ rectory. At first, everything is sweetness and light. As the former wife of a clergyman, Mrs Gray ought to be ideally suited to life at the vicarage. That said, it is not long before she upsets the balance at the Malorys’. Julian is clearly smitten with her…and when developments have a knock-on effect on Winifred, Mildred is called on for support.

While Mildred is interested in the emotional lives of those around her, she values her own independence and does not feel the need to throw herself into relationships simply in the hope of finding a suitable husband. There are times when she feels she may have missed out on certain experiences in life, but in many ways she takes comfort from the fact that her current position as a spinster is familiar and uncomplicated. By contrast, other people around her seem intent on trying to do a spot of matchmaking. There are a number of occasions when Mildred’s friends and acquaintances seem to think they know what’s best for her (irrespective of Mildred’s own wishes). Take this example as Helena, Rocky and Mildred are travelling home after a night out with Everard Bone – the Napiers even go so far as to start talking about Mildred as if she were not present at the time.

‘You and Everard seemed to be having an interesting conversation,’ said Helena at last. ‘Was he declaring himself or something?’ Her tone was rather light and cruel as if it were the most impossible thing in the world.

‘He was telling me about his new flat,’ I said lamely.

‘Actually he might do very well for Mildred,’ said Rocky. Had we thought of that? Obviously, we must find her a good husband.’

[…]

We were rather far from our own door, and just as we were walking past the parish hall, Teddy Lemon and a group of lads came out, laughing and talking in their rough voices. My heart warmed towards them, so good and simple with uncomplicated lives. If only I had come straight home after the paper. This was Julian’s boys’ club night and I could have been there serving in the canteen – much more in my line than the sort of evening I had just spent. (pgs. 109-110)

There are other men in Mildred’s life too; most notably the rather finickity William Caldicote, the brother of an old school friend, whom Mildred meets once a year for lunch, and Julian Malory, whom many consider her ideal (and possibly rightful) partner.

Marriage is a central theme in this novel. Set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage, the story explores the idea of whether it is possible for a woman like Mildred to live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried. When she considers the stresses and strains of the Napiers’ marriage (not to mention the nature of developments between Julian Malory and Allegra Gray), Mildred is not at all convinced that she should marry. She does, however, value friendship and companionship in her life and hopes for more of these things in the future.

Excellent Women is my first experience of Barbara Pym’s work, and I hope it won’t be my last. I really enjoyed this story – it is beautifully observed, full of small but significant reflections on life in the 1950s. In many ways, the plot is secondary to other aspects of the novel as much of the focus falls on Mildred’s thoughts, feelings and observations. One of the things I liked most is Pym’s tendency to treat her characters with sympathy. She has a way of conveying humour alongside the difficulties that touch the everyday lives of these people, and yet there is a sense of insight and understanding in her writing, too.

The novel includes several humorous scenes with much of the dry wit coming from the interactions between the characters. There is plenty of gossiping and friendly bickering amongst the volunteers as they organise the parish jumble sale and hold meetings to discuss forthcoming events. All in all, I found it a charming and engaging story.

I’ll finish with a quote from one of the early chapters of the novel, partly because I think it illustrates a little of the humour in the story, Pym’s eye for dry comedy in the small tragedies of everyday life. In this scene, Mildred has joined the Malorys for dinner at the vicarage.

I sat down at the table without any very high hopes, for both Julian and Winifred, as is often the way with good, unworldly people, hardly noticed what they ate or drank, so that a meal with them was a doubtful pleasure. Mrs Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape’, also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard.

Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese. (pg. 12)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to posts by KaggsyAliVictoriaJane and Alex.

Excellent Women is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Back in April 2015 I read Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, a fictionalised account of the author’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. Even though Three Bedrooms was somewhat atypical of Simenon’s work, it gave me a taste for his romans durs (or ‘hard’ psychological novels). With that in mind, I’ve been looking forward to trying another ever since.

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First published in 1942, The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of its narrative. The woman in question is Tati Couderc, a forty-five-year-old widowed peasant who runs a farm close to St. Amand in the Bourbonnais region of France. Having outlived her husband, she now shares the farmhouse with her father-in-law and owner of the farm, old Couderc. Tati is unattractive, unkempt and somewhat rough around the edges, but she is also sharp and as tough as old boots.

As the novel opens, Tati is taking the bus home from market when a young drifter, Jean, boards the vehicle. Unlike the other passengers on the bus, Tati sees something different in Jean, something the others simply do not notice. She sees that he has nothing on him, no ties and no obvious direction either. It’s as if she figures him out in an instant.

…but all the same she did not take her eyes off him, and she took note of everything—his stubbly cheeks, his pale unseeing eyes, his gray suit, worn yet having a touch of ease about it, his thin shoes. A man who could walk noiselessly and spring like a cat. And who, after the seven francs fifty he had given to the driver in exchange for a blue ticket, probably had no money left in his pockets. […]

Widow Couderc too hugged a secret smile. The man blinked slightly. It was rather as if, in the midst of all these old women with their nodding heads, the two had recognized each other. (pgs. 6-7, NYRB Classics)

When Tati gets off the bus laden with packages, Jean follows shortly afterwards and gives her a hand carrying everything back to the farm. Keen to take possession of this young man, Tati offers him some work on the farm – in any case she needs a hand running the place as her father-in-law is old, deaf and a little senile. When Jean reveals that he has just been released from prison for the murder of a man, Tati does not seem in the least surprised – ‘It was as if she had guessed it already.’  With nothing else on the horizon, Jean falls in with the plan and promptly beds down in the loft.

Her eyes were eating him up. She was taking possession of him. She wasn’t afraid. She wanted him to understand that she wasn’t afraid of him. (pgs. 14-15)

And always that little glance in which he could read satisfaction, even a kind of promise, but a slight reservation as well. She was not distrustful. Only, she still needed to watch him for a time. (pg. 23)

A few days later Jean and Tati end up in bed together. Even so, there is no real passion or romance here – it’s all much more functional than that. And while Tati is happy to have sex with Jean, she must also service old Couderc’s sexual needs every now and again just to keep him sweet.

As the story progresses, two developments come together to create a sense of tension and conflict in the narrative. The first of these stems from the introduction of old Couderc’s daughters into the mix. Daughter number one, Françoise, lives next door to the farm; as such she is perfectly positioned to keep watch on developments when Jean arrives on the scene. However, the real brains of the outfit is daughter number two, Amélie, who, on hearing about Jean’s past, descends on the farmhouse with her husband and young son in tow. Both daughters are deeply resentful of Tati’s position on the farm—they have never liked her ever since she arrived as a young servant at the age of fourteen. With a murderer now living in their midst, the daughters are worried that Tati might be plotting to do away with old Couderc. If truth be told, they would like nothing more than to find a means of evicting the widow; after all, their inheritance might be at stake. Here’s Amélie as she confronts Tati.

“You see, I know what you’re up to. It’s no accident that this man’s here. One fine morning you’ll get Father—God knows how—to sign a paper. Then he’ll have to be disposed of before he can change his mind. Go on, admit it! Admit that from the first day you stepped in here, when we were still only kids, you decided you would take over. Our poor brother was properly fooled. You were already as perverted as could be. […]” (pg. 48)

The second development involves Françoise’s daughter, Félicie, an alluring sixteen-year-old who lives with her parents in the house next door. Jean is clearly attracted to Félicie as he watches her playing with her baby in the grass. (There is no sign of a husband or a father of the child on the scene.) At first, Félicie keeps her distance from Jean (teasing him, perhaps), but as the narrative progresses her attitude softens, and she moves a little closer.

As she had bidden him good night, she would bid him good morning. She was not altogether tamed yet, but she was beginning to trace ever-narrowing circles around him. (pg 107)

From the very first chapter, it is plainly obvious that Tati has taken a deep dislike to Félicie, whom she considers ‘a little slut’ – in all honesty, she is jealous of the young girl. Concerned that something might be brewing between Jean and Félicie, Tati insists on keeping a close eye on developments. She watches Jean like a hawk, questioning him on his movements and interactions as he goes about his work on the farm. Jean, on the other hand, can think of little else but the prospect of Félicie. He carries her image in his mind: the fullness of her lip, the curve of her body as she carries the baby on her arm…

That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, save to say that circumstances and events conspire to force a dramatic denouement. This is a first-rate slice of noir from Simenon, just as dark and disturbing as its cover suggests. The style is spare yet very effective with the author carefully modulating the tension as the story unfolds. There is a palpable sense of foreboding from a fairly early stage in the narrative and if anything this feeling only grows as we move closer to the final chapters. Memories of Jean’s trial for murder some five years earlier echo and reverberate through the novella, and we learn a little more about the young man’s backstory along the way.

In his excellent introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Paul Theroux compares and contrasts The Widow with another novella published in France in 1942, Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider/The Stranger). Interestingly, the French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Gide considered The Widow to be the superior book. Each of these novellas features a remorseless young man cast adrift from society. In Simenon’s work there is a sense that Jean operates in a bit of a vacuum—none of his actions seem to hold any real weight or significance. There are other similarities too including the focus on bright sunlight, a motif that runs through The Widow. I’ll finish with a couple of quotes to illustrate this point. The second of these also gives a brief feel for Simenon’s descriptions of the Bourbonnais countryside, the tranquil environment that forms the backdrop to this powerful story of greed, resentment, jealousy and desire.

Sunrays as sharp as the beams from a searchlight slanted in through the window with its small panes. (pg. 31)

The grass was a dark green, the water almost black. In contrast, the newborn foliage of the chestnuts was tender and the sunshine splashed it with large daubs of gold. (pg. 29)

For other perspectives on this book, click here for reviews by Guy and Jose.

The Widow is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

New post: They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy – the politics

Earlier in the week, I reviewed They Were Counted, the first book in Hungarian writer and politician Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (also known as The Writing on the Wall). It’s a sweeping epic full of politics, love affairs, family tensions and dirty dealings, days at the races and nights at the ballroom – quite different from the stereotypical image of Transylvania as the land of gothic castles and vampires. If you missed it, you can read my review here.

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At nearly 600 pages, They Were Counted is a big book in every sense of the phrase. As such, I couldn’t find enough room in my review to include a passage on the political developments of the time. So, for the interested, I thought I would post a couple of extended quotes here, particularly as they help to illustrate one of the key themes in the book, the tensions over the fate of the Hungarian nation in the early 20th century. (The trilogy spans the ten years prior to the start of WW1 and the subsequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Hopefully, they will give you a flavour of some of the political themes and the tone.

The novel covers the key political developments affecting Hungary in the run-up to the Great War. Other than Count Balint Abády, the young independent politician and the main protagonist in Banffy’s marvellous epic, many of the other Hungarian politicians of the day seem rather blinkered and insular in their focus. Several of the parliamentary debates end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position, and there is much dogmatic, underhand behaviour along the way.

First up is a quote from one of the early chapters of the first book – it is worth reading in full. The year is 1905: Tisza is the Prime Minister of Hungary; Slawata, a Counsellor to the Foreign Office, is rumoured to be close to the heir to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian throne. Unlike the ruler of the day (Franz Joseph I), the Heir is a fan of centralisation with one grand central council controlling everything from the politics to the economy to the armed forces, a point that Slawata has already revealed to Balint during a previous conversation. The quote also says much about Balint’s character, that of an inherently good man trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world.

Balint pondered the programme outlined by Slawata: centralization, rule by an Imperial Council, the ancient kingdom of Hungary reduced to an Austrian province, and national boundaries to be re-arranged statistically according to the ethnic origin of the inhabitants! Why all this? To what purpose? Slawata had given him the answer: Imperial expansion in the Balkans so that feudal kingdoms for the Habsburgs reached the Sea of Marmora; and it was all to be achieved with the blood of Hungarian soldiers and paid for by Hungarian tax-money! So it was merely to help Vienna spread Austrian hegemony over the nations of the Balkans that Tisza was to be helped to build up the Hungarian national armed forces.

It seemed now to Balint that both parties in Parliament were fighting instinctively, but without a clear understanding either of their motives or of the inevitable results of their policies and strategy. While Tisza battled to strengthen the army, he could have no inkling that, once strengthened, it would be used to suppress the very independence it was designed to assure – and when the opposition delayed the implementation of Tisza’s policy by petty arguments about shoulder-flashes and army commands, they were unaware that, inadvertently, they were providing ammunition for those very arguments that in the near future would threaten the integrity of the constitution.

How simple everything could seem if one looked only at the figures, those cold statistics that took no account of people’s feelings and traditions. How much would be destroyed if men were to be treated as robots! What of the myriad of individual characteristics, passions, aspirations, triumphs and disappointments that together made one people different from another? How could anyone ignore all the different threads of experience that, over the centuries, had formed and deepened the differences that distinguished each nation?

How would anyone believe that any good was to be obtained by adding the Balkan states to the already unwieldy Dual Monarchy and so increasing the Empire to a hundred million souls with differing cultures and traditions? Of course armies could be recruited and young men could die, but great States evolved only through centuries of social tradition and mutual self-interest; they were not imposed by bayonets. To believe the contrary would be as mad as the folly which had put the Archduke Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. (pgs. 126-127, Arcadia Books)

This next quote highlights the insular nature of the Hungarian politicians, many of whom are intent on focusing on their own internal affairs at the expense of keeping abreast of developments on the broader European stage, By now we are a couple of years down the line.

In the great world outside Hungary events were taking place that would change all their lives: the uprising in Russia, the dispute over Crete, the Kaiser Wilhelm’s ill-timed visit to Tangier, the revelation of Germany’s plans to expand its navy – but such matters were of no importance to the members of the Hungarian Parliament. Even events closer to home, such as the rabble-rousing speech of an Austrian politician in Salzburg urging revolt among the German-speaking minorities in northern Hungary, or the anonymous pamphlet, which appeared in Vienna and revealed the total unpreparedness of the Austro-Hungarian forces compared with those of the other European powers, went unnoticed in Budapest. Naturally when Apponyi made a speech in favour of Deszo Baffy’s proposal to limit the demand for Hungarian commands in the army to using Hungarian only in regimental matters, everyone listened and discussed it as if their very lives depended on it. (pg. 314)

I may well write another (shorter!) piece on Banffy’s evocation of the natural world, one of the many pleasures of this trilogy. Next weekend, perhaps.

They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.

They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (tr. Patrick Thursfield & Katalin Bánffy-Jelen)

Originally published in 1930s, They Were Counted is the first book in Hungarian writer and politician Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, also known as The Writing on the Wall. It’s a sweeping epic full of politics, love affairs, family tensions and dirty dealings, days at the races and nights at the ballroom – quite different from the stereotypical image of Transylvania as the land of gothic castles and vampires. If you’re in the mood for a winter (or summer) chunkster, this trilogy is well worth a look. They Were Counted may well turn out to be one of my reading highlights of the year – all in all, I consider it a truly great work of literature.

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Broad in scope yet intimate in detail, Bánffy’s trilogy covers the period leading up to the start of WW1 and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. The first book, which opens in 1905, features a number of interconnected narrative strands. The most engaging of these is, perhaps, the life of the young independent politician and former diplomat, Count Balint Abády, an inherently good man who is trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world. At a fairly early stage in the novel, we learn that Balint is attracted to Adrienne Miloth, a beautiful, cultured young woman from his past who is now trapped in a loveless marriage to a sadistic and brutal nobleman, Pali Uzdy. On the surface, the couple’s marriage appears respectable, but when Adrienne comes back into Balint’s life, he can tell that something is terribly wrong.

He was worried about Adrienne. What was troubling her? Why did she seem so disillusioned? She had married Pal Uzdy of her own free will – she had chosen him herself. No one had forced her. Presumably she had been in love and so she had married him: why else? But, if that were so, whence came that inner revolt, that tension, the bitter tone in her voice when she spoke of the purpose of life and its aims? Perhaps her husband had turned out to be cruel. Perhaps he even struck her. Balint would not have put it past that evil-faced satanic man. […]

And why did she still retain that girlish, maidenly appearance? She did not have either the assurance or the mature look that came to most girls with marriage and motherhood. The oddly shy movement on the terrace when she pulled the stole up round her bare shoulders was not the normal assured gesture of a fulfilled woman. (pgs. 72-73)

Bánffy is very strong when it comes to portraying the inner thoughts and feelings of his central characters. The novel is full of sensitive and insightful observations, particularly those on the treatment of women in this society – for example, Balint only discovers the true horror of Adrienne’s private life by gradually piecing together a series of clues based on her behaviour.

The relationship between Balint and Adrienne, their growing love for one another, forms the beating heart of this novel. It is quite wonderful to observe the gradual reawakening of Adrienne as Balint gently and carefully teaches her how to love. She is a luminous creature, and Balint is utterly captivated by her. In this scene, Balint watches Adrienne as she skates across a frozen lake – in effect she is dancing on ice as a barrel organ plays in the background.

How beautiful she was! She looked weightless and ethereally tall as she danced with both men at once, doing a few turns with one and then, with a double turn, seeming to fly into the arms of the other, […].

As she danced Adrienne seemed more youthful than Balint had ever seen her, her fine elongated silhouette more slender, more alluring, watching her now, passing so lightly from one admirer to another, her lips parted in a dazzling smile of pleasure as each man in turn caught her by the waist and whirled her away with the speed of an eagle taking its prey. (pg. 169)

Also of note is Balint’s somewhat troubled cousin and dear friend, Laszlo Geyeróffy, as his story forms another highly compelling stand in the novel. Orphaned at an early age and raised by a series of aunts, Laszlo has struggled to gain true acceptance within his adopted family (and to a certain extent, within the broader society of the day). As the years pass by, he becomes increasingly conscious of the gulf that separates him from his cousins, of the ‘financial and social differences that set him apart’.  Consequently, Laszlo is left feeling rather inferior to his peers – all this despite the fact that he is a highly talented musician.

As Laszlo and Balint had passed through the red salon, and again as they had greeted their hostess and the others present, Laszlo could not help noticing his cousin’s calm assurance. Though every bit as polite as and deferential as the occasion demanded, every movement, every word showed that he belonged to these circles, that he knew himself to be in every way their equal and in no way an intruder. Laszlo watched him with envy, wondering if he had acquired this air of smooth distinction while en poste abroad, and wondering too if he could ever attain the same ease, he to whom every greeting, every nod and handshake seemed fraught with condescension, as if he were no more than a humble serf tolerated by consciously superior beings. (pg. 94)

Laszlo’s desire for acceptance leads him into deep trouble, both romantically and financially. He is in love with his young cousin, Klara Kollonich (and she with him), but the path of true love never runs smooth, especially so in this instance. Moreover, several of Laszlo’s nights are spent gambling at the casino, the one place where he feels accepted by others as an equal – after all, only luck and style matter here, not rank or social standing. And it’s not just Laszlo’s own money at stake at the card table, but that of his lover, too – as such, he has to face the possibility of financial and personal ruin on more than one occasion.

Love, money and honour are the cause of much friction between the characters in this story. There are hearts to be won and lost, debts to settled, and reputations to be maintained. For the most part, it’s thoroughly absorbing stuff.

There’s a fair bit of politics here, too. We follow Balint as he becomes involved in various political developments in Budapest. I must admit to finding these sections (which are threaded through They Were Counted) a little less engaging than the other strands in the story, but I soon got the hang of stepping back from the minutiae. The overall direction of developments is the important thing here – that and the tone of the debates as they typically end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position. (There is much dogmatic underhand behaviour along the way – virtually everyone’s focus seems terribly insular and short-sighted.) Developments on a local level also feature in the shape of Balint’s efforts to establish a farmers’ co-operative in support of the working classes – social enterprise in the community for want of a better phrase.

For the most part, They Were Counted reads like a sumptuous 19th-century novel. There are shooting parties, duels, lavish balls and excursions to the country. Central politics aside, the novel is largely set in the Transylvanian city of Koloszvar, alongside grand country houses such as the Kollonich residence at Veszprem. The descriptions of the surrounding landscape and natural world are wonderfully evocative, too. By conveying a portrait of this society, Bánffy opens up the history of the nation. This, coupled with the novel’s elegiac tone, adds to the feeling that we are witnessing a world that has vanished, a society swept away by the passage of history.

As this first volume draws to a close, various threads are left hanging. How will Balint and Adrienne’s relationship develop? What will become of Laszlo? What does the future hold for Transylvania? All these questions and more left me eager to read the second instalment of the trilogy, They Were Found Wanting, which I finished over the holidays.

I’ll wrap up with a quote from one of the novel’s wonderful society scenes as it gives a good indication of the style. In this scene, the crowds are gathering for a day at the races.

There were smart two-in-hands drawn by high-stepping trotters, four-horse English coaches driven by their owners with eight people seated on the roof together with a liveried coachman whose only function on that day was to blow lustily on his coaching horn. […] In the open carriages the ladies would sit with lace-covered hats; and when one of the rare automobiles entered the procession, with its rattling engine-noise and stinking exhaust fumes it seemed as if even the horses turned up their noses, sensing, perhaps that these horrible new-fangled machines had been sent to destroy them. (pg. 331)

I’ve barely scratched the surface of They Were Counted here. For a more detailed analysis, do take a look at Scott’s excellent review of the trilogy over at the seraillon blog. The novel also comes with a fascinating introduction by one of the translators, Patrick Thursfield, and a forward by the esteemed author, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Update: The ever-reliable Stu at Winstonsdad has also reviewed this book – click here to read his review.

They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Having loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a book that made my end of year highlights in December, I was keen to try another of her novels. A View of the Harbour was a possibility, but in the end I plumped for A Game of Hide and Seek – both of these books appear on my Classics Club list, so I know I’ve still got Harbour to look forward to. In the meantime, I’m very glad to have picked this one to read – it delivered on every level for me.

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First published in 1951, A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves. As the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Vesey is spending the summer with his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo at their home in the South of England. Harriet, also aged eighteen, is a frequent visitor to the house and during the long summer’s evenings, she plays hide-and-seek with Vesey and his two young cousins. Both Harriet and Vesey are something of a disappointment to their elders. Harriet shows no signs of fulfilling any of the ambitions or passions of her mother who, together with Caroline, was an active participant in the suffragette movement. Having struggled at school, Harriet now seems content to daydream and pick flowers in the countryside. Vesey, on the other hand, is bright, but somewhat lazy and insensitive. At times, he seems attentive to Harriet, but he can also be spiteful and uncaring. He envisages himself as a writer, a man of letters, and a place at Oxford beckons.

Over the summer months, Harriet falls in love with Vesey; she imagines a life with him, possibly a future defined by marriage and everything this entails. But while Harriet is clearly in love with Vesey, his future intentions remain somewhat unclear.

Vesey, whose next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world, wished to go without any backward glances or entanglements. He was not one to keep up friendships, never threw out fastening tendrils such as letters or presents or remembrances; was quite unencumbered by all the things which Harriet valued and kept: drawers full of photographs, brochures, programmes, postcards, diaries. He never remembered birthdays or any other anniversary. (pg.16)

As the days pass, Hugo and Caroline become increasingly intolerant of Vesey’s behaviour, and it’s not long before they find an excuse to ask him to leave. Fearing that she may have missed her chance with Vesey, Harriet is bereft at his departure. A year seems a long time to wait until the following summer when she hopes to see him again.

With Vesey gone, Harriet finds a job in a gown shop, and in time she meets Charles Jephcott, a man who, at thirty-five, seems old before his time. Charles, a solicitor by profession, is solemn, steady and unexciting, but he is attentive to Harriet and wishes to marry her. When Vesey pays Caroline a brief visit, Harriet’s hopes are revived again only to be dashed when he fails to show at a dance. All seems lost, especially when Harriet’s mother dies unexpectedly. Uncertain of what the future may hold for her, Harriet agrees to marry Charles even though she is still in love with Vesey, a development that brings us to the end of the first part of the novel.

In the second half, we move forward some sixteen or seventeen years – the exact year isn’t clear, but we seem to be in the late 1940s following WW2. Harriet and Charles have been married for several years, and they have a daughter, Betsy, aged fifteen. There is a sense that Harriet has filled her days with domestic duties, managing the household administration and taking care of Betsy. The one thing that’s missing is any feeling of love or passion for Charles.

When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. […] But now she flouted what she had helped to create – an illusion of society; an oiling of the wheels which went round but not forwards; conventions which could only exist so long as emotion was in abeyance. (pg. 262)

One evening, Vesey comes back into Harriet’s life, and all her old feelings for him are rekindled. Charles watches nervously and with more than a hint of displeasure as Harriet and Vesey dance the tango at a local get-together. As she accompanies her husband home in a taxi, Harriet reflects on the nature of her marriage.

‘Marriage does not solve mysteries,’ she thought. ‘It creates and deepens them.’ The two of them being shut up physically in this dark space, yet locked away for ever from one another, was oppressive. Both were edgy. (pg. 146)

What follows is a series of tentative meetings between Harriet and Vesey; the latter is now a failing actor scraping a living in third-rate productions of Hamlet and the like. Charles knows that his marriage to Harriet is at risk; the idea of Vesey, his image so to speak, has weakened their life together, like a shadow in the background threatening to come to the fore at any moment.

For it was Vesey who had undermined their life together; the idea of him in both their heads. In their few disagreements, he knew to whom her thoughts flew; discouraged, he remembered her girlhood’s inconsolable love, and her silence ever since. Many times, when she had thought of nothing, had simply sat and stared, he believed she thought of him. He had always known that one day he would walk back into their presence as he had done the previous evening, unexpectedly. Harriet had whitened. She had presently bent her head and looked at the floor in front of her, as if disavowing a ghost. Charles could not know that many times before she had thought Vesey coming towards her in the street; her heart leaping, she had scarcely dared to look up at the stranger who eventually went by, usually a man quite unlike Vesey. Seeing one face continually in crowds is one of the minor annoyances of being in love. (pg 178)

A Game of Hide and Seek is a novel full of astute observations on the lives of the middle-classes in England at the time. It is a subtler novel than Mrs Palfrey, one best read slowly to savour Taylor’s pitch-perfect prose and exquisitely-drawn scenes. One of the things I like most about Taylor is the empathy and sympathy she shows for her characters despite their failings. There are no heroes or villains here, just ordinary people trying to make the best of their largely unfulfilled lives.

Harriet and Charles are wonderful creations, credible and believable in their thoughts and actions. I found myself warming to Vesey too as a tenderer, more caring side to his character emerges in the second half of the novel; he clearly illuminates Harriet’s world. The cast of minor characters is equally strong, particularly Charles’ mother, Julia, a dreadful woman who lives with a female companion whom she bullies at every opportunity. She is also highly suspicious of Harriet and relishes the prospect of scandal once Vesey reappears on the scene.

There are touches of sly humour in this novel as well. For instance, there are some terrific scenes at the dress shop where Harriet works before her marriage, a place where the gaggle of shop assistants seem more concerned with trying out the latest beauty treatments than serving customers. Another highlight centres on a drinks evening at the Jephcotts’ when Charles invites Vesey to the house following a performance of the play.

There are some wonderful touches in the portrayal of life in the Jephcotts’ home, too – more specifically, Harriet’s relationship with her cleaning lady, Mrs Curzon, and the observations of the Dutch maid, Elke, who struggles to understand the customs and behaviour of the English middle classes.

Ultimately though, this is Harriet and Vesey’s story. I was left wondering whether Harriet would have been happier if she had spent the last sixteen years with Vesey instead of Charles. (There’s no easy answer to that question, but I suspect she would.) Can the two of them ever recapture the feelings of their youth? And just how far will Harriet go in risking her marriage to Charles? Perhaps I can encourage you to read this beautifully nuanced novel for yourself to discover how things turn out.

For other perspectives on this book, you might want to read these reviews by Caroline (of Beauty and the Cat), Guy and Heavenali. Update: more reviews here by Caroline (of Book word), Jonathan and Melissa.

A Game of Hide and Seek is published by Virago. Source: personal copy.

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

A few years ago I was captivated by Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s novella I Was Jack Mortimer, a fast-moving, offbeat crime story set in 1930s Vienna. I read it pre-blog but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere (especially since the release of a new edition in the Pushkin Vertigo livery towards the end of last year). Back in November 2015 Pushkin Press published another of Lernet-Holenia’s works, Mona Lisa, which I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas. It’s hugely enjoyable story told with much wit and verve, a perfect gift for lovers of art and literature.

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As the novella opens towards the end of 1502, the King of France is dispatching his Marshal, a certain Louis de la Trémoille, to Italy to assist two French governors following heavy losses at the hands of the Spaniards. King Louis XII assures La Trémoille that he will be ‘showered with glory,’ as he leads the French army to victory, spreading grandeur far and wide in the process. While the King is willing to fund the trip from the municipal reserves, he also trusts that La Trémoille will do everything in his power to recover the costs of the campaign, so much so that he leaves his Marshal with the following parting shot:

“…Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command…” (pg. 11, Pushkin Press)

Unlike an earlier Italian campaign – one that generated a significant haul of booty for the previous monarch – La Trémoille’s initial efforts give rise to very little in the way of money or valuable artefacts. As such he decides to spend a few days in Florence in the hope of procuring some suitable objects of art to placate the King. Despite finding art ‘a terrible bore’, La Trémoille hears of Leonardo Da Vinci’s reputation; and so, accompanied by a small posse of French and Italian noblemen, he decides to pay the great painter a visit.

It is at this point that the focus of Lernet-Holenia’s story shifts from La Trémoille to one of his companions, a young nobleman by the name of M. de Bougainville. During a highly amusing and somewhat farcical exchange between La Trémoille and Leonardo, Bougainville is charged with catching a fly in order to settle a difference of opinion. In so doing, Bougainville catches a glimpse of an unfinished painting, a portrait of a woman with a rare luminescence. It is, of course, the Mona Lisa, and Bougainville is instantly smitten.

The woman, whose face was turned towards the viewer, looked a little sideways to the left, where Bougainville stood, and she smiled. Her smile was enchanting and mysterious, as if glimpsed through fine shadows or a veil, though it exuded a luminosity which dazzled the eyes; and in the background, where sky-blue streams wound around huge mountains, the azure glow was more enchanting than the lustre of paradise. (pgs. 29-30)

Even though he has only seen her image for a few moments, Bougainville falls hopelessly in love with the woman in this painting, and so he questions Leonardo in an attempt to discover her identity. After a brief pause, Leonardo reveals the name ‘Giaconda’, adding that she is no one of consequence. On leaving the artist’s workshop, Bougainville probes the Florentines about this ‘Giaconda’ only to discover that the one possible candidate, Mona Lisa (the wife of a local gentleman named Giacondo), died some two or three years ago. Bougainville is crestfallen; he is desperate to believe that the woman at the heart of Leonardo’s painting is not Giacondo’s wife but another woman, a woman who might still be alive. Consequently, he decides to pay Leonardo another visit. On further questioning Leonardo maintains that his painting depicts Giaconda; and so Bougainville implores the painter to tell him everything he knows about the woman whose enigmatic beauty has captured his heart:

 “Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves…” (pg. 40)

In spite of everything he has heard, Bougainville remains convinced that his Giaconda is still alive, a belief that only strengthens when he sees the painting once again; after all, as he says to Leonardo, that smile appears to be immortal. Here is a snippet from the painter’s response.

“…Every smile is a mystery, not only of itself, but in every other respect too. But I have no clue to this mystery. I know not what she is smiling at. […] Only the real is perfect.” And after a pause he added, “Not until the woman in this painting becomes real will it be said that she really smiles.” (pg 42)

Coming in at around eighty pages, Mona Lisa is a brief yet very satisfying story. As such, I’m a little wary of revealing too much about the plot. Let’s just say that Bougainville goes on a mission to discover whether his Giaconda is actually dead or still alive, a sequence of events that results in all manner of mayhem for our protagonist and his companions.

This is a very entertaining tale of the captivating power of art, of how we project our own emotions and feelings onto the images we see before us. It’s a charming tale about love, life, and the search for beauty. There are other pleasures to enjoy too, not least in the author’s descriptions of the Florentine milieu. In this scene, Bougainville is visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce in search of Giaconda’s tomb.

It was about midday when, accompanied by a servant who carried a garland of dark red roses, he entered the church. The Mass that was in progress was for late risers, the “scented Mass” as it was known, attended by richly turned-out and heavily perfumed nobility who actually came only to see and be seen, to criticize, to laugh and to gossip. As for the priest and what went on at the altar, no one bothered in the slightest. (pg. 45)

As well as being a very prolific novelist, Lernet-Holenia was also a screenwriter, and it shows in Mona Lisa; with its witty storyline and lively dialogue, this story would transfer very well to the stage or screen.

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Before I finish, just a few words on the physical book itself. This lovely Pushkin Press edition is beautifully illustrated by the graphic designer Neil Gower, whose wonderful little sketches are dotted throughout the story. As per usual with books in the Pushkin Collection, it is a gorgeous little thing – definitely something to treasure.

Grant (of 1streading) has also reviewed this novella.

Mona Lisa is published by Pushkin Press – first published in German in 1937. Source: Personal copy.