Monthly Archives: May 2017

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

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations alongside various British and American novels I had been intending to read for a while. The Adventures of Sindbad was one of my random picks, a collection of interlinked stories by the Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy (the pieces were originally published in journals/magazines from 1911 to 1917 and then collated together in this volume in 1944). Krúdy was something of a literary star in his day, producing over fifty novels and some three thousand short pieces before his death in 1933. The Adventures of Sindbad comprises a series of stories and sketches featuring the titular character, Sindbad, a sort of Hungarian Don Juan, whose reminiscences of times past are recounted in this somewhat strange and haunting book.

Right from the start, Sindbad is portrayed as a rather charming rogue, a serial seducer and heart-breaker who flits from one desirable woman to another whenever the mood takes him. He loves the thrill of the chase, the constant stalking of his prey, so much so that he has a tendency to lose interest once the lady in question is within his grasp. If there was ever a quote that typified a character’s modus operandi, then this must surely be it:

His whole long life he had been ‘my darling’ to two or three women at any one time. He wouldn’t leave a woman in peace until she had fallen in love with him. And that was why he had spent one tenth of his life waiting under windows, gazing longingly, humbly, unhappily or threateningly. He had a genius for observing women, for following them secretly and discovering their hopes, secrets and desires. Sindbad spent so much time standing motionless, listening to the whirring of sewing machines in small suburban houses, or taking a carriage in order to follow another carriage that galloped along bearing a sweet-scented woman in a wide hat, or stealthily watching a lace-curtained window lit up for the night, or observing a woman at prayer in the church and trying to guess who or what she might be praying for, that sometimes he barely had time to pluck the fruit he coveted. He tired of the business: some new adventure attracted him, excited his blood, his dreams, his appetite, so he failed to complete his previous mission. And thus it was that in the course of his life some eleven or twelve women waited for him in vain, at rendezvous, in closed carriages, on walks through woods or at distant stations where two trains should have met. Sinbad wasn’t on the train, and the woman, that special one, would be standing hopefully at the window, watching from behind the curtains, frightened, wetting her dry lips with her tongue. And several trains would rattle by… (pp. 13-14)

Over the course of this book, Sindbad recalls the various women he has loved and lost over the course of his life. From peasant girls to countesses, from widows to actresses, Sindbad is hugely possessive over his conquests, often expecting them to remain faithful to him even when he has forsaken them for another. Here is a man with rather unrealistic expectations of his lovers, whose view of love is highly idealised, passionate and romantic. To Sindbad, love is everything; if there is no love, what is there left to live for?

He woke and the procession of dream women faded in the half-light of like a lantern carried by some housewife across a snow-covered yard on a winter evening. For a while the glow of the lamp may be seen against a wall or haystack; a dark-haired female figure sways on the ripples of darkness, then the last woman, bright-eye, wearing a feathered hat, finally disappears in the far distance – leaving Sindbad alone with his heartache. And shortly after this he began to feel ever more certain that very soon, perhaps within the hour, he would die. (pp. 28-29)

While there is little plot to speak of here, the sketches are packed full of vivid images. Pictures of these characters in their natural surroundings come to life in Krúdy’s hands.  Sinbad is especially fascinated by his conquests’ clothes. In his eyes, all women look the same when they are naked – but when they are dressed in all their finery (or not-so-finery), that’s another matter altogether. He has a penchant for a finely turned ankle, especially when it is clothed in a delicate stocking.

Sindbad could still see the trace left by his kiss on the fading velvet of her lips: amorous farm-girls’ bodies left just such marks among the meadow flowers, their contours still apparent on the crushed lawn. The white neck which craned so curiously from the black dress was like a bird’s neck twinkling under the black velvet ribbon, the pocket of her coat was warm and lined with cat fur and made a little nest into which Sindbad slid his hand to find hers. (pp. 63-64)

Hungary suffered heavily in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, and I think it’s possible to detect a sense of this pain in Krúdy’s stories. As George Szirtes explains in his excellent introduction to the NYRB edition of this book, the country lost two-thirds of its land and one-third of its population to neighbouring territories when the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon were agreed. Krúdy’s tone is highly melancholy and elegiac; the veil of nostalgia lies over every story, and the shadow of death – suicide, in particular – is never far away. (Sinbad is heavily preoccupied with his own mortality, and thoughts of his impending death feature in several of his reminiscences from the afterlife.) Interestingly though, Krúdy’s style could also be described as modernist, a feature that provides a fascinating contrast to the long-established, traditional world he depicts in these sketches. There are early elements of magical realism here as Sinbad’s spirit comes back as a sprig of mistletoe; and then he wonders whether it might have been more interesting to return as an ornamental comb instead – perhaps so. Either way, there are playful notes in some of these stories, ironic touches that serve to balance some of the underlying sadness and sense of loss.

I think I heard about this book via Emma at Book Around the Corner. As Emma quite rightly points out in her excellent billet – do read it – these stories need to be spaced out over time. There is some wonderful writing here, sumptuous and evocative in style; but as with anything rich, it is best consumed in small doses. If I have a criticism of these pieces, I would say that for me they lack an element of differentiation. After a while, there is a tendency for several these individual romantic encounters to merge into one. For the most part, the objects of Sindbad’s attention are lightly sketched in terms of character/personality, an approach that doesn’t always make it easy to distinguish one story from the next. Nevertheless, I’m glad I decided to read this collection; I think it would suit lovers of European literature, particularly those interested in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. Fans of Gaito Gazdanov’s work should take a look at these stories too; there are some interesting parallels between these writers, particularly in terms of tone and themes.

The Adventures of Sindbad is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

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

First published in 1962, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the probably the best-known novel in the Italian writer Giorgio Bassini’s series of works about life in his native Ferrara, a city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romana. You can find out more in these introductory pieces by Dorian and Scott who are co-hosting a readalong of the book over the course of this week.

The story opens with a prologue set in 1957 in which the novel’s unnamed narrator is out for the day with friends. On their way back from the seaside, the group decides to stop at an Etruscan necropolis near Rome, and a young girl named Giannina asks her father why these ancient tombs do not seem quite as melancholy as more recent ones. Her father replies that it is because the Etruscans died so long ago, almost as though ‘they had never lived, as if they had always been dead’. By contrast, we can still remember the people who died fairly recently; hence we feel closer to them and miss them more acutely. Giannina then points out to her father that by virtue of their conversation, she has been reminded that the Etruscans were also alive once – and so their lives are given weight and recognition in her mind, just as much as those of the more recently deceased. It’s a poignant scene, one that triggers a series of memories for the narrator as he reflects on the time he spent in the company of his own lost loved ones, the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family from Ferrara, who played an important part in his youth. There was the kindly Professor Ermanno and his wife, Signor Olga, their rather sensitive son, Alberto, and, most importantly of all, the beautiful, mercurial daughter, Micòl, with whom the narrator (also Jewish) was so tragically in love.

At the end of the prologue, Bassani reveals that all the remaining members of Finzi-Contini dynasty perished at the hands of the Nazis in 1943, deported to the concentration camps where they were unlikely to have received any kind of burial at all. Hence the stage is set for this deeply poignant and elegiac novel, a beautiful hymn to a lost and gilded world, one that was ultimately swept away by the dark forces at play during WW2.

Winding back in time to the late 1920s, the Finzi-Contini household seems to have set itself apart from the rest of the Jewish community living in Ferrara at the time. The family are wealthy, privileged and rather aloof – or at least, that’s how they are perceived by others, most notably the narrator’s father who, among other things, pours scorn on Alberto and Micòl’s playful behaviour during services at their local synagogue. While the narrator and his contemporaries attend the public school, the young Finzi-Continis are privately educated at home, to be glimpsed only occasionally at exam time and, during the early years, at their place of worship. The family estate is magnificent, a large house surrounded by acres of land – the famed garden of the book’s title – all enclosed within a vast protective wall. To the narrator, there is an air of separation and rejection about the Finzi-Contini estate; and yet there is something fascinating and intimate about it too. Oh to be admitted to the secluded garden of Eden, what a privilege that would surely turn out to be!

Well, the young narrator almost gets his chance one day in 1929, while seeking an escape after a poor result in his maths exam he encounters Micòl Finzi-Contini peering over the top of the garden wall. It’s a glorious moment, one that lives long in his memory for many years to come.

How many years have gone by since that far-off afternoon in June? More than thirty. Nevertheless, if I close my eyes, Micòl Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over the wall of her garden, looking at me, and speaking to me. She was hardly more than a child, in 1929, a thirteen-year-old, thin and blond, with great, pale, magnetic eyes. I, a little boy in short pants, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a minor scholastic mishap was enough to plunge into the most childish desperation. We stared at each other. Above her, the sky was a uniform blue, a warm sky, already of summer, without the slightest cloud. Nothing could change it, and nothing has changed it, in fact, in my memory. (p. 33)

In spite of Micòl’s encouragement to join her in the garden, the narrator never manages to make it over the wall that day, a point that foreshadows the arc of his future relationship with the girl. Instead, the narrator has to wait almost another ten years before being invited into the grounds, this time by Alberto, largely on the assumption that he has been forced to resign from the local tennis club on account of his status as a Jew. The time is October 1938, around two months after the declaration of the racial laws which, among other punitive measures, prohibit Jews from frequenting recreational clubs of any kind. What follows for our narrator is a luminous Indian summer, a glorious sequence of days spent playing tennis, relaxing in the sunshine, and exploring the Finzi Contini’s garden largely in the company of the alluring Micòl.

We were really very lucky with the season. For ten or twelve days the perfect weather lasted, held in that kind of magic suspension, of sweetly glassy and luminous immobility peculiar to certain autumns of ours. It was hot in the garden; almost like summertime. Those who wanted could go on playing till five thirty and even later, with no fear that the evening dampness, already so heavy towards November, would damage the gut of the rackets. At that hour, naturally, you could hardly see on the court any longer. But the light, which in the distance still gilded the grassy slopes of the Mura degli Angeli, filled, especially on a Sunday, with a far-off crowd (boys chasing a football, wet nurses seated knitting besides baby carriages, soldiers on passes, pairs of lovers looking for places where they could embrace), that last light invited you to insist, to continue volleying no matter if the play was almost blind. The day was not ended, it was worth lingering a little longer. (p. 56)

Earlier I alluded to the tragic nature of the narrator’s love for Micòl: tragic because we know from the outset that Micòl dies at the hands of the Germans; and tragic because this love is never reciprocated (or so it appears in the novel). There are times when the narrator could make his feelings known to Micòl, most notably when the pair seek shelter from the rain in a secluded coach house in the estate’s grounds; and yet he fails to seize the opportunity until it is too late. Like her family and everything they seem to represent, the beautiful Micòl remains somewhat elusive and out of the narrator’s reach.

Countless times, in the course of the following winter, spring, and summer, I went back to what had happened (or rather, had not happened) between me and Micòl inside Perotti’s beloved carriage. If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her—I told myself bitterly—perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went. Speak to her, kiss her; it was then, when everything was still possible—I never ceased repeating to myself—that I should have done it! (p. 81)

I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative. After all, this is not a plot-driven novel. It’s much more about character, atmosphere and mood; the recreation of a rarefied and evocative world, made all the more poignant because we know that virtually everything we see is about to be destroyed. Bassani’s prose is wonderfully evocative, rich in detail and ambience. There are some long, looping passages here which at times reminded me a little of some of Javier Marías’ writing.

While the novel has at its heart an intensely personal love story – imbued as it is with a strong aura of fatality – it is also a reflection of life for the Jews of Ferrara during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. We gain an insight into the political developments of the day, particularly through the character of Giampiero Malnate, a Communist friend of Alberto’s from Milan, who debates politics with the narrator during their visits to the Finzi-Contini household.

All in all, this haunting novel encapsulates the loss of many things: the loss of a love that was never meant to be fulfilled; the loss of a sheltered world of innocence and sanctuary; and perhaps most tragically of all, the loss of virtually a whole generation of humanity. While the overall mood and tone remain dreamlike and elegiac, Bassani never lets us forget the terrible impact of events to come. I’ll finish with a final passage, one that captures a sense of that feeling. In the following scene, the narrator is attending a Passover supper with his family – the racial laws have been in place for a number of months.

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny, who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory; (pp. 124-125)

Other bloggers participating in the readalong include Dorian, Scott, NathanielGrant, Max, Bellezza, Frances and Anthony – I’ll add links to their reviews as and when they become available.

My copy of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was published by Harcourt.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

It’s been a while since I last read any Evelyn Waugh (probably more than five years in fact), but the recent appearance in the TV schedules of the BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall prompted me to pick him up again. First published in the late 1920s, Decline and Fall was Waugh’s debut novel, a cutting satire which took as its target Britain’s class-conscious society, in particular, the establishment or powers that be and their outrageous codes of behaviour.

The novel focuses on a year in the life of Paul Pennyfeather, a rather naive but genial individual who gets caught up in a bizarre sequence of adventures which prove to be his undoing. Through no fault of his own, Pennyfeather is booted out of his college at Oxford for indecent behaviour after being stripped of his trousers by the drunken members of the Bollinger Club (a thinly veiled reference to the University’s notorious Bullingdon Club). A rather unfortunate turn of events given the fact that Pennyfeather, a theology student, was cycling back from a student union meeting at the time, minding his own business as usual. Under the circumstances, Pennyfeather’s guardian decides that he must discontinue his ward’s allowance, thereby leaving our protagonist in the unenviable position of having to find a job. So before long, Pennyfeather finds himself being interviewed for the role of junior schoolmaster at a bottom-of-the-league school in Wales, a position for which he feels totally unqualified.

‘But I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.’

‘It doesn’t do to be too modest,’ said Mr Levy. ‘It’s wonderful what one can teach when one tries. Why, only last term we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He’s doing very well, I believe. Besides, Dr Fagan can’t expect all that for the salary he’s offering. Between ourselves, Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School and School. Frankly,’ said Mr Levy, ‘School is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post. So far as I know, there are only two other candidates, and one of them is totally deaf, poor fellow.’ (pp. 16-17)

On his arrival at Llanabba, Pennyfeather encounters a strange assortment of oddballs and fools: there is the eccentric head, Dr Fagan, an absurd character who harbours delusions of grandeur regarding the relative standing of his school; then there are Dr Fagan’s daughters, the equally offbeat Flossie, and the briskly efficient Diana (or Dingy as she is fondly known); and last but not least, there are the other masters, a ragtag of misfits who prove to be just as unsuited to their jobs as young Pennyfeather. The standouts here are Prendergast (‘Prendy’ for short), a rather nervous former clergyman who gave up the cloth after being plagued by doubts, and the genial Captain Grimes, an ex-public school man who almost always ends up ‘in the soup’.  In this scene, Grimes is giving Pennyfeather the lowdown on his beleaguered colleague.

‘Prendy’s not so bad in his way,’ said Grimes, ‘but he can’t keep order. Of course, you know he wears a wig. Very hard for a man with a wig to keep order. I’ve got a false leg, but that’s different. Boys respect that. Think I lost it in the war. Actually,’ said the Captain, and strictly between ourselves, mind, I was run over by a tram in Stoke-on-Trent when I was one-over-the-eight. Still, it doesn’t do to let that out to everyone. Funny thing, but I feel I can trust you. I think we’re going to be pals.’ (pp. 26-27)

Oddly enough, virtually everyone Pennyfeather meets at the school exhibits a strong desire to open up to him, and so our protagonist gets to hear all their life stories whether he wishes to or not!

At first, Pennyfeather is daunted by the prospect of facing a classroom full of unruly boys, but he soon settles into a rhythm, especially once it becomes clear that he is not expected to teach them anything useful or relevant. The main idea is to keep the youngsters quiet.

‘That’s your little mob in there,’ said Grimes; ‘you let them out at eleven.’

‘But what am I to teach them?’ said Paul in sudden panic.

‘Oh, I shouldn’t try to teach them anything, not just yet, anyway. Just keep them quiet.’ (p. 37)

There are some wonderfully comic scenes in the first half of the novel, most notably those focusing on a landmark event in the school’s calendar, the annual Sports day. At a moment’s notice, Pennyfeather is put in charge of managing the full programme of races and contests, with the hapless Prendergast as referee and Captain Grimes as timekeeper. No expense is spared in preparing the refreshments for the occasion as Dr Fagan is keen to impress the visiting parents and the local dignitaries. Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan – not surprising really, especially given the head’s record at hosting these events in the past.

‘During the fourteen years that I have been at Llanabba there have been six sports days and two concerts, all of them, in one way or another, utterly disastrous. Once Lady Bunyan was taken ill; another time it was the matter of the Press photographers and the obstacle race; another time some quite unimportant parents brought a dog with them which bit two of the boys very severely and one of the masters, who swore terribly in front of everyone. I could hardly blame him, but of course he had to go. Then there was the concert when the boys refused to sing “God save the King” because of the pudding they had had for luncheon. One way or another, I have been consistently unfortunate in my efforts at festivity. And yet I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish. Perhaps, Pennyfeather, you will bring luck to Llanabba; in fact, I feel confident you have already done so. Look at the sun!’ (p. 58)

To begin with, Prendergast has one too many at the pub before the races get underway, and so he ends up firing the starting pistol into a boy’s foot by mistake. The boy in question, Tangent Circumference, is carried off to the refreshments tent where he is given a large slice of cake to quell his wailing. Then there is a dispute over the result of the six-furlong race when Lady Circumference accuses the winner, Percy Clutterbuck (the son of the owner of a local brewery), of having skipped a lap. Unsurprisingly, the Clutterbucks are far from impressed.

As the holidays approach, Pennyfeather receives an invitation from wealthy socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde (pronounced ‘Beast-Cheating’), mother of one of the more sensible boys at the school. He is to act as a private tutor for a few weeks, coaching her son, Peter, with extra lessons over the Easter break. The glamorous Margot has taken a bit of a shine to Pennyfeather following his exploits at the Sports day – and the schoolmaster, for his part, is also smitten. Little does our protagonist know that his trip to Margot’s residence in Hampshire will lead to even more trouble as once again he finds himself caught up in a scandal through little fault of his own. To say any more would probably give the game away, but suffice it to say that Margot isn’t quite as sweet or innocent as she appears at first sight.

I found Decline and Fall an enjoyable satire, albeit somewhat uneven in places, especially in the latter stages of the narrative. While the first half of the novel is tight and packed with viciously comic moments, the second seems more wayward. When the story moves away from the brilliantly-realised settings of Oxford and Llanabba, it loses its way somewhat, becoming sillier and more contrived in the process. Nevertheless, Waugh’s natural sense of comic timing remains impressive throughout. He has a keen ear for dialogue, too, especially in the scenes which are set within the confines of academia. For the most part, Waugh is aiming his sights at the establishment here – the badly-behaved privileged classes, the criminal justice system, even the Press – but there are times when it is hard to feel fully on board with his brand of humour. There are some unfortunate racial slurs here, mostly uttered by rather flawed characters whom we are invited to chastise; nevertheless, they do make for somewhat uncomfortable reading in today’s more enlightened age.

By the end of the novel, we come full circle as Pennyfeather returns to Oxford. Renewal is a running theme in the narrative with several of the characters reappearing in new guises at various points, desperately trying to reinvent themselves in the process. As an observer remarks to Pennyfeather in the closing stages of the story, ‘Now you’re a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others.’ He is talking about life here, a messy business at the best of times. Somehow or other, the innocent Pennyfeather was catapulted onto the great revolving wheel of life – imagine it as a wild ride at the fairground – and roundly thrown off again, almost immediately and with a severe bump. Maybe, just maybe, he can find his way back to solid ground.

Decline and Fall is published by Penguin Modern Classics; personal copy.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Another of my reads for the Classics Club, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is narrated by Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles Fairclough. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience – it is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heartwarming.

When young Sophia meets fellow artist, Charles, on a train, she soon falls for him against the backdrop of a glorious English summer. In spite of opposition from virtually everyone in Charles’s family, the couple marry very quickly and find a flat in North London which they furnish with secondhand pieces, all painted a beautiful duck-egg green. Their lifestyle is rather bohemian to say the least.

Right from the start, money is in very short supply. While Sophia has a regular job at a commercial studio, Charles considers himself to be a more ‘serious’ artist, reliant on the occasional commission or ad-hoc sale for income. In reality, he contributes next to nothing to the household finances – and when he does, it is quickly frittered away on luxuries such as paint, new brushes and restaurant dinners. For all her charms and initial optimism about married life, Sophia is rather naïve, and the first half of the novel is peppered with humorous moments as she tries to get to grips with marriage and running the house as well as being the main breadwinner in the family. Impractical advice from various members of Charles’s interfering family does little to help matters, especially when it’s delivered in a rather condescending fashion – here’s a typical example.

Although most of Charles’s relations came from Wiltshire they used to come to London very frequently. They all talked and asked questions about our financial position and took the line of “I hope you are looking after dear Charles properly”, or “What a lucky girl you are to have married into our family.” In those days I was too timid to say much, but I used to resent it all the more and sometimes, after they left, I would be nervy and resentful with Charles. Also they would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. They sent cuttings from the Daily Mail about how I could make sweets or gloves at home and make a fortune, or complicated rackets for Charles to sell note-cases to our friends on commission. As none of our friends had any notes, he wouldn’t have done very well from it. (pp. 20-21)

Things take a distinct turn for the worse when Sophia finally discovers she is expecting a baby (cue some amusing scenes as she wonders why she has been feeling poorly all the time). Charles is pretty horrified by the prospect of becoming a father, and Sophia herself has no real understanding of the practicalities of motherhood. In short, they are both completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel for Sophia when I read the following passage.

Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we were married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents—anyway, not for years. I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said “I won’t have any babies” very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong. (p. 26)

When Sophia informs her boss that she is pregnant, he responds by telling her she might as well leave at the next holiday. We are in the early 1930s here, many years before the introduction of maternity pay and employment protection for expectant mothers. With Sophia out of a job and Charles swanning about all day nurturing his artistic tendencies, the couple’s prospects are very poor indeed.

Much to Charles’s dismay, Sophia has a little boy which they name Sandro. He is a fragile little thing, very quiet and gentle and almost certainly malnourished. In spite of all this, Charles doesn’t warm to the child. Not for the first time, Comyns pulled me up short with one of Sophia’s revelations about life with her husband with all his blatant insensitivity.

Charles still disliked him [Sandro], but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from. (p. 64)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot. It might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that the situation gradually deteriorates over the course of the next couple of years. While there are occasional periods of brightness – an inheritance from Sophia’s aunt and the occasional commission for Charles provide brief respites from poverty – they are sporadic and relatively short-lived.  All too soon Sophia finds herself desperately scrabbling around for money again, a situation which leads to the re-emergence of tensions in the marriage. She is forced to find another job to support the family as Charles won’t (or can’t) hack it in a commercial studio. As the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable crisis point, the mood darkens considerably, and the humour that characterises the first half of the novel gradually falls away. In this scene, Sophia reflects on her first day back at work as a commercial artist. Once again, Charles’s selfishness is all too apparent…

The first day there, I had to walk to work because we had no money in the house. Charles promised he would bring some in time for lunch, but, of course, didn’t, and I was too shy of the other girls to borrow any, so I became rather hungry and when it was time to leave I waited to see if he would come to fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry, too. When I arrived home I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it. He did look startled. It was the first time I had done anything like that, and he was disgusted with me. I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologise, so just went to bed and wished I was dead. (pp. 100-101)

Hooray for Sophia! I think I would have sideswiped him with that chair, too.

This is an excellent novel, one that I enjoyed a lot more than I had expected to. For some reason, I had got it into my head that Comyns would be too left-field or eclectic for my tastes. How wrong could I be! I found Sophia a rather endearing narrator – yes, she is gullible and naïve, but she is also sympathetic and good-natured at heart. I couldn’t help but warm to her matter-of-fact, childlike narrative, a style that makes her revelations all the more shocking and impactful when they come, like little bolts out of the blue.

One of the things I like most about this novel is the way Comyns weaves various points of social commentary into Sophia’s story, all grounded in personal experience no doubt. There are some truly shocking and degrading scenes depicting Sophia’s treatment in the maternity wards following her admission to give birth. Several of the nurses are cruel and insensitive to her condition, and she is forced to carry her own suitcase from one room to another during a seemingly endless sequence of transfers through the hospital. The lack of proper care doesn’t end there either; this next passage highlights the lack of support and information available to young mothers following the birth.

We had no money at all and the milkman wouldn’t leave any milk because we hadn’t given him any money lately. He was quite nice about it and said we could have some free milk every day if we applied to the council. Mothers with new babies were allowed one pint a day if they had no money. The council went up in my estimation when I heard about this. Up till now I had thought it was almost a criminal offence to have a baby. All the same I did not apply for the free milk, because I was afraid they would take the baby away and put it in a home on the grounds of its parents having no visible means of support. (p. 65)

I’ve probably made this novel sound terribly grim, but it isn’t at all. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments here, especially in the first half of the book. More importantly, perhaps, we know from the opening page that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia. By the end of the novel, she is in a happier place having learnt some important lessons along the way. I guess that’s as much as any of us can hope for in life.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

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

Shortly before his death in 1957, the Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote The Professor and the Siren, a beguiling short story published here alongside two additional pieces: a brief sketch entitled Joy and the Law, and the opening chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens. Lampedusa is best known for his landmark historical novel, The Leopard, a book I have yet to read (it’s on my list for the Classics Club). In the meantime, I’m treating this slim collection as an appetiser, a little taste of things to come.

The titular piece, The Professor and the Siren, is the star of the show here, an enigmatic story of great elegance and beauty. Set in Turin in 1938, it is narrated by Paolo Corbera, a young journalist and a bit of a womaniser who is now seeking a brief respite from the fairer sex; unfortunately for the journalist, his attempts to maintain two separate lovers at the same time have recently come to the attention of the ladies concerned. In search of a retreat from his usual lifestyle, Corbera starts to visit a café in the heart of Turin, a traditional place frequented by members of the city’s old guard – colonels, magistrates, academics and suchlike. One evening, he notices a man at the next table, and his interest is immediately piqued.

On my right sat an elderly man wrapped in an old overcoat with a worn astrakhan collar. He read foreign magazines one after another, smoked Tuscan cigars and frequently spat. Every so often he would close his magazine and appear to be pursuing some memory in the spirals of smoke; then he would go back to reading and spitting. […] Once, however, he when he came across a photograph in a magazine of an archaic Greek statue, the kind with widespread eyes and an ambiguous smile, I was surprised to see his disfigured fingers caress the image with positively regal delicacy. (p. 3)

The two men strike up a conversation with one another, a dialogue that continues to develop over the course of a few weeks as the pair return to the café on a nightly basis. Corbera’s new friend is Senator Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies, a somewhat grumpy and insolent man who eschews pretty much everything to do with the modern world and the permissive society therein. In many ways, the two men are complete opposites: one is young, the other old; one is liberal in his views, the other scathing, particularly when it comes to the young women of the day. And yet they have one vital thing in common: both men hail from the beautiful, mythical island of Sicily.

So we spoke about eternal Sicily, the Sicily of the natural world; about the scent of rosemary on the Nebrodi Mountains and the taste of Melilli honey; about the swaying cornfields seen from Etna on a windy day in May, some secluded spots near Syracuse, and the fragrant gusts from the citrus plantations known to sweep down on Palermo during sunset in June. We spoke of those magical summer nights, looking out over the gulf of Castellammare, when the stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea, and how, lying on your back among the mastic trees, your spirit is lost on the whirling heavens, while the body braces itself, fearing the approach of demons. (pp. 10-11)

One evening, the professor decides to tell Corbera the story of an idyllic summer he spent in Augusta, Syracuse, many years earlier in his youth – a story he hopes will explain some of the reasons behind his rather idiosyncratic behaviour and philosophy towards life. While in Augusta, the young La Ciura spent many hours studying on a boat, gently rocking to and fro on the peaceful waters. One morning, ‘the smooth face of a sixteen-year-old emerged from the sea’, a movement that was accompanied by a pull on the side of the craft as the youngster gripped the gunwale. Naturally, the budding professor was transfixed by this image, one he describes to Corbera in intimate detail.

This, however, was not a smile like those to be seen among your sort, always debased with an accessory expression of benevolence or irony, of compassion, cruelty, or whatever the case may be; it expressed nothing but itself: an almost bestial delight in existing, a joy almost divine. This smile was the first of her charms that would affect me, revealing paradises of forgotten serenity. From her disordered hair, which was the colour of the sun, seawater dripped into her exceedingly open green eyes, over features of infantile purity. (p. 29)

What followed was an intensely passionate encounter between the pair, one that undoubtedly left its mark on the professor for the rest of his life.

This is a very sensual story of eternal love, yearning and loss in which Lampedusa’s use of language perfectly matches both the subject matter and the setting. It ends with a slight twist, finishing on a bittersweet note which leaves the reader with much to ponder, particularly about the intensity of certain moments in life. At times, I was reminded of some of the scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s beautiful film L’Avventura. It has a similar tone, I think. There are nods to classical Greek mythology too. Either way, this is an excellent story, worth the entry price of the collection alone.

The next piece in the collection, Joy and the Law, is a brief tale with a moral message at the centre. It features a hard-up accountant, struggling to keep himself and his family afloat in the face of mounting debts. Luckily, as it’s Christmas, our protagonist has just received his annual bonus, something that will keep the wolf from the door at least for the immediate future.

Contained in the wallet was 37,245 lire, the year-end bonus he’d received an hour earlier, amounting to the removal of several thorns from his family’s side: his landlord, to whom he owed two quarters’ rent, growing more insistent the longer he was thwarted; the exceedingly punctual collector of installment payments on his wife’s veste de lapin (“It suits you much better than a long coat, my dear, it’s slimming”); the black looks of the fishmonger and greengrocer. (p. 40)

In spite of this, the accountant seems more chuffed with his fifteen-pound panettone, a gift he has received for being the most deserving employee in the business. Nevertheless, our protagonist’s joy is somewhat short-lived. When he arrives home with his bounty, the accountant is reminded by his wife that there are also other debts to pay, those of a slightly different nature but equally important. This is an enjoyable little sketch, ironic in tone, a pleasant interlude between the other two stories in this volume.

The final piece in this collection, The Blind Kittens, was originally intended to form the opening chapter of a follow-up novel to The Leopard. Consequently, it is best viewed in this context – as an introduction that was to lay the groundwork for an epic story to follow. Sadly, Lampedusa never had the opportunity to develop the narrative any further due to his untimely death (he was just 60 years old when he died). Nevertheless, The Blind Kittens is well worth reading in its own right. As an opening passage, it sows the seeds of a tale of intrigue set within the context of the Ibba dynasty, an influential Sicilian family headed up by the rather formidable and unscrupulous virtual baron, Don Batassano. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that Don Batassano has just acquired another property to add to his empire. As Batassano’s lawyer, Ferrara, peruses a map of the Ibba family holdings, he reflects on the underhand means behind the various acquisitions over the years.

Ferrara stood up to take a closer look. From his professional experience, from countless indiscretions overheard, he knew well how that enormous mass of property had been assembled: an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of the laws, of implacability and also of luck, of daring as well. (p. 52)

Once again, this piece is very different in tone from the preceding two. It is sharper, more cutting in style, rich in both detail and texture. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s wonderful classic, The House of Ulloa, a novel I reviewed last year. What a shame Lampedusa never got the opportunity to finish this work – it could have been another masterpiece.

Guy and Karen have posted interesting reviews of this collection, just click on the relevant links to read them.

The Professor and the Siren is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.