Monthly Archives: August 2021

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published in 1931, Father has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their excellent Women Writers series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. While it isn’t as well-known as some of von Arnim’s other novels, there is much to enjoy here, not least the author’s skills in exploring the limitations of women’s lives with humour and compassion. In essence, it is a story of domestic tyranny revolving around two oppressive relationships – one between a thirty-three-year-old spinster and her dictatorial father, the other between a mild-mannered clergyman and his selfish older sister.  

The novel’s central character is Jennifer Dodge, who at thirty-three has devoted much of her adult life to keeping house for her widowed father, the successful writer Richard Dodge (referred to throughout as ‘Father’). In addition to her domestic duties, Jennifer also acts as Father’s unpaid secretary, diligently typing his manuscripts in their claustrophobic Gower Street home. Right from the very start of the novel, von Arnim leaves the reader in no doubt about the nature of Father and his attitudes towards his daughter. He is a selfish prig, content for Jennifer to pander to his every whim while simultaneously viewing her as something of a burden.  

It was her duty to make the best of herself, if only because his eyes so frequently were obliged to rest on her face. Besides, it was every woman’s duty to make the best of herself, and Jennifer’s not doing so no doubt accounted for the fact that she was still on his hands. Off those hands she ought, of course, to have been long ago; yet if some man had reft her from him before he was ready, as now, for her to go, it would have been extremely awkward, father knew; he couldn’t have run his house without her; his work would have suffered considerably; In fact he was unable to imagine what would have become of him. (p. 8)

When Father suddenly marries a much younger woman in secret, Jennifer sees an opportunity to escape from his clutches, envisioning a new life for herself in the freedom of the countryside. With Father and the nineteen-year-old Netta safely packed away on a month-long honeymoon, Jennifer travels to Sussex, determined to rent a cottage to establish her new life. There is a previous inheritance of £100 a year for Jennifer to live on – not much, granted, but just about enough if she is prudent and resourceful.

She was, she was sure, infinitely flexible, able to fit into the humblest little corner and enjoy herself in it, if only she could she be in it alone. Freedom, personal freedom, the right to be alone, was what she wanted, and what she now so miraculously had got; the power to behave naturally, to make one’s own arrangements, to decide (it seemed a little thing but was, she was certain, the whole difference between vigour and wilting) what one would do next. (p. 22)

After a farcical incident with a coat at the first prospective property, Jennifer strikes lucky at the second, securing a rather run-down cottage in Cherry Lidgate for a minimum of six months. The property is managed by the local vicar, twenty-seven-year-old James Ollier, whose older sister, Alice – also a spinster, but very different in mindset and temperament to the amiable Jennifer – is the other tyrannical character in the novel. While Jennifer sets about furnishing her new home, enjoying the freedom to do as she pleases, Alice starts to ponder the security of her own position. What if James were to develop a fondness for Jennifer? Where would that leave Alice, dependant as she is on her younger brother for a home?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James and Jennifer do find comfort in one another’s company, each viewing the other as a kindred spirit of sorts. Consequently, Alice tries her best to monopolise her brother, spiriting him away to Switzerland on the pretence of a holiday – a trip that proves exasperating for James, strengthening his determination to forge a future with Jennifer.

As Simon Thomas highlights in his excellent afterword to the novel, both Jennifer and Alice are largely dependent on men for their livelihoods. While Jennifer is attempting to break free, her position remains somewhat precarious, especially once it transpires that Father expects her to live at home, despite his new marriage. Netta, it seems, is incapable of managing the household, leaving Father fearful of domestic chaos and disorder. Alice too is dependent on a man for her existence, although the power dynamics in this relationship are quite different to those between Jennifer and Father. Alice rules her brother with a rod of iron, dismissing him rather curtly with her regular cries of ‘bosh’. Nevertheless, despite her selfish, belittling tactics towards James, Alice realises that she would be exposed without him, reduced to a position lacking money, security and authority.

And quite apart from the fact that she owed her comfortable home and position, and her freedom from money cares to James, having ruled him since he was a baby he had now become necessary to her very existence—something to care for and to bully, to goad and to guard, something belonging to her, an object in life. What she would do without James, Alice, in her softer moments, couldn’t imagine. (p. 117)

Alongside the options for unmarried women, von Arnim explores other themes within the novel – freedom, selfishness, love and perhaps most importantly, the tension between individual desires and familial responsibility – all with her characteristic blend of insight and wit. There are some wonderfully farcical scenes here, particularly between James and Alice – a tussle over a basket of apricots seems to typify the tensions between the two siblings, signalling their opposing positions towards Jennifer’s presence in the cottage. Moreover, it is a testament to the author’s skills with character that even the most unlikeable individuals will elicit the reader’s sympathy – to some degree at least.

At heart, Father is a charming novel that uses wisdom, humour and playful ridicule to convey some of the challenges faced by unmarried women in the early 20th century. While understandable from a technical point of view, the ending feels a little too neat, but that’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. It’s a delight to see it back in print.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Cost of Living – a luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention – is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. I’m not quite sure why I started with this middle volume, first published in 2018 – maybe its focus on a significant turning point in the author’s life particularly appealed. Whatever the reason, now that I’ve read Cost, my investment in the trilogy as a whole is well and truly sealed.

In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years. Levy is fifty at this point, and the book starts with her realisation that she no longer wishes to live with her husband, to be part of the traditional societal view of the woman as wife and mother – roles designated to women by a longstanding patriarchal society. But, to paraphrase Levy herself, why mortgage one’s life to someone else’s fear? It takes immense amounts of time, care and generosity to build a family home, to be the ‘architect of everyone else’s well-being’. However, when we no longer feel a sense of belonging in our family home, it is time to move on – to step out of the old story and invent a new one. 

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story? (p. 85)

It was time to find new main characters with other talents. (p. 87)

Consequently, Levy and her two daughters move from their dark, well-furnished Victorian house to a small but airy flat in a dilapidated North London building with poor heating and darkly ominous communal corridors, which Levy ironically calls ‘The Corridors of Love’. Here, Levy begins a new phase of her life, sometimes writing at night on the tiny balcony amidst the silvery sky and stars.

We were living with the sky from dawn to dusk, its silver mists and moving clouds and shape-shifting moons. (p. 24)

Many of the author’s reflections are intensely personal, offering the reader an insight into the emotions they inevitably trigger. Levy writes movingly her mother’s death from cancer, a tragedy that occurs within a year of the breakdown of the author’s marriage. We hear something of the mother’s backstory, too – a bright, glamorous, resourceful individual who worked hard to keep the family together when Levy’s father, an anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned in the 1960s for his political beliefs.

In many cases, it is the details that make Levy’s vignettes feel so vivid, often imparting a note of ironic humour amidst the undeniable poignancy. For instance, when her bag breaks, the chicken Levy has bought for dinner is run over by a car, leaving an indelible impression, both on the bird and on the reader’s mind. Each day, as her mother’s life is coming to an end, Levy diligently buys a particular brand of ice lolly (the only food her mother can consume) from a newsagent’s shop run by three Turkish brothers. During each visit to the shop, Levy clears the top of the brothers’ freezer of various assorted goods – mushrooms, shoe polish batteries etc. – to reach the treasured ice lollies, preferably the lime ones which her mother prefers. One day, however, the usual flavours have gone with only the bubblegum lollies remaining – a variety her mother subsequently rejects. The frustration Levy displays towards the Turkish brothers is both heartbreaking and wryly amusing – an entirely understandable outlet for the depth of her pain.

There are several brighter, more playful moments, too – like shards of light amidst the darkness of winter. For example, we learn how Adrian Mitchell’s eighty-year-old widow, Celia, offers Levy the use of her husband’s old shed as a writing retreat – a rather spartan habitat that Levy shares with her friend’s spare freezer. In relaying this and other stories, Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

Of course I wanted to instal a wood-burning stove in the shed (what was I to do with the freezer?) and live a romantic writer’s life – preferably Lord Byron’s life, writing poetry in a velvet smoking jacket, waiting for inspiration to ravish me as the fragrant wood crackled and popped, etc. (pp. 49–50)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few challenges, Celia’s shed proves to be a welcome refuge for Levy, enabling her to write with a new sense of liberty.

Reflections on various literary figures are threaded through the memoir, often entwined with Levy’s own thoughts on writing, womanhood and ways of living. Her artistic touchstones range far and wide from Emily Dickinson to Simone de Beauvoir to Margarite Duras. Duras feels particularly crucial in this context, offering inspiration on motherhood, our perceptions of ourselves and the general creative process.

Levy’s ideas on various social constructs form key elements of the text, particularly those on the perception (and suppression) of women in 21st-century society. She highlights how men often fail to mention a woman by name when referring to her in conversation, defining the woman by their relationship (e.g. my wife) or simply leaving her nameless, like spectral figure in the shadows. A chance encounter with a man at a party is particularly telling, signalling a lack of interest in women’s voices on the part of this writer whose specialism is military biographies. On introducing himself to Levy (who has only just arrived), this tall, silvered-haired author asks her to pass him a canapé – a request she shrewdly ignores while proceeding to change her shoes.    

He was tall and thin, possibly in his late sixties, and seemed to desire my company. He talked about his books for a while and how his wife (no name) was unwell at home. He did not ask me one single question, not even my name. It seemed that what he needed was a devoted, enchanting woman at his side to acquire his canapés for him and who understood that he was entirely the subject. (pp. 66–67)

Above all though, The Cost of Living is about discovering a new way to live – to move away from the life that someone else has imagined for us and embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. It is heartening to read of Levy whizzing around London on her e-bike – a sort of metaphor for liberation itself – navigating the challenges this break from marital security presents. Especially so when we see how wise and perceptive Levy is in her reflections on life – her honesty and unassuming nature really do come through.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

The Cost of Living is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is such a beautiful, evocative novella, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

The story takes place in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. Right from the start there is a particular ‘feel’ to the sister’s neighbourhood, a quietness and slower pace of life compared to the buzz of the inner city.

As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a hidden relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man named Marc Hermann, whom she met at her husband’s office. Very little seemed to happen between Claire Marie and Marc at the time – they met one another in secret a few times, mostly walking in the local parks and forests – and yet one senses a deep connection between them, despite the somewhat sinister edge.

She was almost sure that he was lying to her about a great many things, but she felt certain that he was alone and that his solitude was complete, so dense that she could perceive the space it occupied around him, and that solitude touched her heart. (p. 103)

At first, the story seems a relatively simple one; but as the narrative progresses, additional layers begin to emerge, enhancing the air of mystery surrounding these characters. There’s a sense of unspoken desire here, of missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. Both Jane Eyre and Chekhov are referenced in the novella, acting as touchstones for Barbéris’ story. Nevertheless, I don’t want to say too much about what developed between Claire Marie and Marc – in many respects, it’s probably best for readers to discover this for themselves.

What hopes, what expectations remained to her? What could still happen? Would the passing hours simply ‘wound’ her, one by one? (p. 74)

Barbéris excels in capturing the languid feel of a Sunday in the Parisian suburbs – the heaviness in the air; the dusky light as the afternoon slides into the evening; the appearance of raindrops on windows; the vivid colours of the trees with their autumn foliage.

Because the trees in the park were veterans planted long ago, they held up better. Their autumn foliage, with the shiny red, the buttercup yellow, the brilliant russet of certain varieties – exactly the same colour as the dried stems of the chrysanthemums people would leave in pots in cemeteries or decorate crossroads with – made patches of fantastic light when the shadows were settling in. (p. 60)

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a haunting, dreamlike novella – intimate and hypnotic in style. There is a sense of time expanding and then contracting again as Claire Marie recounts her story, a tale that very much reflects her passive, indecisive personality. As the narrator returns home late on Sunday evening, we are almost left wondering whether the afternoon was a dream, with Claire Marie representing an alter-ego of sorts, another side to the narrator’s life. There is an otherworldly aspect to the Ville-d’Avray suburb, a dreamscape that gives the novella an enigmatic feel throughout. Either way, it’s an absorbing read, ideal for a lazy Sunday afternoon as the light begins to fade.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy. (I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth event, which is running throughout August.)

Circles & Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

There seems to have been a mini trend towards the publication of group biographies over the past couple of years. Perhaps most notably Square Haunting, Francesca Wade’s luminous account of five fascinating women who found themselves living in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the first half of the 20th century. Wade’s biography is focused on two central aspects: a specific geographical area (the aforementioned Square) and a common theme (a quest for independent living and ‘a room one’s own’).

Like its Bloomsbury counterpart, Caroline Maclean’s group biography, Circles & Squares also zooms in on a particular area of London (in this instance, Hampstead) and a unifying theme (here it’s modernism). While Circles isn’t quite as eloquent as the Wade, it remains a fascinating read – not least for the array of modernist artists, architects and writers we encounter on the page.

The book is structured such that each chapter focuses on two or three individuals (typically featuring a romantically involved couple) working in a similar artistic space. So, in the opening chapters we have the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben and Winfred Nicholson, with other associated luminaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Walter Gropius following in subsequent sections.

Maclean opens in September 1931 with the coming together of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during a fortnight’s holiday in Happisburgh, a small village on the Norfolk coast. It’s an engaging opening, capturing the carefree mood generated by the freedom to work, interspersed with swimming, dancing and playing games on the beach. Ben (married with three young children at this point) and Barbara (also married) fall in love, sparking a relationship that continues for the next eighteen years.  

One of the things Maclean does particularly well in Circles is to capture the fluidity of these artists’ lives, the sense of like-minded souls gravitating towards one another, irrespective of the collateral damage to marriages and other relationships. For Winifred, the breakdown of her marriage with Ben gives rise to conflicted feelings, painful at first, although these wax and wane somewhat over time. By contrast, Ben holds onto his own ‘subjective truth’ throughout, viewing himself as the centre of things and morally correct.

Winifred’s unhappiness is painfully apparent, and it is not surprising that she felt conflicted at times. Ben, on the other hand, believed that by staying true to his feelings, everyone else would be happy, eventually. A close friend described how they ‘thought they were freeing themselves’ from bourgeois constraints, and ‘they thought there was no such thing as jealousy’ but ‘it didn’t seem to work out that way’. (p. 24)

For a while, Ben shuttles between Barbara in Belsize Park and Winifred (in various locations), with both women showing considerable patience and grace during a very trying period. Eventually however, Ben and Barbara move in together, mostly settling in Belsize Park, although Paris also features heavily here. Triplets come along in 1934, cementing their relationship further, and the couple finally marry in 1938, less than a year before the start of WW2.

Meanwhile, in the early ‘30s, another modernist movement is beginning to take shape in Belsize Park, focusing on architecture as the enabler of a new way of living.

Designed by the architect Wells Coates, a modernist white block of flats that looked a bit like an ocean liner was built over the winter of 1933 and the spring of 1934. The Lawn Road flats, known as the Isokon, were built to free people from the clutter of daily life, to release them from household chores. They did not need to cook or clean so that they could focus on more important things like art, politics or love. (p. 51)

The Isokon building (which some of you may be familiar with) is born out of a vision developed by the charismatic architect Wells Coates and the forward-thinking engineer Jack Pritchard. It’s another fascinating development – not only for its contribution to the British modernist movement but also for its ambition to facilitate an alternative lifestyle. The Pritchards, perhaps more than any other couple in the book, display a nonconformist approach to living. Their marriage is an open one (with Coates actively involved in an affair with Jack’s wife, Molly); and their attitudes to child-rearing are equally, if not more, progressive.

Maclean is mindful of conveying the various tensions involved in the development of the Isokon, ranging from the multitude of financial issues to the more ideological or emotional ones. As the author rightly points out, there is a degree of irony here, nicely captured in the following quote.

There was an irony in the fact that Molly, Jack and Wells wanted to free people from the chaos of their lives when their own lives were far from simple. (p.76)

Subsequent chapters focus on other key players in the modernist movement, all of whom coalesce around Hampstead at some point in the 1930s, leading to some sharing of inspiration and ideas. For example, the sculptor Henry Moore and his wife, Irina – both of whom were present during the pivotal Happisburgh holiday in September 1931 – spend the 1930s living in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, just around the corner from the Nicholsons. Other British artists and writers who feature prominently include Paul Nash, John Piper, W.H. Auden and Myfanwy Evans/Piper (editor of the abstract art magazine Axis). The rise and fall of various artistic movements are covered too – most notably Unit One, a group of sculptors, artists and architects looking to ‘bring together a diverse range of abstract modernism and surrealism’.

The tensions between the different facets of modernism that develop during the 1930s, particularly those pitting abstraction and surrealism, are also captured in the book. While Moore is something of a moderator, adopting an open-minded outlook on both schools of art, Ben Nicholson is highly singular in his approach, viewing abstraction as the only form of modernism worth supporting. (In reality, Nicholson wishes to ‘squash surrealism’; Moore, on the other hand, regards it as restoring a much-needed element of romanticism to art.)

It’s also interesting to note how many European émigrés in the modernist movement spend time in Hampstead during the decade in question. Architects such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design, and Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus leading light, also feature prominently – as do the artists Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy. 

In summary, then, Circles & Squares offers a fascinating insight into the bohemian world of modernism flourishing in Hampstead during this influential decade. By using Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as focal points for her treatise, Maclean explores the lives of the various luminaries who find themselves in the couple’s orbit. As these artists, architects and designers continue to push the boundaries of modernism in their work, new ways of living begin to emerge, defining a movement that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of art and creativity. With the outbreak of WW2 fast approaching, the momentum behind the group begins to dissipate in the final years of the decade, leaving us to reflect on what might have been had the war not taken place…

Karen has also reviewed this book, and I’m in agreement with her on its relative strengths and limitations – in particular, the downsides of trying to focus on a wide range of individuals. In addition, a little more coverage of the actual art or architecture itself wouldn’t have gone amiss. For example, at one point, we get a tantalising glimpse of Barbara piercing a hole in an abstract sculpture of pink alabaster to make her legendary Pierced Form. It’s a ground-breaking move that transforms certain aspects of 20th-century sculpture, opening up the form ‘to involve interior space’ – and yet, artistic details such as this are relatively few and far between.

Nevertheless, Circles offers some fascinating insights into this dazzling period of cultural history – definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the modernist movement. 

Circles & Squares is published by Bloomsbury; my thanks to Karen for passing on her review copy.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Cusk’s latest novel, recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, is narrated by M, a female writer – probably in her late thirties or early forties, certainly at a pivotal point in her life. M and her husband, Tony (the strong, silent type), live amid a remote, rural landscape within touching distance of the marshlands – somewhere in France, I think. The couple’s land also includes another property, the titular ‘second place’ representing one interpretation of the novel’s title (but perhaps not the only meaning of the term). Having demolished the original building and rebuilt it brick by brick, M and Tony now see the second place as a creative retreat, the kind of setting where writers and artists can hopefully find inspiration while choosing to remain distanced, should they so desire. 

Early in the novel, it becomes clear that M wishes to invite a male artist, L, to spend time in the second place. While M has not met this artist in person before, she feels deeply drawn to his work. Some fifteen years earlier, a chance encounter with L’s paintings at a Paris exhibition catalysed a moment of revelation for M, prompting her to leave her first husband and father of her daughter, Justine – now in her early twenties and living at home.

I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it. (pp. 12-13, Faber)

M writes to L, inviting him to spend some time at the retreat – and in time, following a few false starts, L accepts, suddenly confirming his arrival like a bolt from the blue. M’s hope seems to be two-fold: firstly, that L will be able to capture the essence of the marshlands, a place of ‘desolation, and solace and mystery’ (other artists have tried in the past without complete success); secondly, that L will unlock something at the centre of M’s soul, a recognition perhaps of her individuality.

However, when M and Tony go to collect L at the harbour, a surprise awaits. L has brought a companion with him, a beautiful young English woman named Brett, who immediately unsettles M with her barbed, penetrating comments and invasion of personal space. To M, Brett also represents a rival for L’s attentions / affections, particularly with her liberated attitude and ‘ravishing’ looks.

While L presents as self-centred and cushioned from the realities of the world, he also evokes a sense of mystery and allure. For the narrator, the presence of L (and Brett as an uninvited interloper) destabilises her existence, causing M to question some fundamental self-perceptions, most notably her self-control and usual ability to reign everything in. Yet, while the emotions M experiences are deeply unnerving, there is a recognition of some potential positives, too – the opening up of new possibilities, a new form of liberty, perhaps.  

But I had already understood that this was to be the keynote of my dealings with him, this balking of my will and of my vision of events, the wresting from me of control in the most intimate transactions, not by any deliberate act of sabotage on his part but by virtue of the simple fact that he himself could not be controlled. Inviting him into my life had been all my affair! And I saw suddenly, that morning, that this loss of control held new possibilities for me, however angry and ugly and out of sorts it had made me feel so far, as though it were itself a kind of freedom. (p. 61)

As the scenario unfolds, a battle of wits plays out between these two individuals. M is confronted by the ‘compartmentalised nature’ of her personality, how she keeps things in separate chambers, ultimately deciding what to show to other people and what to conceal. L, it seems, has a knack for making others see themselves without being able to do very much about what is revealed. There is a sense that M’s self-perception of a life ‘built on love and freedom of choice’ is being challenged here, potentially revealing a weak kind of selfishness underneath. Throughout this dance, M vacillates between craving L’s affection and trying to protect herself against him, ultimately to the risk of her relationship with Tony.

There is much to admire in this elegantly constructed novel of discontentment, control and freedom – in particular, what ‘freedom’ represents for men vs women. (To M, L’s paintings convey an ‘aura of absolute freedom’, a freedom that is ‘elementally and unrepentantly male’.) Cusk’s prose is precise and beautifully judged, her observations on the psychological dynamics are sharp and insightful. And yet, reflecting on this novel as a whole, I’m not entirely sure what it’s trying to say. There are several very funny scenes here, not least given the tensions sparked by Brett and her presence in the mix. For instance, within minutes of meeting her hosts, Brett is touching M’s hair, declaring it to be ‘quite dry’ and suggesting ways to camouflage the grey discretely. Ouch!

Justine’s boyfriend, Kurt, is another source of amusement with his attempts to be a writer, complete with black velvet housecoat and red tam-o’-shanter hat. However, to view it as merely a social comedy or a standard novel of mid-life, middle-class discontentment might be too simple a reading. There seems to be something deeper going on here, more threatening in certain respects.

Perhaps Cusk is asking us as readers to consider our own lives, replete with their inherent facades and misconceptions? Prompting us to turn the mirror on ourselves, as M might be hinting here through her questions to Jeffers (the intended recipient of M’s narrative account).

Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? (p.7)

Interestingly, the novel is set against the backdrop of some kind of recent global crisis. The economy has collapsed, resulting in a devaluation of L’s art, together with the disappearance of Justine’s and Kurt’s former jobs. Travel has also been severely restricted, possibly suggesting a nod to the current pandemic, although the specific nature of the catastrophe is never fully revealed.

At the end of the book, Cusk explains that her novel ‘owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico’. In her version, Cusk has chosen to cast a painter (L) in the notional role of Lawrence, but the book is intended to be a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. As I understand it, Luhan and Lawrence had a fractured relationship, with Luhan oscillating between devotion and a form of retreat. The sense of emptiness she experienced in his absence was keenly felt. As a consequence of the visit, Lawrence threatened to ‘destroy’ Luhan – and this element of danger is mirrored in the Cusk.

Dorian has also written about the book here – a perspective that is well worth reading, particularly given his familiarity with D. H. Lawrence’s life and work.

Second Place is published by Faber; personal copy.

The Shooting Gallery by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

First published in English in 1988, The Shooting Gallery is a collection of eight short stories by the acclaimed Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima (daughter of Osamu Dazai, also a renowned author). When viewed as a whole, the book is very much of piece with Tsushima’s other work, much of which is concerned with single mothers – modern women who defy the conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood, a stance which tends to place them on the margins of traditional society. (You can read my thoughts about Tsushima’s excellent novellas Territory of Light and Child of Fortune by clicking on the relevant links.)

In several of these stories, the central protagonist is a somewhat isolated mother, typically divorced or separated from her previous partner, often struggling to balance her desire for freedom with the responsibilities of raising children with little or no support. While Tsushima’s prose appears clear on the surface, there is a subtlety to it, a sense of mystery or elusiveness that adds to its beauty.

In the titular story (from 1975), a single mother – previously abandoned by her husband – takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside for a day out. During the train journey, the two boys, aged seven and four, spend most of their time squabbling with one another in their impatience to get to the sea. (It is abundantly clear from the start that the boys are something of a handful.) Further frustration ensues once the family arrive at their destination. It is April, very early in the season, and several of the local attractions are closed. The beach itself is deserted, smelly and littered with rubbish – hardly the picturesque setting the children were promised. As the mother searches for somewhere suitable to have lunch, the boys become increasingly cranky, highlighting the challenges of single motherhood and the constraints this situation imposes. 

Tsushima makes excellent use of imagery in this story, ranging from the variety of associations suggested by the sea to the mother’s daydream of a winged dragon – the latter acting as a metaphor for freedom and a means of escape.

During The Shooting Gallery, the mother reflects on the fact that her children don’t really know their father; in essence, the man is so ‘absent’ from the family that as far as the boys are concerned, he may as well not exist. This feeling of dissociation or abandonment is also very present in The Silent Traders (1982), in which a divorced mother arranges an opportunity for her two children to see their father after a long absence. In essence, she considers it important that the children interact with him as a living, breathing individual – not just a static photo that never moves or speaks. The father, however, has clearly moved on, his new family being the sole focus of attention…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought in confusion, unable to say a word about the children. He was indeed their father, but not a father who watched over them. As far as he was concerned the only children he had were the two borne by his wife. Agreeing to see mine was simply a favour on his part, for which I could only be grateful. (p. 43)

One of Tsushima’s strengths is her ability to capture the differences in emotional investment on the part of women vs men. While the mother sees the importance of her children spending time with their father, her ex-husband does not.

Other stories in the collection explore slightly different aspects of marriage and/or motherhood. In Missing (1973)one of my favourite narratives in the book a mother waits anxiously for her teenage daughter to return, fearful that she might have left for good. As she tries to distract herself from the situation, the mother reflects on her sister, whose seventh-anniversary service was earlier in the day. It’s a story of wasted talents, missed opportunities and a career put on hold – all for the sake of ‘three grubby children’, the sister’s only notable achievement while still alive.

The Chrysanthemum Beetle (1983) is a very interesting story, a tale of male jealously and the consequences of this insecurity for the women caught in its slipstream. As the narrative unfolds, Izumi, a young woman who lives with her widowed mother, realises she is in a three-way relationship with her lover, Takashi, and another woman, Nobuko. In this scene, Nobuko relates her theory about Takashi to Izumi when the two women meet for dinner…

He goes through life dreading his own jealous nature, so that as soon as he finds a relationship that take some of the pressure off – as I did, and you did – he can’t rest until he’s satisfied himself that the other person is jealous too. And while he’s at it he seems to lose his own balance. It’s both a disappointment and a relief when it turns out that we are jealous, and then he starts brooding over what makes us that way, which leads him into very deep water… (p. 71)

It’s a fascinating piece that blends contemporary scenarios with elements from classic Japanese myths and ghost stories, all woven together in the author’s lucid yet layered prose.  

Finally, in A Sensitive Season (1974) – the only story in the collection to focus on a male protagonist – a young boy, Yutaka, finds himself in the care of his Aunt Natchan, having being abandoned by his wayward mother.

One day Yutaka’s mother had turned up very pregnant; she has shut herself away at home for three years and then quite suddenly ran off leaving the child behind. It was then that his aunt had reluctantly given up her job at a kindergarten to become private nanny to Yukata and his grandfather, but perhaps what had worked at the kindergarten didn’t work at home, for she had soon dropped the cheerful expression she used to wear for the children and became nervy and silent instead. (pp. 6–7) 

When Natchan develops an interest in a man working at the adjacent house, Yutaka worries that he will be abandoned once again – left to fend for himself and his invalid grandfather. It’s another story that explores the balance between familial obligations and personal independence – made all the more interesting in this instance due to the way Natchan is painted, i.e. as a rather unsympathetic character who views her dependents as annoying.

In summary, The Shooting Gallery is an excellent collection of stories, very much in line with Tsushima’s other (better-known) work. While the female protagonists are shaded and nuanced, frequently reflecting on their relationships, both past and present, the men tend to be more ambivalent in their emotions, often placing themselves at a distance from their ex-wives and children. There is a haunting, melancholy tone to some of these pieces that augments the feeling of alienation. A beautiful collection of stories about the challenges of single motherhood and the desire for a degree of liberty, this is a book that deserves to be back in print.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation #WITMonth – more info here.

Valdesil Montenovo Godello 2019 – a Spanish white wine for #SpanishLitMonth

Seeing as Stu’s Spanish Lit Month has been extended from July through to the end of August, I thought I would sneak in a brief wine post to tie in with the event before the month runs away with me! Luckily, white wines from Spain form much of the backbone of my summer drinking – alongside Italian whites and my beloved rosés, of course.

Galicia, in northwest Spain, is an area famed for its albariño – a crisp, citrusy white wine, often displaying a minerally edge. (I’ve written about this grape variety in the past – mostly recently in 2016, also as a nod to Spanish Lit Month, by chance.) Nevertheless, albariño isn’t the only grape variety Galicia has to offer; there is godello, too, a white wine with a little more body or ‘weight’ than its regional stablemate.  

Valdesil Montenovo Godello (2019) is an excellent example, an unoaked wine that hails from the Valdeorras Denominación de Origen (reputedly the best region for this particular grape). The vineyards in the Valdesil estate are worked by hand, with the Montenovo being the youngest, freshest expression of godello this winery produces.

In terms of flavour profile, there are notes of pear, peach and apple here, maybe with a touch of something minerally too. It’s a little reminiscent of unoaked white Burgundy – a more interesting, layered version, perhaps? A very well-balanced wine with enough body to stand up to chicken, garlic and a bit of chilli heat. If you like unoaked chardonnay but have never tried godello, I can only encourage you to give it a go – hopefully you’ll enjoy it too!

I bought this wine from The Wine Society, where the 2020 vintage is currently available at £12.50 per bottle. (Disclosure: I have a link to The Society, so the vast majority of my wines are purchased there.) Alternatively, you can use Wine Searcher to look for stockists of this wine and other gorgeous godellos!

And if you’re looking for something to read while sipping a Spanish wine in the garden, here are the links to my latest reviews for Spanish Lit Month:

Ana Maria Matute’s The Island (tr. Laura Lonsdale), a darkly evocative coming-of-age novel that draws on the blistering heat of Mallorca to great effect; and a round-up post on my other reading recommendations, including books by Javier Marías, Valeria Luiselli, Enrique Vila-Matas, and many more. Happy reading (and drinking) for Spanish Lit Month!

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti among others in the 1940s and 50s. Moreover, it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast, which she viewed as her spiritual home. In his excellent afterword to the novel, Sapienza’s husband, Angelo Pellegrino, conveys the history behind Meeting in Positano and his wife’s relationship with the region, offering us a window into the past. The novel was written in 1984 but failed to secure an Italian publisher until 2015, nearly twenty years after Sapienza’s death. All credit then to Other Press for issuing this radiant translation by Brian Robert Moore – it really is a very evocative read.

The novel, which is narrated by a young woman named Goliarda, has a semi-autobiographical feel, tapping into Sapienza’s world of 1950s Italy. During a visit to Positano, while scouting for locations for a film, Goliarda glimpses a beautiful woman, flitting around the café bars and restaurants of the village, holding onlookers in her sway. The woman in question is Erica Beneventano, known locally as ‘Princess Erica’, a charming widow from a (once) very wealthy family. While Goliarda doesn’t meet Erica in person during the trip, she remains captivated by this vision of loveliness, like a destiny she is yet to meet.

…that curious creature whom everyone in Positano loved—something already rare in and of itself—always fluttered at the edges of my imagination, like a meeting that I could not miss. (p. 15)

Sometime later, when Goliarda returns to Positano for a break, she comes across Erica on the beach, sparking a friendship that ultimately lasts for several years. Following their chance encounter on the beach, Erica invites Goliarda to her housea luxurious mansion with a secret bolt-holewhere the two women talk about culture, politics and art, the latter being a topic particularly close to Erica’s heart. Unsurprisingly, Goliarda is enchanted by her intelligent companion, leading to an intimate (although not explicitly sexual) bond between the two women.

Like that sunset or Giacomino’s personality, she too is eternal—with her timeless gesturing, her melancholy as old as the world itself. Or her beauty, which every hour is renewed and changes its appearance: sometimes a slightly withered flower, sometimes a soft cloud, or—as it is now—a beautiful, colourful orange, pulsing with a joy for life. (p. 78)

During their discussions, Erica shares with Goliarda the story of her rather eventful life, with Sapienza skilfully shifting her focus from one central character to another as the novel unfolds. Erica, it seems, is the middle sister of the Beneventano family, whose wealth and land were lost by the men of her father’s generation. Rewinding to the time of their parents’ deaths, we find the sisters have been left virtually penniless, necessitating their move to a small apartment in Milan, where Erica and her older sister Fiore must work to earn a living. Tragedy strikes when Fiore commits suicide, no longer able to cope with the narrowness of her life. It’s a development that acts as a clarifying filter for Erica, revealing the misguided nature of their previous highly privileged lives, cocooned from the realities of the outside world.

A reconciliation between Erica and her estranged Uncle Alessandro swiftly follows, ultimately resulting in her marriage to Alessandro’s business associate, Leopoldo; not out of love but for financial security, leaving Erica’s younger sister, Olivia, free to marry for more romantic reasons.

Erica reveals her previous experiences of love as largely unhappy ones, highlighting her marriage to Leopoldo as a prime example of this emotional state. To say anything more about the nature of the couple’s marriage would be unfair of me at this stage (I’ll leave you to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read this excellent book). Suffice it to say that the relationship contributes to the air of darkness surrounding Erica, a hint of something unsettling that Goliarda clearly detects. As Goliarda notes at one point, Erica seems distanced from those around hera sense of being dignified and deeply troubled at the same time.

As it so happens, I’m generally not shy with men or with women, so why this deranged feeling of uncertainty every time I see her? Is she too beautiful? Too full of passion? It’s fear, I conclude in a flash, remembering the near whiteness that gleaned from her eyes yesterday in front of the window. Am I afraid for her, or for myself? No, it’s for her that I fear something. (p. 32)

As the friendship between the two women evolves, Erica is reunited with Riccardo, her first love from the adolescent days of her youth. It’s another development that signals heartache for Ericaand ultimately for Goliarda, tooas events from the past come back to haunt her.

Sapienza has written a beautiful novel here, full of nostalgia and yearning for the enchantment of the past. It is at once a paean to the allure and intimacy of female friendship and a love letter to Positano itself, a village that exerts its pull over those who visit.   

“Positano can cure you of anything. It opens your eyes to your past suffering and illuminates your present ones, often saving you from making further mistakes. It’s strange, but sometimes I get the impression that this cove protected by the bastion of mountains at its back forces you to look at yourself square in the face, like a ‘mirror of truth,’ while this vast sea, usually so calm and clear, similarly inspires self-reflection…” (p. 130)

With its long sunsets, shimmering sea and rusted red cliffs, Positano is almost another character in the novel, casting a languorous spell over inhabitants and visitors alike. Again, there is a sense of the village exerting a kind of dominance or hold on people— ‘the more you solemnly announce your departure—the harder it becomes to leave’. As a former actress and a writer, Sapienza has a filmic eye for detail, conveying the Positanesi with ease and authenticity.

Giacomino Senior—legendary cook of Positano, who at ninety-five years old still basked on the sunny steps next to one of the large stone lions, at times looking like an in-the-flesh copy of those statues, especially when he’d doze off— (p. 9)

Her prose, too, is evocative and sensual, perfectly capturing the allure of Positano as the setting for this radiant narrative. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy. Meeting in Positano is a wonderfully elegiac book, full of subtlety and complexitythe more you read, the more profound it reveals itself to be.  

It’s also my first read for Meytal’s Women in Translation (#WITMonth) event, which takes place every Augustmore details about that here, along with my previous recommended reads for #WITMonth.