Category Archives: Women in Translation

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. P O’Prey & L Graves)

Born in Galicia in 1851, Emilia Pardo Bazán was a leading exponent of Spanish Naturalism and a key figure in 19th-century Spanish literature per se. Her 1886 novel, The House of Ulloa is generally considered to be her masterpiece. My old Penguin Classics copy had been sitting on the shelves for a couple of years, but Grant’s enthusiastic reaction to the book on Twitter (following its recent inclusion in the Pocket Penguins range) prompted me to dust it off for Spanish Lit Month (now extended to August). I’m so glad I did. It’s a marvellous novel, a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions.

IMG_2873

The chaplain in question is Julián, a gentle, innocent and rather sensitive young man who is sent to the House of Ulloa in the Galician countryside in the hope that he will be able to act as a positive influence on the marquis of the manor, a libertine by the name Don Pedro. From the opening pages of the novel, one can detect a palpable sense of foreboding: Julián’s journey to the House hints at trouble ahead; the manor itself is an old ruin; and as for the marquis and the company he keeps, the chaplain appears to have his work cut out. Here are Julián’s impressions at the end of his first evening, a night featuring a bawdy supper where a young toddler is virtually forced into drinking copious quantities of wine by the various men of the house.

All the events of the day began to swim around in his mind. The nag that had almost thrown him flat on his face; the black crucifix that had sent a shiver down his spine; but above all the hubbub over supper and the drunken child. His first impressions of the people here were that Sabel was provocative, Primitivo insolent, the abbot a heavy drinker, over-fond of his hunting, and the dogs far too spilt. As for the marquis, Julian remembered what Señor de la Lage had said:

‘You’ll find my nephew rather rough around the edges. When you’re brought up in the country and never leave it, you can’t help being dull and churlish.’ (pgs. 16 -17)

As the previous overseer of the marquis’ business papers, the abbot has left everything in an unholy mess. With this in mind, Julián’s first task is to try to introduce some much-needed order into the affairs of the manor, a task that is easier said than done, especially when he comes up against Primitivo, the commanding majordomo of the marquis’ estate. While the marquis may be lord of the manor in terms of his title and position in the family, it is Primitivo who holds all the power over the local traders and tenants.

Every improvement Julián wanted to introduce, Primitivo would shrug his shoulders at and deem impossible. Every superfluous thing Julián tried to do away with, the hunter would declare indispensable for the smooth running of the estate. Innumerable small difficulties would rise up at the approach of the earnest Julián, preventing him from making any useful change. And the most alarming thing was to observe Primitivo’s disguised but nevertheless real omnipotence. Servants, tenants, labourers, even the cattle in the sheds, seemed to be under his thumb and well-disposed towards him. The flattering respect with which they addressed the master, and the half scornful, half indifferent way in which they greeted the chaplain, turned into utter submission when it came to Primitivo. Submission that was not expressed so much in words, but in the instant observance of Primitivo’s every wish, often expressed simply by a fixed cold stare of his small, lashless eyes. (pgs. 34-35)

Primitivo is a marvellous character, a rather sly fox who has been stealthily abusing his position within the marquis’ inner circle to line his own pockets, bleeding his employer dry in the process. On the other hand, the empty-headed marquis is under Primitivo’s thumb, totally dependent on his gamekeeper’s knowledge and influence to manage everything. And besides, there’s Primitivo’s daughter, a shapely servant girl named Sabel, who also happens to be the mother of the marquis’ illegitimate son, Perucho. (Young Perucho is the aforementioned wine-drinking toddler.) The marquis knows that any attempts to replace Primitivo will almost certainly come to a sticky end.

Horrified by the marquis’ fast and loose lifestyle, Julián finds himself in a quandary once he learns of the master’s liaison with Sabel and the details of Perucho’s parentage. As a man of the cloth, he cannot be seen to condone the marquis’ unholy actions by remaining at the manor. Then again, if he leaves, who knows what manner of bedevilment may ensue at the House of Ulloa, a place so desperately in need of an upstanding influence it hurts. As a potential solution to his dilemma, Julián convinces the master to move to the local town for a while, and a visit to the marquis’ uncle is arranged.

While staying with his uncle, the marquis is persuaded of the benefits of taking a virtuous wife, so he marries his young cousin, the kind and tender-hearted Nucha. Naturally Julián is delighted – at long last the marquis seems to be on a path to a brighter future. That said, the chaplain’s next challenge is to find a way of getting Sabel and the marquis’ illegitimate child away from the House of Ulloa, another task that proves much easier said than done.

When the marquis returns to the manor with his new bride, all is sweetness and light for a while, especially once the couple discover they are expecting a baby. A new, softer, more attentive side to the marquis emerges as he tends to the needs of his wife.

It seemed as though the marquis was slowly coming out of his rough shell, and his heart, so indomitable and selfish, was changing, letting the tender feelings proper to a husband and father show through, like little weeds peeping out of the cracks in a wall. If this was not exactly the Christian matrimony envisaged by the excellent chaplain, then it was certainly very close to it. (pg 131)

This doesn’t last for long though, especially once the baby arrives. Julián soon becomes Nucha’s closest ally in the house, acting as her confidante and protector whenever it is acceptable to do so. Moreover, he lives in constant fear of Nucha’s discovery of the true identity of Sabel’s son. The marquis’ wife has taken quite a fancy to the boy, allowing him to play with her own baby as the two children get along so well. Before long, Julián’s faith coupled with the particular nature of his character cause him to face another theological dilemma. I could say a little more about this, but will leave it there to avoid revealing too much about the plot.

The House of Ulloa is a terrific book, a hugely enjoyable story packed with marvellous characters and an abundance of juicy developments to sustain the reader’s interest throughout. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments too. Some of the novel’s most touching scenes feature the rather sheltered Julián as he tries his best to take care of Nucha and the youngsters in the household.

Set as it is against the backdrop of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, the novel also touches on the local politics of the day, a diversion which offers Pardo Bazán plenty of scope to explore the various underhand machinations of the district’s leading movers and shakers. After all, as she notes at one point, ‘politics is a cloak for self-interest, hypocrisy and lack of principle.’ In this next passage, she describes what happens when the marquis is persuaded by Primitivo to stand for election.

Ballot-papers were tampered with, and voting times were altered without notification. Forgery, intimidation and violence are not unusual during an election, but in this one they were combined with certain strokes of ingenuity that were entirely unprecedented. In one of the polling-stations, the cloaks of those voting for the marquis were secretly splashed with turpentine and set on fire with a match, so that the unfortunate men ran out shouting, never to return. (pg 216)

All in all, this book would make an excellent choice for the current Women in Translation Month, especially for readers interested in the classics. Alternatively, anyone looking for a damn good read should check it out. Highly recommended.

You can read Grant’s review here. Tom has also written about this novel here and here.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

Last year I wrote about La Femme de Gilles (1937), an early novella by the Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe. It’s an intensely powerful story of desire, pain and selfless love, all conveyed in the author’s spare yet beautiful prose. When Daunt Books announced they would be reissuing Marie (first published in 1943), Bourdouxhe’s follow-up to Gilles, I knew I wanted to read it. Luckily this book came along at just the right time for me; moreover, it turned out to be a great choice for Women in Translation month which is running throughout August.

IMG_2964

Like its predecessor, Marie focuses on the inner life of a young married woman. As the novella opens, thirty-year-old Marie is on holiday in the Cote d’Azur with her husband of six years, Jean, the man whom she loves with a profound sense of tenderness. One afternoon, while Jean is swimming in the sea, Marie notices a young man on the beach, most probably another holidaymaker; he is lean, tanned and muscular, and Marie is instantly attracted to him. The sight of this youth in his early twenties awakens something in Marie, more specifically ‘the realm of the possible; the fascination and excitement of a new world.’

A day or so later Marie heads out for a walk on her own with the intention of finding the attractive stranger again; it’s not long before she spots him on the beach. Even though the man strikes up a conversation with Marie, words are barely needed; they have already formed a deep connection.

They sit on the sand. They might have gone on talking; about the distant hills that unfold towards the sea, about a white villa the outline of which is visible among the cypresses. But what would have been the point? They know that there is nothing to say. They mutually accept this great silence, and the richness, the sincerity that lies within it. They also know that in that moment they are seeing everything from the same point of view and that, for both of them, that red sail on the sea stands out as clearly, as harshly, as cruelly, as the thing that is deep inside them. (pg. 17-18)

As they prepare to part, the young man gives Marie his phone number back in Paris, the city which is also home to Jean and Marie. As she watches him go, Marie feels completely alone, stranded between two opposing worlds: the safety and security of her life with Jean vs the possibility of new and uncertain experiences ahead.

Back in Paris, life continues as normal for Marie (at least at first) as she occupies her time with housework and the occasional session as a private tutor. Nevertheless, the young man from the beach remains in her thoughts. When Jean goes away on a business trip for a few days, Marie contacts the man. They meet up in a café, walk the streets of Paris for a while and take a room for the night.

To dwell any further on the plot probably isn’t necessary at this stage, plus it might spoil some of the experience of reading the novella itself. While things happen in the story, this isn’t an action-driven narrative; instead the focus is on experience, memories and introspection. As with La Femme de Gilles, Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to her female protagonist’s point of view. This is another richly realised portrait of the inner life of a woman at a pivotal moment in her life. To her friends, family and husband, Marie appears to be content in her marriage. At an early point in the novella, a female friend observes: ‘Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you’ve managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.’ Internally, however, Marie is far from at ease with herself, as illustrated by the following passage, one that appears later in the book. (Claudine is Marie’s rather melancholy and irresponsible older sister, a very different creature from the intelligent and capable Marie.)

And she’d stay there until the blue light of dawn came through the window. Thrown back on herself, she’d feel quite alone at the heart of a well-worn past – even though she had created such fine things. Jean, Claudine: links that did not want to expire, that tightened their hold in a final struggle as others tried to replace them.

‘Please, please leave me!’ She’d have liked to shout this in all the space around her. How she longed to have neither past nor future! And yet – on the one hand there were these still burning ashes and on the other there was this new thing, this thing that did not yet have a name. Like a warm beast that moved inside her, making its nest. (pg. 85-86)

As Marie reflects on the nature of her position, her mood varies quite significantly. There are instances when she seems lost and dissatisfied with her situation, most notably when a change in Jean’s job forces the couple to move away from Paris for a while. At other times, a brighter Marie emerges, one in tune with her own her solitude and desires in life.

Like its predecessor, Marie is written in an emotive, intense and intimate style. It is a more optimistic novella than La Femme de Gilles, more hopeful but every bit as compelling. In his review in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard describes Marie as one of the most French novels he has ever read, and I can see what he means. To quote Lezard: ‘the book’s concerns are, to put it broadly, existentialist’.

I really loved this novel; it’s in the running for one of my books of the year. This wonderful story of a young woman’s awakening is played out among the busy streets, cafés and train stations of Paris, a city beautifully evoked by Bourdouxhe’s prose. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the rather dreamlike mood of certain passages in the narrative.

They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house. (pg. 33)

Marie is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

 

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

First published in German in 1929, Grand Hotel is Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s best-known work. Following its initial success, this charming novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and subsequently for the cinema screen, with significant input from Baum herself – the film adaptation (which I have yet to see) features Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore brothers, amongst others.

IMG_2938

The setting for the novel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin, an establishment which endeavours to furnish its residents with the best of everything the city has to offer. Baum’s carefully constructed story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at the hotel. While it doesn’t aim to follow a conventional narrative arc, Grand Hotel has plenty of surprises in store for its readers, many of which are connected with the secrets and inner lives of this diverse group of guests.

The central character in the mix is Otto Kringelein, a down-at-heel bookkeeper who has travelled from the provinces to Berlin to live the high life for a week or two. After enduring many years of bullying and penny pinching both at work and at home, Kringelein has come to the city with the knowledge that he has only a few weeks left to live. Backed by funds from his savings and life insurance policy, Kringelein is intent on experiencing Life and everything it has to offer before his time is up. Here are his first impressions of his new environment, a passage which I hope will give you a feel for the Grand Hotel itself.

He stood there in his old overcoat, and through the lenses of his pince-nez eagerly devoured it all. He was as exhausted as the winner of a race when he breasts the tape, but he saw the marble pillars with stucco ornament, the illuminated fountain, the easy chairs. He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. (pg. 13)

At first, Kringelein is befriended by another guest, Doctor Otternschlag, a lonely, embittered war veteran who comes to the bookkeeper’s aid when the hotel staff prove rather reluctant to give him a room. Once he realises that Kringelein’s days are numbered, Otternschlag offers to show him something of Berlin with a trip to the ballet and other civilised outings. Nevertheless, Kringelein cannot help but feel that ‘real life,’ whatever that may be, remains out of his reach.

All that changes when Kringelein crosses paths with the dashing Baron Gaigern, a charming young playboy who also happens to be staying at the hotel. I love this description of the Baron, which serves as an excellent introduction to this elegant womaniser.

There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. (pg. 6)

Everyone at the Grand Hotel is enchanted by the friendly Baron Gaigern, but little do they know that he is in fact a cat burglar on the lookout for rich pickings. Once he realises Kringelein is in the money, Gaigern sees an opportunity, and so he takes this somewhat fusty bookkeeper under his wing. At long last Kringelein begins to experience the thrill and excitement of the life he has been craving. Under the guidance of the worldly Baron, Kringelein is persuaded to invest in the finest of clothes, new silk shirts and beautifully tailored suits that transform him in an instant. Further delights soon follow: the adrenaline rush of a drive in a fast car; the adventure of an aeroplane flight; and the heady atmosphere of a night at a Berlin club. There is a touch of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about the sense of vitality (not to mention nervousness) that Kringelein experiences in this new and exhilarating world.

Another character whose life is most definitely altered by an encounter with the Baron is Grusinskaya, an aged Russian ballet dancer and fellow guest at the Grand. Following years of success at the top of her game, Grusinskaya’s career is now on the slide as she finds herself playing to half-empty houses of unappreciative onlookers.

Madame sat in the little dressing room staring at the electric bulb that hung in a wire cage over the looking glass and consulted her memory. No, she thought gloomily, it was not such a success as at Brussels. She was tired to death. She stretched out her most limbs. She sat there, like a boxer who lies in his corner after a hard round, and let Suzette rub her down and chafe her and remove the paint. The dressing room was overheated, dirty, and small. It smelt of old dresses, of glue, of grease paint, of a hundred exhausted bodies. (pg. 26)

A little like Doctor Otternschlag, Grusinskaya is another lonely soul. That said, while past events have left the doctor feeling bitter and cynical, Grusinskaya has been dealt a slightly different hand. The lack of warmth and true love in her life has taken in toll, leaving this once great dancer somewhat vulnerable and fragile. Funnily enough, Grusinskaya is the real reason for Baron Gaigern’s visit to the Grand. The lovable young rogue is after the lady’s pearl necklace, an item rumoured to be worth in the region of 500,000 German marks. Nevertheless, when the Baron embarks on the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s jewellery, something rather surprising happens. To reveal anything more might be a step too far, so perhaps I can encourage you to read the book instead.

The final two characters are Preysing, General Manager of a provincial textiles company, and Flämmchen, the attractive young secretary he hires to assist him with some typing (and a little more besides). Somewhat intriguingly, Preysing is of particular interest to Kringelein as he happens to be the bookkeeper’s ultimate boss. While Kringelein has a score to settle with the GM, Preysing doesn’t even recognise him as one of his own employees when the two men come into contact with each other at the hotel. Preysing, a somewhat cold and unadventurous businessman at heart, has pressing troubles of his own. He has come to Berlin to negotiate a key business deal, a precarious merger with another company which he desperately needs to pull off. Flämmchen, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Tired of looking for a permanent job, she knows her own value and longs to be in the movies. Like many of other characters here, Preysing and Flämmchen find their lives irrevocably altered by their time at the prestigious hotel.

Grand Hotel is an utterly delightful novel full of moments of light and significant darkness. Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one character to another with great ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these characters as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. What appears to be chance and the luck of the draw may in fact turn out to be a case of cause and effect. In some ways, the Grand is a metaphor for life itself, complete with the great revolving door which governs our daily existence. I’ll finish with a short quote that hints at this.

These unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the elevator; you meet again in the dining room, in the cloakroom, and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door—the door that never stops shoveling people in and shoveling them out. (pg. 190)

This is my first read for Biblibio’s Women in Translation Month, which is running throughout August. For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Guy and Melissa. Update: Caroline has also reviewed it, link here, as has Emma here.

Grand Hotel is published by NYRB. My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my favourite reads from last year was Subtly Worded, a fascinating collection of short stories and reminiscences by the esteemed Russian writer, Teffi. Having enjoyed this book so much, I was delighted to hear that Pushkin Press would be publishing two more works by Teffi in 2016: Rasputin and Other Ironies, which brings together the best of Teffi’s non-fiction pieces, and a memoir, Memories – from Moscow to the Black Sea. (Both books are now available and are also published in the US by NYRB Classics.)

In this post, I’ll be discussing Rasputin and Other Ironies, but before I tell you more about this most intriguing collection, a few words on Teffi herself. Teffi – her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – was born in 1872 into a prominent and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty, she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

IMG_2863

The pieces in Rasputin and Other Ironies have been grouped into four sections, the first of which, How I Live and Work, gives us a view of Teffi’s life as a writer. We see Teffi living and working in a little pension in Paris, her writing table doubling as a dining table, a dressing table and a home for her various possessions. In My Pseudonym, we hear the story behind her adoption of Teffi as a pen name, while the final piece in this section offers an insight into Teffi’s first visit to an editorial office (you can read it for yourselves in The Paris Review).

The six pieces in the second section, Staging Posts, focus on Teffi’s personal life, ranging from reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence through to her days as a young mother with a toddler to care for. Liza, a story featuring one of Teffi’s childhood friends, fizzes with the tales children tell to amaze their pals. In the appropriately titled Love, Teffi recalls her first love, an experience saturated with the mix of excitement and pain that is so characteristic of this time in any young girl’s life.

And it was during this spring, the ninth of my life, that my first love came, revealed itself and left—in all its fullness, with rapture and pain and disenchantment, with all that is to be expected of any true love. (pg. 40-41)

In The Green Devil and Staging Posts, both of which focus on Teffi’s adolescence, one can sense her longing to be an adult, a grown-up lady attending dinners and dances and other such affairs. While some of the pieces in this section seem at first rather amusing or ironic, they are in fact underscored with a deep sense of melancholy and sadness, often ending on a poignant note. I found these works some of the most affecting in the collection. Running through this book are hints of Teffi’s longing for her homeland, a world virtually erased by the events of history.

Next comes one of the most interesting sections of this collection, Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War. Rasputin, Teffi’s fascinating account of her two encounters with this legendary figure, turned out to be one of the highlights in Subtly Worded, and it’s wonderful to see it reproduced here in this new volume. As I’ve already written about Rasputin, I won’t cover it again here, but please do take a look at my previous post for Teffi’s wonderful observations on this mercurial figure.

In New Life, one of the longest pieces in the collection, Teffi presents her recollections of Lenin taken from the time she spent working on the literary section of a newly established newspaper, also titled ‘New Life’. (The paper was established to take its political direction from the Social Democrats under the stewardship of Lenin himself.) This is Teffi at her most observant as she offers us a terrifying insight into the psychology of this controversial revolutionary. As far as Teffi could see, Lenin ‘considered everyone to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain. A man was good only insofar as he was necessary to the cause. And if he wasn’t necessary—to hell with him.’ All in all, his opinion of human nature was pretty low.

As an orator, Lenin did not carry the crowd with him; he did not set a crowd on fire, or whip it up into a frenzy. He was not like Kerensky, who could make a crowd fall in love with him and shed tears of ecstasy; I myself witnessed such tears in the eyes of soldiers and workers as they showered Kerensky’s car with flowers on Marinsky Square Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corners of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden. He would batter away to get the answer he wanted. (pg. 106)

Teffi is very adept at presenting stories with stories, little vignettes of life in a time of suspicion and uncertainty. I love the image of this reporter hiding under the table during a private meeting, not to mention the questions it raises the following day:

Klyachko was an extraordinary reporter. His exploits were legendary. Once, apparently, he had sat under the table in the office of the Home Secretary during a closed meeting. The next day, an account of the meeting appeared in Klyachko’s paper in the section called “Rumours”. It caused panic among those at the top. How could the reporter have founds all this out? Who had let the information slip? Or had a bribe of several thousand changed hands? But then, that was a monstrous suggestion! For some time, people tried to identify the guilty party—and they, of course, got nowhere. The guilty party was the footman, who had received a hefty tip from Klyachko for hiding him under the green baize. (pg. 97)

Also worthy of a mention here is The Gadarene Swine, a sharp and powerful piece that highlights the differing perspectives of the various factions who are fleeing from the Bolsheviks, in other words, the ‘refugees from Sovietdom’.

They are indeed all running away from the Bolsheviks. But the crazed swine are escaping from Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice, while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence. (pg 157)

In this story, Teffi highlights the plight of everyday folk, the ordinary people who find themselves cast adrift in an unfamiliar world with little in the way of food, shelter or social structure to support them. It’s brave piece of writing, all the more impactful for the artful style Teffi employs to send a message to the powers that be.

The final section of the collection features Teffi’s reminiscences of some of the writers and artists she met during her life. Authors such as Tolstoy whom she visited in her youth and the artist, Ilya Repin, who painted a very tender portrait of Teffi after being touched by one of her stories, a tale called The Top.

In The Merezhkovskys, one of my favourite pieces from the collection, we meet the writers Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius (a Symbolist poet) whom Teffi spent time with during her refugee days in in Biarritz. Both unique individuals in their different ways, they ‘each could have been the central character in a long psychological novel’. So out of touch with reality were the Merezhkovskys that they lived in a world of ideas, unable to understand other people or the fundamentals of life itself. Money in particular was a source of frustration for this couple. They were reluctant to pay for anything, often considering as unjust even the most understandable requests for payment (as illustrated in this next passage).

They were always irritated, astonished, even sincerely outraged by the need to pay bills. Zinaida Nikolaevna told me indignantly about how they just had a visit from the man who hired out bed linen.

“The scoundrel just won’t leave us alone. Yesterday he was told that we were out, so he sat in the garden and waited for us. Thanks to that scoundrel, we couldn’t even go for a walk.” (pg. 182)

This is another marvellous collection from Teffi, all the more fascinating for its diversity and glimpses of a vanished world. Her pieces are by turns ironic, insightful and poignant. This book comes highly recommended both for fans of Teffi and for readers who are new to her work.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates another of Teffi’s many talents, her skill for painting vivid pen-portraits in just a few sentences. Here she describes Izmailov, an editor on the Stock Exchange Gazette, a thin rather sinister man, dressed all in black, ‘he looked as if he had been sketched in black ink’.

Izmailov truly was weird. He lived in the grounds of the Smolensk cemetery, where his father had once been a priest. He practised black magic, loved telling stories about sorcery, and he knew charms and spells. Thin, pale and black, with a thin strip of bright red mouth, he looked like a vampire. (pg 112)

My thanks to Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book. For other perspectives, here are links to posts from Karen, Melissa and Shoshi.

Rasputin and Other Ironies was translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

The story running through The End of Days, the latest novel from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, features an intriguing premise. By following five different variations of the life of one woman, the novel examines the role chance plays in our lives. In doing so, it touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century from the hardship in the years following WWI, to the rise in anti-Semitism, to the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious narrative, and Erpenbeck pulls it off to very good effect.

IMG_2381

The novel is divided into five books, each one covering a possible life of the woman in question. In the first variation of her life, our central character dies in her cradle just a few months after her birth in Galicia in 1902. (Galicia now straddles the Poland-Ukraine border, but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) As her Jewish mother mourns the loss, her father (a Christian) drowns his sorrows in drink. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy, the father set sail for America, abandoning his wife in the process. The man’s arrival at Ellis Island’s immigration hall provides an opportunity for reflection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where ‘German remained the language of democracy’ despite all the intermingling.  

The Kaiser, though, hadn’t selected the individuals to be let in; rather, he’d swallowed up entire peoples indiscriminately, making all of them part of his realm. Melancholia, madness, and unlawfulness remained at home—even after home became suddenly known as Austria or Hungary—and it did the monarchy no harm. Europe’s peoples, with or without wars, had always crisscrossed the continent, intermixing and seeking out new homes whenever their one bit of land produced too little or life became unbearable for some reason. But perhaps a coastline like this was a more naturally defined border. Here you could send the people you didn’t want back out on the water, even if it meant they would perish back home or simply drown at sea like surplus kittens. (pg. 50)

Meanwhile, the bereaved mother slips into a life of prostitution as a means of supporting herself after the desertion of her husband.

Each of the five variations of the central character’s life are separated by Intermezzos, short sequences of 4-9 pages in which Erpenbeck raises the question ‘but what if…’. For instance, what if the baby girl didn’t die in her cradle that night? What if she survived the crisis and her life continued? In effect, these intermezzos serve as a means of moving us from one version of the woman’s life to the next.

But if, for example, the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again, possibly cried again as well, in any case its heart might have gone back to beating, its skin would have grown warm and the snow melted on its chest. (pg. 57)

As book II begins, we fast forward to 1919, and the seventeen-year-old protagonist and her family have moved to Vienna in the hope of finding a better life. Despite the end of the First World War, food is in desperately short supply, and the girl’s younger sister queues all day for meagre rations until her mother takes her place for the night shift. In this scene, the central character’s father reflects on the family’s situation.

For a brief time he had nurtured the hope that by moving to Vienna they would all be moving to an easier life, but then there’d been four years of war, a capitulation, and four months of hunger, and now all their provisions—their supplies of wood, groceries, hope—were running out, the emptiness in the pantry and storeroom equally great, the dirt floor showing through. Here in Vienna, his wife was reproaching him for one last thing: having married her, a Jewish vixen from the provinces, and not even a rich one at that. Something he had always refused to believe was apparently proving true after all: she was trapped in her Mosaic origins as if in a cage, knocking herself black and blue against bars. (pg. 79)

As for our central character, the weight of trying to find her way in an uncertain world proves too much to bear, and she enters into a suicide pact with a young medical student. Things don’t quite go to plan, but nevertheless the girl dies in hospital a few days later. And so we move to the next Intermezzo and another ‘what if?’ and her life continues once more.

In the third variation of her life, our protagonist is in Moscow. As book III opens, the year is 1938, and she is writing an account of her life in the hope of gaining Soviet citizenship. As the woman writes her story, we learn that she joined the Communist Party of Austria in 1920 where she met her husband, Comrade H. Both she and her husband were writers, keen to use language and words as a means of forging progress in the years following the War. Now, as she sits at her desk in Moscow, she knows that this written account might put an end to her life; alternatively, it might be kept in reserve, forcing her to live by it, ‘to prove herself worthy of it’. With her husband already under arrest, she must try to survive. Her aim is to save herself by writing her way back into life.

Now that her husband has been taken away, she knows that when she sits here putting her life to paper, she is playing not just with her own life, but with his as well, not just with her own death, but also with his; or she is playing against death—or does all this pro and contra make no difference at all? She knows that with every word she writes or leaves unwritten she is playing with the lives of her friends, just as her friends in turn, when they are asked about her, are forced to play with hers. (pg. 152)

I’ll refrain from covering the fourth and fifth lives in detail—I’m sure you’ve got the idea by now—but final instalment finds our protagonist living in a care home and suffering from dementia as her life draws to a close.

This impressive novel touches on various different ideas, and several of these are revisited throughout the narrative. Alongside the recognisable themes of personal sacrifice, loss, and the fragile nature of our existence, other themes emerge, too. Erpenbeck’s story highlights our desire to keep secrets from those who are closest to us as a means of protecting them from the heartache of knowing the truth. The daughter who doesn’t know her father was beaten to death by the Poles; the son who is told his father fell in the battle of Kharkov – these motifs echo and reverberate through the text.

Did keeping her misguided love a secret from her friend make her just as halfhearted and deceitful as her parents? It had done no good to keep the truth to herself either, for a truth remained even if it was never spoken aloud, day after day it went on doing what it had to. (pg. 89)

As I mentioned earlier, the intermezzos highlight the role chance plays in our existence – how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments and the smallest of decisions, many of which are subjective. A handful of snow; a chance encounter in a café; a decision to cross a street at a certain point – all these things and more play a significant role in the lives of the central character.

Ultimately though, the novel’s overarching theme is, perhaps, the continuation of humankind – even when an individual dies, life goes on.

A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (pg. 15)

Before I finish, a few thoughts on Erpenbeck’s prose. While the style is spare and haunting throughout, it does vary somewhat from one section to another. Personally, I found Books I, II and V more engaging than the middle sections despite the highly compelling subject matter at the heart of the novel. Book III alternates between a first-person narrative (the documented account of the central character’s life) and passages written in the third person. While different fonts are used to differentiate between each section, the frequent switches between these two forms (together with the inclusion of snatches of conversation from a possible interrogation session) didn’t quite work for me. That’s just my personal opinion, though, and others may well disagree. Nevertheless The End of Days is a very powerful work, one I’m glad to have read.

literatur_2015_gold-2

This novel won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November.

The End of Days is published by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy. Book 14/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Vienna Tales – Arthur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, and more (tr. Deborah Holmes)

I’ve long wanted to visit Vienna – a European city break is just my type of holiday. I’m sure I’ll get there one day, but in meantime, what better way to experience the city than through its literature.

Vienna Tales is a collection of stories featuring Vienna. This diverse anthology includes pieces by older, established writers such as Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and Adalbert Stifter (1805-68), along with works by more contemporary authors, many of whom were new to me. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the anthology as a whole.

IMG_2397

The stories in Vienna Tales are arranged geographically rather than chronologically, so we roam around the capital from west to east and back again. Several of the pieces are set in the margins of Vienna, reflecting the centre from a distance, but each one seems to capture a different facet of the city.

The collection opens with The Four-poster Bed, a poignant story about the demise of a love affair. In this early work by Arthur Schnitzler, a melancholy summer evening reflects the dying embers of one man’s love for a ‘sweet, darling girl’:

The last embers of sunset died down. Cool shadows crept up the houses, slowly, until they disappeared on the roofs. All that remained, way out on the last buildings, was a reddish, aching glow. (pg 24)

Many of the stories are packed with imagery, pictures of life in Vienna in the 19th and 20th centuries. In one of my favourite pieces from the collection, The Prater by Adalbert Stifter, we follow the narrator on an afternoon walk through this extensive park, an area that combines parkland, meadows, a fairground, beer stalls, coffee houses and more remote woodlands. It’s a feast day in May, and the Prater is bustling with activity:

Carriages drive through the midst of this crowd like ships in pack-ice, mostly slowly, often held up and forced to stand still for many minutes at a time, but then, when gaps present themselves, flying past each other like gleaming phantoms through the stolid, meandering mass. Figures on horseback can be seen rearing up out of the sea of pedestrians here and there, hopping over and through the line of carriages; (pgs. 164-165)

Joseph Roth’s short sketches, Day Out and Merry-go-round, also fall into this category.

Another of my favourites is The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-79), a delightfully amusing piece in which the narrator describes the characteristics of each type of feuilletonist (writers of feuilletons) to be found in the city. (Originating in France and Germany, popular in the mid-19th century, a feuilleton was the part of a newspaper or journal devoted to fiction, cultural criticism, light literature and gossip.) In Kürnberger’s sketch, we are introduced to the house feuilletonist, a writer who draws on his domestic surroundings for inspiration. Then we have the street feuilletonist, aka ‘the flaneur’ in high German, or ‘loafer’ in low German:

Exemplars of this species can often be found in front of the window displays of the larger fancy goods and fashion emporia. They also loiter in doorways to let the architecture of the magnificent new buildings opposite “work” on them; unfortunately, prestigious edifices freshly built in Vienna cannot be enjoyed from any other point of view. (pg 108)

By contrast, the tavern feuilletonist is to be found in the coffee houses of Vienna. ‘You will never find it there with a newspaper, but always with cards or a billiards cue in its hand. Loathing for periodical publications of all kinds is a distinguishing characteristic of this kind of journalist.’  There are one or two others as well, but I’ll let you discover them for yourselves should you decide to read this book. (Incidentally, a Viennese coffeehouse, Konditorei Demel, also features in Anton Kuh’s Lenin and Demel, a short piece on deposed aristocrats trying to getting to grips with the new culture following WW1.)

Several of the pieces in this anthology touch on the mood or atmosphere of the city. In Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-84), a man is entering the capital from the south by horse-drawn carriage. As he travels towards his inn in the dawn light, the visitor reflects on his impressions of Vienna.

Although I hadn’t even arrived at my inn, I could already tell how I would fare there. The city’s aspect is not one of overwhelming beauty, but picturesque, charming mellow. The warmer skies, the lilting speech, the plump, succulent bodies of the Viennese, their customs and habits, everything is locked in so blissful an embrace that the impulse is to open one’s own arms wide. And in Vienna, no one opens them in vain. It is a supremely humane and accommodating place. (pg. 97) 

By contrast, we see a different perspective on the city in Dimitré Dinev’s excellent story, Spas Sleeps. This contemporary piece features Spas, a Bulgarian refugee who fled to Vienna at the end of the 20th century in search of a new beginning. At the start of the story, Spas is sleeping on the street, but the vast majority of this tale focuses on the years leading up to this point. Reflecting on the time of his arrival in Vienna in the 1990s, Spas was full of hope and ambition, full of belief in the future. He longed to find work as it represented everything: a means of survival, peace of mind and the only way of staying in the city.

Work was a spectre. It hid itself from them and tormented everyone. Only those who found it found peace of mind. Six months should be long enough, the law decreed. After that it persecuted anyone who still haunted the place without work: an exorcist who thought six months was long enough to prove who is a person and who is a ghost. The ideal world wished to remain so. (pgs. 133-134)

We follow Spas and his friend, fellow Bulgarian student, Ilija, as they search for any kind of work, be it temporary manual jobs or something more stable. The two young men share everything, pooling their resources along with the opportunities to work and study. As the years pass, the laws get tighter and tighter making it increasingly hard for them to survive. There are many compromises and sacrifices along the way. This is a very poignant, thought-provoking story, one that remains all too relevant in Europe today. I think it will stay with me for a long time.

There are stories by other contemporary writers too. These include: Envy by Eva Menasse (b. 1970) – a subtle story that touches on love, loss and the tensions in a family; and Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (b. 1961) – an eerie story of a composer who, when he rents a garret in the Viennese suburbs, hears a mysterious voice on the phone line.

Vienna Tales is a really interesting collection, all the more so for the sheer variety of pieces included. I would recommend it to any lover of literature with an interest in the city. The anthology also contains an excellent introduction by the curator, short biographies of each writer and a myriad of suggestions for further reading on Vienna (both fiction and non-fiction).

I’ll finish with a favourite quote from Out for a Walk by Schnitzler, in which four men debate their differing perspectives on the city. For one man Vienna is a melancholy place, for another it has a strong sense of nostalgia, for the third man it is merry and carefree while the fourth feels it has let him down. As the story opens, the sun is setting, and the men are walking to the periphery of the city:

Grimy children played noisily in the streets; and on the dull green meadows that began here and faded into gentle hill country further out, there were common folk who yearned for fresher air without knowing it: little boys and girls rolling on the ground or running to and fro, soldiers smoking cheap cigars with idiotically cheerful off-duty faces, streetwalkers in twos and threes laughing loudly as they strode over the fields, and the occasional solitary wanderer who had ventured out to savour the atmosphere of this peculiar no-man’s land where the city gradually comes to an end, its raw, drawn-out, fearful panting ceasing in a weary, thankful sigh. (pgs. 259-260)

Emma and Marina Sofia have also reviewed this collection, which I read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

literatur_2015_gold-2

Vienna Tales is published in the UK by Oxford University Press. Source:  review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

My first encounter with Silvina Ocampo’s work came in the shape of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella she co-wrote with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. This playful take on the traditional murder mystery genre made my 2014 end-of-year highlights, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short stories published earlier this year. In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeyemi informs us that the panel of judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature deemed Ocampo’s body of work to be “demasiado crueles” meaning “far too cruel”  and so they denied her the prize. While it’s true to say that several of these stories feature rather sinister events, I’m not sure I would simply label them as “cruel”. They’re far more interesting than that, a point I hope to demonstrate in this review.

IMG_2354

Faces contains forty-two stories drawn from seven different collections of Ocampo’s writing published from 1937 to 1988; the pieces vary in length from one or two pages to longer works.

Several of the pieces throughout the collection feature individuals who possess the ability to see into the future, an unsettling sense of clairvoyance that often arouses suspicion amongst those around them. In one of my favourite stories, Autobiography of Irene, a young woman describes how she foresaw her father’s death three months before it happened.

I was happy, but the sudden death of my father, as I said before, brought about a change in my life. Three months before he died, I had already prepared my mourning dress and the black crepe; I had already cried for him, leaning majestically on the balcony railing. I had already written the date of his death on an etching; I had already visited the cemetery. All of that was made worse by the indifference I showed after the funeral. To tell the truth, after his death I never remembered him at all. (pg. 78)

This clever, beautiful and moving piece ends with a development that brings Irene’s story full circle, one that made me turn back to the beginning to read it a second time.

The supernatural crops up again in The House Made of Sugar, the first of several excellent pieces taken from Ocampo’s 1959 collection, The Fury. In this disquieting story, the narrator tells of his partner, Cristina, a woman whose life is governed by superstitions.

There were certain streets we couldn’t cross, certain people we couldn’t see, certain movie theaters we couldn’t go to. Early in our relationship, these superstitions seemed charming to me, but later they began to annoy and even seriously worry me. When we got engaged we had to look for a brand-new apartment because, according to her, the fate of the previous occupants would influence her life. (She at no point mentioned my life, as if the danger threatened only hers and our lives were not joined by love.) (pg. 91)

Finally, the narrator finds what he hopes will be the ideal place: a little house that looks as if it is made of sugar. On discovering that the house had been occupied in the past and subsequently remodelled, he decides to keep quiet and let Cristina believe that their home is brand new. But once the newly-weds move in, the narrator starts to notice certain changes in Cristina’s behaviour. Slowly but surely she begins to inhabit another woman’s life, that of the mysterious Violeta, the previous occupant of the house.

In The Photographs, a fateful little story from the same period, Ocampo shows her talent for taking what should be a joyful celebration and injecting a touch of the macabre into it. Recovering from a stay in hospital and unable to walk unaided, Adriana is allowed home for her fourteenth birthday party. As they wait for the photographer (Spirito) to arrive, the guests entertain themselves with ‘stories of more or less fatal accidents. Some of the victims had been left without arms, others without hands, others without ears’.

Members of the family jostle and position Adriana for a series of photographs, moving and manipulating her as if she were a rag dog. As the story unravels, there is a striking contrast between the sugar-coated sweetness of the occasion and the insensitivity shown towards the young girl.

In the third photograph, Adriana brandished the knife to cut the cake, which was decorated with her name, the date of her birthday, and the word “Happiness,” all written in pink icing, and covered with rainbow sprinkles.

“She should stand up,” the guests said.

An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”

“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”

Adriana grimaced with pain, and once more poor Spirito had to take her picture sunken in her chair surrounded by the guests. (pgs. 122-123)

The Velvet Dress, touches on another contrast: the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough when rubbed the other; a fabric with the power to repel as well as attract. This story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet dress featuring a dragon motif embroidered with black sequins.

I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequin dragon. The lady stood up again and, staggering slightly, walked over to the mirror. The sequin dragon also staggered. The dress was now nearly perfect, except for an almost imperceptible tuck under the arms. Casilda took up the pins once more, plunging them perilously into the wrinkles that bulged out of the unearthly fabric. (pg. 146-147)

Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but effective tale takes a sinister turn. It’s narrated by a child, the dressmaker’s companion, who peppers the narrative with several cries of “How amusing!”

This childlike sense of mischief and wickedness is present in several of Ocampo’s stories, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other pieces from this period include:

  • The Wedding: another story with a sting in its tail, this one featuring a girl who hides a huge spider in the hairpiece of her soon-to-be married neighbour, Arminda. As the girl’s friend says “Spiders are like people: they bite to defend themselves.”
  • Mimoso: a sinister story of a woman who has her beloved dog embalmed following its death. But when someone taunts and criticises her for doing so the woman takes her revenge in the most fitting way possible.
  • The Perfect Crime, in which a man commits a crime of passion involving poisonous mushrooms.
  • The Lovers, which features a couple who meet sporadically. Shy and with little to say to one another, they indulge in a ritual of picnicking on cakes. As they devour the pastries with ‘loving greed and intimacy’ they find a way to commune with each other and their movements become synchronised.
  • Thus Were Their Faces: a strange, dreamlike story in which forty children from a school for the deaf strive to assume similar characteristics, personalities and identities ‘as if they wanted to become equal’. Here’s an extract:

They were also linked by the violence of their gestures, by their simultaneous laughter, by a boisterous and sudden feeling of sadness in solidarity hidden in their eyes, in their straight or slightly curly hair. So indissolubly united were they that they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.

At the top of a slide, out of excitement not wickedness, they almost killed a child who had slipped in among them. On the street, in the face of admiring enthusiasm, a flower vendor almost perished, trampled with his merchandise. (pg. 193)

Several of Ocampo’s stories blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. One of the earliest stories, The Imposter, demonstrates this to good effect. In this extended piece, the young man who narrates the story is sent on a journey by a family friend to check up on his son – the boy has hidden himself away at a secluded ranch in the countryside. When the narrator arrives, several objects and people remind him of things he has seen before: images, people and scenes from his dreams start to appear in reality; strange developments occur; and as the story progresses, one begins to question what is real and what is illusory. This is another story featuring a shift that will have you flipping back to the beginning to read it again.

Some of Ocampo’s final stories are characterised by a free-spirited wildness, possibly the product of an especially vivid imagination in the years leading up to her death. Others are gentler, tenderer pieces such as And So Forth, which features a man who falls for a mermaid. This beautiful, mystifying story reads like a prose poem, an ode to a different kind of love.

I love the stories in Thus Were Their Faces, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of the pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. Ocampo studied painting with the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and this flair for the artistic shows in her prose which sparkles with strange and mysterious imagery. This is an unusual and poetic collection of stories – highly recommended.

Thus Were Their Faces is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20, #TBR20 round 2.