An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

Back in 2013, I was captivated by Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (1947), an existential novel that explored questions of coincidence, fate, love and death. I read it pre-blog, but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere. Originally published in 1930, An Evening with Claire was Gazdanov’s first novel, written during his time as a Russian émigré in Paris. It was an instant success, resonating strongly with the displaced population across Europe as a whole. In writing this novel, Gazdanov drew heavily on his own life via a series of memories covering his childhood, his time in the Russian Civil War and his impressions of an enigmatic young woman named Claire, the figure captured in the book’s title.

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As the novel opens, the narrator – a young man named Sosedov, but referred to as Kolya throughout – has recently reconnected with Claire, a French woman he first met some ten years earlier in 1917. Kolya has been spending his evenings with Claire at her home in Paris, the lady’s husband being away on an extended trip to Ceylon. While Claire sleeps, Kolya reflects on the time he has spent desiring her over the years, the woman who has occupied his mind for the past decade.

Surrendering to the power of sleep, or sadness, or yet another emotion, no matter how strong the emotion was she never ceased being herself; and it seemed that the mightiest tremors were powerless to alert this perfectly completed body, could never destroy this final invincible charm which had induced me to waste ten years of my life in pursuit of Claire, and which had made it impossible for me to get her out of my mind at any time, any place. (p. 28)

This process triggers a series of memories for Kolya as he gradually comes to remember everything that has happened in his life, particularly the events of his first eighteen years. While the difficulty of understanding and articulating everything seems immense, Kolya proceeds to explore his childhood and adolescence through a stream of associations, moving seamlessly from one recollection to another over the course of the novel. We hear of the young boy’s close relationship with his father, a man obsessed with fires and hunting, a man whom Kolya loved very dearly at the time. By contrast, Kolya’s mother is portrayed as a relatively cold and controlled woman, someone who showed little warmth and affection in her dealings with the children. Nevertheless, Kolya respected her a great deal.

From a relatively early age, Kolya’s life was marked by the shadow of death. He was just eight years old when his father died, and by the time of the Great War both of his sisters had followed suit.      

Death was never far away, and the abyss into which my imagination plunged me seemed to belong to it. I think this feeling was hereditary: It was not for nothing that my father so violently detested everything that reminded him of the inevitable end; this fearless man felt his weakness here. It was as though my mother’s unconscious, cold indifference reflected someone’s final stillness, and the ravenous memories which my sisters possessed absorbed everything into themselves so quickly because, somewhere in their distant foreboding, death already existed. (p. 60)

As a consequence, Kolya was left alone with his mother, a woman who struggled to come to terms with the losses that had touched her family.

At various times during his childhood, Kolya felt as though he was turning in on himself, a process which left him somewhat immune to the external events that were happening around him. This feeling emerged once again when Kolya was sent to military school, a place he disliked a great deal. Given that the other cadets seemed so different, Kolya kept his distance from the rest of the pack, a move that also caused him to develop an instinct for self-preservation when dealing with his tutors.

The novel touches on various stories and anecdotes from Kolya’s time at both the military school and the gymnasium that followed, too many to capture here. While several of these memories are melancholy in tone, there are recollections of happier times as well: the summers Kolya spent at his grandfather’s house in Caucasus where many of his father’s relatives also lived; memories of Claire too, especially Kolya’s first encounter with her at the tennis courts of the gymnastics society (Kolya was around fourteen at the time). From the moment he first set eyes on eighteen-year-old Claire, Kolya was captivated by her presence. A native of Paris, Claire had travelled to Russia with her family; her father, a merchant, had a base in Ukraine which he visited every now and again. Kolya and the coquettish Claire spent much of the summer together, laughing and joking at Claire’s house. Even so, Kolya was acutely aware of Claire’s blossoming sexuality, something he did not fully understand at the time despite being able to feel it. By late autumn that year, Claire had all but disappeared from Kolya’s life, a development which left the young boy feeling rather bereft.

The final third of the novel focuses on the time Kolya spent with the White Army in the Russian Civil War, a somewhat arbitrary move motivated by the desire to know what war was like, to experience the new and unknown. (Kolya readily admits that his decision was not driven by any political beliefs or ideals; he could have just as easily joined the Reds had they been in possession of his part of the country at the time.) The memories of his departure for the front at the age of sixteen are imbued with a tender sense of melancholy, a tone which is so characteristic of this haunting novel.

It was late autumn, and in the cold air I could feel the sorrow and the regret characteristic of every departure. I was never able to accustom myself to this feeling; for me, every departure marked the beginning of a new existence and consequently, the necessity of living once again by groping, of finding once more among the people and things surrounding me, a more or less intimate environment in which to recapture my former tranquillity, so needed to make space for those inner oscillations and shocks with which I was so greatly preoccupied. (p. 105)

Kolya’s time in the war gave him a deep insight into the psychology of human behaviour; while stationed at the front he witnessed several instances of bravery, cowardice and fear. This section is packed with stories, anecdotes and memories of Kolya’s comrades, including tales of some of the scoundrels he encountered during this period. By the summer of 1920, Kolya had made his way to Sevastopol where he witnessed some of the emotional fallout from the war. The atmosphere in this desperate city seemed to reflect all the eternal sorrow and melancholy of provincial Russia, a feeling that is captured in this next passage.

I saw tears in the eyes of usually unsentimental people. Having deprived them of their homes, families and dinner parties, the Revolution had suddenly given them the ability to feel deep regret, and for an instant liberated from their coarse, warlike casing their long-forgotten, long-lost emotional sensitivity. It was as if these people were taking part in a minor-keyed symphony of the theater hall; they saw for the first time that there was a biography and a history to their lives, and a lost happiness which they had only read about in books, (p. 133)

An Evening with Claire is a deeply introspective novel, one that offers a rare insight into a vanished world. Kolya’s memories are shot through with a gentle sense of sadness and regret coupled with a noticeable yearning for Claire. Perhaps this reunion in Paris represents a new beginning for Kolya, an element of hope for the future? I’d like to think so.

Guy and Karen have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

An Evening with Claire is published by Overlook Duckworth / Ardis; personal copy.

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

Back in April 2016 I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, a brilliant book that made my end-of-year highlights – you can read my review here. First published in 1927, The Hotel was Bowen’s first novel. It’s a striking debut, a story of unsuitable attachments and the subtle dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, all cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera in the 1920s.

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In many ways, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties. Sydney has come to the hotel to accompany her older cousin, Tessa Bellamy, who in turn is trying to deal with a gastric condition. Sydney’s family are delighted that she has travelled to Italy with Tessa, viewing it is an ‘inspired solution of the Sydney problem’, in their eyes something to counterbalance the girl’s leaning towards the neurotic and her tendency to be ‘so unfortunate in her choice of friends’. For her part, Sydney has developed a rather unhealthy attachment to another resident, Mrs Kerr, an intriguing, self-assured woman in her forties. While Mrs Kerr is a widow, she appears to act more like a divorcee; at least that’s the opinion of several of the other guests at the hotel who seem enjoy speculating about Mrs Kerr and the nature of her relationship with Sydney. I love this next quote, a passage of dialogue so indicative of Bowen’s penetrating tone. In this scene, Tessa is in conversation with several other ladies in the hotel drawing-room.

Tessa continued: ‘Sydney is very affectionate.’

‘She is very much…absorbed, isn’t she, by Mrs Kerr?’

‘I have known other cases,’ said somebody else, looking about vaguely for her scissors, ‘of these very violent friendships. One didn’t feel those others were quite healthy.’

‘I should discourage any daughter of mine from a friendship with an older woman. It is never the best women who have these strong influences. I would far rather she lost her head about a man.’

‘Sydney hasn’t lost her head,’ said little Tessa with dignity.

‘Oh but, Mrs Bellamy – I was talking about other cases.’ (p. 62)

And so the discussion continues in a similar vein.

Other notable guests at the hotel include Mr and Mrs Lee-Mittison, the Ammerings and their son Victor and the Lawrence girls, Veronica, Eileen and Joan. Mr Lee-Mittison is determined to surround himself with the beautiful, refined young people, and there are some classic scenes involving a picnic he attempts to orchestrate with mixed results. While the Lee-Mittisons are very happy for Sydney and the Lawrence sisters to attend, they are none too pleased when Victor Ammering shows up on the scene, much to Veronica Lawrence’s amusement when she goes off with the young man. For her part, Mrs L-M, a devoted wife, will do anything she can to ensure her husband’s social events are a success. It’s all quite amusing to observe.

Also staying at the hotel are Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, genteel elderly ladies very much of the type depicted in Fawlty Towers, and two sisters-in-law, the Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton, who have paid extra to have exclusive use of the bathroom opposite their rooms. When middle-aged clergyman James Milton arrives at the hotel following a long train journey across the continent, unaware of the bathroom arrangements he goes for a long soak in the Pinkertons’ bath, much to the consternation of the ladies on his floor.

James Milton’s appearance on the scene shakes things up a little in more ways than one. In the hope of attracting Sydney, he rushes out a terribly ill-judged proposal of marriage to her during a walk in the countryside (there is a sense that he is comfortable operating within his own relatively small circle of society, but much less so in this wider sphere). Sydney declines, giving James the impression that there is no point in his holding out any hope of a change in heart; but then the situation changes once again with another arrival, that of Ronald, Mrs Kerr’s twenty-year-old son. Before long, Sydney realises that Mrs Kerr has given her the brush off in favour of Ronald, a fact that becomes painfully clear to her during a conversation with Veronica Lawrence. Once again, Bowen demonstrates great insight and precision in painting this scene; here’s a brief extract from the extended discussion between these two girls.

‘Well, she has so absolutely given you the go-by, hasn’t she?’ said Veronica, replacing the alabaster lid of the powder-bowl, then looking down to blow some powder off her dress. ‘It was “Sydney this” and “Sydney darling that” and “Where’s Sydney?” and “Sydney and I are going together,” and now he’s come she simply doesn’t see you.’

Sydney, after an interval, leant sideways to push the window farther open. She seemed to have forgotten Veronica, who energetically continued: Of course I’m sorry for you. Everybody’s sorry for you.’

‘Oh,’ said Sydney.

‘Do you mind the way she’s going on?” asked Veronica curiously.

‘It hadn’t occurred to me that there was anything to mind,’ said Sydney with a high-pitched little laugh and a sensation of pushing off something that was coming down on her like the ceiling in one of her dreams. It seemed incredible that the words Veronica had just made use of should ever have been spoken. (p. 117)

In a rebound response to being sidelined by Mrs Kerr, Sydney agrees to marry James Milton, a development also prompted, at least to a certain extent, by Veronica’s attitude towards marriage. In many ways, Veronica sees marriage to a man as an inevitable outcome for a woman in her position – so if she has to marry someone it may as well be Victor Ammering, to whom she has just become engaged.

It is from this point onwards in the novel that Mrs Kerr’s cruel, manipulative steak really starts to show itself. When James reveals his engagement to Sydney, Mrs Kerr carefully plants the seeds of doubt in his mind. To say any more might spoil the story, but it’s a brilliant scene, beautifully observed.

The Hotel feels incredibly accomplished for a debut novel, full of little observations on human nature and the dynamics at play. In some ways, it could be seen as a cold book as there is very little warmth or affection in most of the relationships depicted here. That said, I certainly don’t mean this as a major criticism – it seems to be a function of the characters and the society in which they find themselves. These people are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability. Veronica seems to be making do with Victor; while happy enough, she doesn’t appear to be in love with him, although that might come in time. James is on the lookout for a wife, and Sydney seems to fit the bill. As for Sydney herself, I feel for her even though she behaves rather foolishly, especially towards James. She is young and inexperienced, and the worldly Mrs Kerr has clearly toyed with her affections. By the end of the story, Sydney sees her sophisticated friend for what she really is: a rather spoilt, insensitive woman.

This is a novel to be read slowly. At times, Bowen’s prose can appear rather dense and intricate, but it does rewards the investment in time and concentration. As one might expect, Bowen is excellent when it comes to capturing the atmosphere of this elite world, complete with its tennis matches, picnics and tiresome excursions to places of interest. She is particularly good on hotel etiquette. I’ll finish with a passage on the social codes at lunch, so typical of this author’s keen eye for detail.

Beyond, down the long perspective to the foot of the stairs, one could see visitors take form with blank faces, then compose and poise themselves for an entrance. Some who thought punctuality rather suburban would gaze into the unfilled immensity of the room for a moment, then vanish repelled. Others would advance swimmingly and talk from table to table across the emptiness, familiarly, like a party of pioneers. Men came in without their wives and did not always look up when these entered. Women appearing before their husbands remained alert, gazed into an opposite space resentfully, and ate with an air of temporizing off the tips of their forks. When the husbands did come in it seemed a long time before there was something to say. It seemed odder than ever to Sydney, eyeing these couples, that men and women should be expected to pair off for life. (pp. 23-24)

I read this book with Dorian (of the excellent Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog). You can find his terrific analysis here.

The Hotel is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been itching to get back to reading Elizabeth Taylor for a while now, an author whose work I adore. First published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness was one of Taylor’s later novels, and I think it shows. There is a sense of precision in both the writing and the characterisation that suggests it is the work of an accomplished writer, one in full control of her material. Much as I loved the last Taylor I read – her first, At Mrs Lippincote’sThe Soul of Kindness seems a more rounded novel, possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my favourite so far.

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The storyline in The Soul of Kindness revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. She is married to Richard, her loving husband and hard-working businessman, manager of the family-owned factory passed down from his father, Percy. In addition to Richard, Flora has a close circle of friends upon whom she lavishes her own unique brand of kindness: there is the long-suffering Meg, her closest friend from school; Patrick, the writer who looks forward to Flora’s company as a respite from his work; and Kit, Meg’s younger brother, who quite literally worships Flora, looking up to her as a sort of benefactor or mentor.

While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her good intentions often causing more harm than good. Kit, an aspiring actor, has very little real talent, but Flora encourages him terribly, building up his hopes and dreams with the best of intentions even though everyone else can see how futile and potentially damaging this is proving to be. Flora, however, always thinks she knows what’s best for her friends, even if they can’t see this for themselves. Here’s a typical example of Flora in action – in this scene, she is talking to Ba, Percy’s level-headed lady friend and prospective partner in life.

‘Why don’t you have a cat?’ Flora asked.

‘I don’t want a cat.’

‘But it would be lovely for you. Percy likes cats.’

‘Well, Percy’s got a cat,’

Flora, in fact, had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable at all. Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine. (p. 18)

Right from the start, Flora’s mother, the well-intentioned Mrs Secretan, encouraged her daughter (an only child) to adopt only the rosiest view of human nature; and none of Flora’s experiences since then have succeeded in altering this mindset. To a certain extent, Flora has been shielded from the harsh realities of life by those around her. First by her mother in those early years, then by Meg who recognised that the protective environment nurtured by Mrs Secretan could not be broken down without consequences. Now the bulk of the responsibility for preserving Flora’s happiness has passed to Richard, a task he clearly acknowledges as presenting difficulties from time to time. In this scene, Richard is wondering why he has not told Flora about a chance encounter with one of his neighbours, the rather lonely Elinor Pringle, a woman with whom he has developed a close friendship. While Elinor is not in love with Richard, she values his companionship, someone to talk to and have a drink with every now and again while her busy politician husband is caught up in his own world.

To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled. (p. 71-72)

Slowly but surely over the course of the novel, Elizabeth Taylor reveals the true extent of Flora’s lack of self-awareness and her rather blinkered view of the lives of those around her. Flora has very little understanding of the real impact of her acts of ‘kindness’ on her closest friends and family, a point that hits home to Mrs Secretan when she finds this letter from her daughter at the end of the wedding.

Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me. (p. 13)

[…]

She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes. (p. 15)

Mrs Secretan is a typical Elizabeth Taylor character. There is a sense of despondency about her, knowing as she does that a life of loneliness almost certainly lies ahead now that Flora has flown the nest. There are some priceless scenes between Mrs Secretan and her slightly dotty housekeeper, Miss Folley, a woman whose pride is wounded when she discovers she is the source of some amusement and frustration in the Secretan household.

Flora’s friend, Meg, is another lonely woman; in love with the wrong person – Patrick, the writer, who happens to be gay – she feels the burden of responsibility for supporting Kit, both financially and emotionally, while Flora fills his head with dreams of an acting career. In the face of diminishing funds, Meg is forced to look for a new place to live, somewhere outside of London. Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, suggests Towersey, a little town by the Thames, and he and Meg spend a dispiriting Saturday afternoon looking at one dismal dwelling after another. Eventually, Meg settles on the least-worst option, the best of a bad lot. Once again, Taylor conveys the quiet tragedy of Meg’s life through her wonderful observations, perfectly capturing the sadness and isolation of her circumstances. Moreover, the melancholy mood is reflected in the descriptions of the atmosphere and late afternoon light in dreary Towersey.

Patrick too has problems of his own having fallen for the thoroughly unsuitable Frankie, a somewhat petulant and unreliable young man who seems out for what he can get. Flora, for her part, simply cannot work out why Patrick doesn’t ask Meg to marry him, refusing to believe all the talk of him being gay. As far as Flora is concerned, these fanciful ideas are just gossip.

While I may have made this sound like a sad novel, there are some brilliant flashes of humour here too. Percy, Flora’s blustering father-in-law, is a marvellous creation, a traditional man with rather conventional views about life and women. He is forever meddling in Richard’s business affairs, returning to the factory and poking his nose into things even though he has supposedly retired from work. Percy features in several wonderful passages, but I couldn’t resist including this one. Ba – now Percy’s wife – has gone on a trip to France, leaving Percy to fend for himself for a week. As a consequence, he decides to call on Flora in the hope of being invited to dinner – Alice is Flora and Richard’s baby daughter, Mrs Lodge their housekeeper.

Mrs Lodge opened the door to him. Although it was only half-past five a faint but appetising smell of roasting meat came up the stairs. It must be a very large joint to have been put on so early, he decided. There would be plenty for him, but he hoped there wasn’t going to be a dinner party. Of course, they lived well, he thought vaguely, taking off his overcoat and handing it to Mrs Lodge, who almost staggered under its weight.

Patrick Barlow stood up as the drawing-room door was opened. Always here, thought Percy. He wondered why Richard did not put his put his foot down. Flora sat on the sofa. Alice was on her lap, having her napkins changed.

Good God, thought Percy. […]

In the drawing-room, he thought. In company. (p. 139-140)

The Soul of Kindness is another brilliant novel from Elizabeth Taylor, one that features so many little insights into different aspects of human nature it’s hard to convey them all here. This novel is not just about Flora and her lack of understanding; it’s just as much about the other characters and their troubles too. There are instances of wounded pride, unrequited love, the need for a little warmth and affection, loneliness, worthlessness, bitterness and guilt. In the end though, the story comes back to Flora and the fallout from her misguided actions. Perhaps only one character in the novel – the bohemian painter, Liz Corbett, a friend of Patrick’s and Kit’s – can see Flora for what she truly is: a dangerous and deluded creature. Interestingly, Liz never actual meets Flora in person, she only hears about her through the other characters.

Things come to a head towards the end of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover the denouement for yourselves – it’s well worth doing so.

The Soul of Kindness is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

First published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin consists of a series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by the author’s time in the city during the early 1930s. Originally destined to form part of a large episodic novel focusing on the pre-Hitler era, Goodbye can now be viewed as a companion piece to Isherwood’s earlier novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Together, the two books form The Berlin Novels, published in the UK by Vintage Books. Given the fact that Mr Norris made my end-of-year highlights in 2016, I had high hopes for this second instalment – luckily it did not disappoint.

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Goodbye opens with A Berlin Diary, a series of vignettes taken from the autumn of 1930 when Isherwood was living in a room at a traditional boarding house in the heart of the city. It’s an interesting place, full of colourful characters, all of whom remain under the watchful eye of the landlady, the inquisitive but kindly Frl. Schroeder. Christopher – or ‘Herr Issyvoo’ as she calls him – is clearly her favourite. This chapter acts as an excellent scene-setter, giving the reader a brief flavour of some of the inhabitants of the house: there is the young lady of the night, Frl. Kost; the butch music-hall singer, Frl. Mayr; and the smartly-dresser mixer from the Troika bar, Bobby. It all makes for an eclectic mix, especially given the fact that Bobby and Frl. Kost are having an affair, a development that may well explain Frl. Schroeder’s jealousy over the girl.

Without a doubt, the standout piece in this novel is the second story, Sally Bowles. An English girl by birth, 19-year-old Sally came to Berlin with a girlfriend in the hope of finding work as a singer/actress. By the time she meets Christopher through a mutual friend, Sally is just about scraping a living, singing (quite badly) at one of the city’s bars, the Lady Windermere. Nevertheless, she makes quite an impression on Christopher, dressed as she is in black silk ‘with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head’. Here’s a brief excerpt from Christopher’s first encounter with Sally, a meeting which takes place at their friend’s flat – Sally has just asked her friend Fritz if she can use his phone.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’ Her mouth opened in a fatuously sweet smile. Fritz and I sat watching her, like a performance at the theatre.

[…]

She hung up the receiver and turned to us triumphantly.

‘That’s the man I slept with last night,’ she announced. He makes love marvellously. He’s an absolute genius at business and he’s terribly rich –’ She came and sat down on the sofa beside Fritz, sinking back into the cushions with a sigh. ‘Give me some coffee, will you, darling? I’m simply dying of thirst.’ (p. 269, The Berlin Novels)

I love that passage as it seems to capture the essence of Sally’s character – in particular, her alluring voice and provocative behaviour.

Fairly soon after their first meeting, Sally invites Christopher to tea at her lodgings a gloomy semi-furnished place presided over by a rather eccentric old landlady. Before long the pair strike up a somewhat unlikely friendship, spending time with one another on a fairly regular basis, much to the delight of Frl. Schroeder who imagines Sally as a potential partner for her favourite boarder.

The afternoon Sally came to tea with me, Frl. Schroeder was beside herself with excitement. She put on her best dress for the occasion and waved her hair. When the door-bell rang, she threw open the door with a flourish. ‘Herr Issyvoo,’ she announced, winking knowingly at me and speaking very loud, ‘there’s a lady to see you!’ (p.280) 

While she longs to be a famous actress, Sally never makes much of an effort to find any suitable work. Instead, she falls for a handsome musician, Klaus, the pianist from the Lady Windermere. In time, this relationship breaks down, but Sally soon gets over it. She gets by on a diet of cigarettes and Prairie Oysters, forever hoping that a rich lover might come along to keep her in the manner to which she aspires. It’s an utterly charming story, a wonderful tribute to this larger-than-life character from Isherwood’s past.

On Ruegen Island, the third piece in the sequence, tells of a summer Christopher spends by the Baltic Sea. While there he meets two other men: Peter Wilkinson, a rather nervous, uptight English chap of a similar age to Isherwood himself, and Otto Nowak, a 16-year-old working class boy from Berlin. Although Peter and Otto are living together, their relationship is far from solid. Otto, a gregarious, physical lad, is keen to go dancing most evenings, while Peter prefers to stay in their room (or to spend time with Christopher, with whom he seems to have more in common). Somewhat inevitably, Peter and Otto’s relationship comes to an end, and the two men go their separate ways: Peter back to England and Otto to Berlin.

Once he is back in the capital, Christopher re-establishes contact with Otto in the hope of finding a cheap room in his part of the city. As it happens, Frau Nowak (Otto’s mother) takes a shine to her son’s rather cultured friend, and Christopher ends up moving into the Nowaks’ crowded flat, a noisy, damp and smelly dwelling in one of the city’s dilapidated tenement buildings. What follows is a series of colourful vignettes as Christopher finds himself caught in the middle of the Nowaks’ antics. Young Otto proves to be a source of near-constant torment to his mother, forever lazing around the place and getting under her feet as she tries to manage the busy household. Otto, for his part, enjoys making mischief, winding up his mother in the process. It all makes for plenty of fun. Eventually though, Christopher finds life at the Nowaks too distracting; the time has come for him to move on.

At various points in the novel, Isherwood makes reference to the political climate in Berlin at the time. Here’s one of the earliest mentions, taken from the autumn of 1930.

One night in October 1930, about a month after the Elections, there was a big row on the Leipzigerstrasse. Gangs of Nazi roughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews. They manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians, and smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops. The incident was not, in itself, very remarkable, there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests. I remember it only because it was my first introduction to Berlin politics. (p. 409)

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, these instances increase in frequency. Berlin is changing, the atmosphere becoming increasingly uneasy and dangerous by the day, the Nazis more visible on the streets. The outlook is particularly uncertain for the Jews in the city, families like the wealthy and successful Landauers, the subject of the fifth section of the book. Natalia Landauer is a very forthright young lady, and Christopher strikes up a friendship with her by way of a letter of introduction to the household. Perhaps the most interesting character here is Natalia’s cousin, Bernhard, manager of the family’s upmarket department store in Berlin. There is something terribly tragic about Bernhard, a complex character who puzzles, intrigues and frustrates Christopher in fairly equal measure. Once again, the feeling of a world about to crumble is hovering in the background. In this scene, Christopher is at a garden party at Bernhard’s villa in the country. It is the day of a referendum to decide the fate of the Brüning government.

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought of Natalia: she has escaped – none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is a dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch. (p. 453)

As the book draws to a close in the winter of 1932-3, there is a sense of people slowly acclimatising to the new reality of the city, Berliners like Frl. Schroeder who seemed destined to remain there forever.

I really loved this novel with its wealth of engaging vignettes and striking cast of characters. As one might expect, Isherwood’s evocation of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures a little of the book’s humour. It’s typical of some of the passages in the Berlin diaries that bookend the novel. This passage makes reference to a letter Frl. Schroeder has received from one of her former boarders, the singer Frl. Mayr.

Frl. Mayr has also had trouble with her colleagues. At one town, a rival actress jealous of Frl. Mayr’s vocal powers, tried to stab her in the eye with a hairpin. I can’t help admiring that actress’s courage. When Frl. Mayr had finished with her, she was so badly injured that she couldn’t appear on the stage again for a week. (p. 471)

My thanks to Max who persuaded me to read the Berlin novels in the first place – you can read his excellent review of Goodbye here.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

While reading Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori last year, I was reminded of the delights of Barbara Pym’s novels, two of which I read in 2016: Excellent Women and No Fond Return of Love. They came as a set of three from The Book People, the third being Crampton Hodnet, which was published posthumously in 1985. In spite of its late publication date, Crampton was actually written in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of WW2, an event which resulted in Pym’s attention being directed towards her work in the WRNS. When she returned to the novel in the mid-1940s, it seemed to her to be too dated to be publishable at the time, so it sat among her papers until her death in 1980. Viewed from a 21st-century perspective, Crampton doesn’t seem too dated at all. There is a timeless quality to many of the emotions and behaviours on display here, and they remain just as relevant today as they were back in Pym’s heyday.

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Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s, a familiar Pym world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, romantic students and gossipy women. At the centre of this close community are the redoubtable Miss Doggett and her paid companion, the much younger Miss Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties’ who seems old before her time. In spite of being considered as somewhat ‘unworldly’, Miss Morrow is in fact rather more perceptive than other people realise. She is kind, level-headed and tolerant, especially when it comes to dealing with her demanding employer. Here is a wonderful introduction to the meddling Miss Doggett – some male undergraduates are about to arrive for afternoon tea.

‘Well, hurry up! The young men will be arriving soon,’ said Miss Doggett. She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many golden chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself. She pushed past Miss Morrow, who was hovering in the doorway, and entered the drawing-room. (pp. 4-5)

Into this community comes a handsome new curate, the charming Stephen Latimer, who soon finds himself moving into Leamington Lodge, the home of Miss Doggett and her companion. One of the most interesting elements of this novel is the relationship that develops between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow, an easy friendship at least in the first instance.

But Mr Latimer was glad when, by some movement of the crowd, he found himself next to Miss Morrow. If he had analysed his feelings he would have realised that he turned to her with relief, as one does to a person with whom one need not make conversation. But there was no personal quality in his feeling for her. He regarded her simply as a man might regard a comfortable chair by the fire, where he can sit with his slippers on and a pipe in his mouth.

Miss Morrow felt this, but it did not worry her. Inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people, she thought. (p. 38)

Not long after he moves in, Mr Latimer misses evensong after getting delayed during a mildly furtive walk in the country with Miss Morrow, an episode that gives rise to him telling a white lie in the hope of covering his tracks. Meeting the vicar’s wife on his return, Latimer claims he was helping a colleague at another parish in the Cotswolds – in the non-existent village of Crampton Hodnet, hence the novel’s unusual title. Of course the vicar’s wife suspects a budding romance may be developing between the new curate and Miss Doggett’s companion – and perhaps she could be on to something there, as it’s not long before Mr Latimer decides that ‘he might do worse’ than marry Miss Morrow. There are hints of some scandalous entanglements with women in Stephen Latimer’s past, so a sensible wife and helpmeet might just be the answer to the complications that can arise from potential admirers. What follows is a desperate attempt at a half-hearted marriage proposal on the part of Mr Latimer, one which leaves Miss Morrow in no doubt that she must turn it down. Miss Morrow is a bit of a romantic at heart, and it is love she is hoping for, not respect and admiration.

And then, how much more sensible it was to satisfy one’s springlike impulses by buying a new dress in an unaccustomed and thoroughly unsuitable colour than by embarking on a marriage without love. For, after all, respect and esteem were cold, lifeless things – dry bones picked clean of flesh. There was nothing springlike about dry bones, nothing warm and romantic about respect and esteem. (p. 118)

Alongside the Latimer-Morrow storyline, there is another romantic entanglement at play here as Francis Cleveland, a married University tutor in his fifties, loses his head over one of his students, the pretty and intelligent Barbara Bird. Francis, who also happens to be Miss Doggett’s nephew, is treading water in a staid but comfortable marriage to his wife of over twenty years, the efficient and level-headed Margaret. In essence, he feels somewhat marginalised and redundant in his own household. When Miss Doggett spots Francis taking Miss Bird to tea, she is convinced that something untoward is afoot. Even though she is desperate to meddle in her nephew’s affairs, Miss Doggett decides to keep a watching brief on the situation in the hope that it will develop into something even more scandalous in the future.

‘I do not think it is really our business,’ said Miss Doggett. ‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind. It was quite possible that there would be further incidents in the story. It would be much more interesting to wait. It was really not her duty to tell Margaret about last week, but it might very well be to confront her with a complete and convincing story of her husband’s unfaithfulness. (pp. 75-76)

This element of the story gives rises to several priceless scenes as Francis starts behaving like a love-struck teenager, declaring his passion for Barbara in the middle of the British Museum, an outburst that causes the young girl to pause and think again. In spite of her romantic tendencies, Barbara knows that her love is a wild, school-girl crush, not something deep and meaningful to be acted upon or taken seriously. If that were to be the case, who knows what might happen?

How could she explain to him what her love was like? That although it was a love stronger than death, it wasn’t the kind of love one did anything about? On the contrary, doing nothing about it was one of its chief characteristics, because if one did anything it would be different – it might even disappear altogether. (p.126)

Other calamities soon follow including a slightly unfortunate trip along the river and a romantic adventure that doesn’t quite go according to plan. There is also space in this novel for a third romance, the blossoming of young love between Francis and Margaret’s attractive young daughter, Anthea Cleveland, and the ambitious young undergrad, Simon Beddoes.

All in all, Crampton Hodnet is a thoroughly charming and engaging social comedy. In fact, I think it’s the funniest of the three Pyms I’ve read to date. While Crampton does not necessarily have as much depth as Excellent Women, it is an extremely enjoyable novel, all the more so for its pin-sharp characterisation and multitude of hilarious developments. In some ways, the book seems to be saying that wild, passionate, ‘romantic’ love is rather idealised and troublesome, whereas a love that is lasting and fulfilling is much harder to find. Irrespective of the central message, the scenes in this novel are so brilliantly observed, underscored as they are with Pym’s trademark insight and wit – even the little details are spot-on. I couldn’t resist this final quote about Mrs Doggett and her hat (Pym is marvellous when it comes to capturing a character through their dress or hat).

Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow were sitting side by side on the sofa. Miss Doggett was wearing a terrifying new hat trimmed with a whole covey of cyclamen-coloured birds, but Miss Morrow was her usual drably comforting self. (p. 248)

As the story draws to a close, there is a sense that life in North Oxford will continue as before from one academic year to the next; it is only some of the people who will change.

Crampton Hodnet is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Bellos)

With more than 280 books to his credit, Frédéric Dard was one of France’s most popular and productive post-war novelists. He was also a close friend of Georges Simenon, a fact which makes a great deal of sense given the similarities in style – you can read about Dard here in this interesting piece from The Observer. First published in French in 1961, Bird in a Cage is one of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, a dark and unsettling mystery with a psychological edge. It’s an utterly brilliant noir, probably my favourite of the six Pushkin Vertigo titles I’ve read to date.

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As the novel opens, Albert (the narrator) has just returned to his former home in Levallois in the suburbs of Paris following a period of six years. (At first the reason for Albert’s absence is unclear, but all is revealed a little later as his backstory comes to light.) His loneliness and sense of unease are palpable from the outset – a lost soul entering a damp and empty flat on Christmas Eve, the place where his mother died some four years earlier.

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity. (p.7)

In an attempt to reconnect with life and his memories of happier times, Albert heads out into the streets of Levallois which are bustling with activity. Stopping at a shop, he decides to buy a Christmas trinket, ‘a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter-dust’, complete with an exotic bird fashioned out of blue and yellow velvet. For some inexplicable reason, Albert feels better after purchasing the bird; it’s as if it reminds him of his childhood.

I was glad there were people inside the shop. It meant I could linger, inspect its inexpensive treats and rediscover images of my childhood that I felt in special need of that day. (p. 11)

In time, Albert goes into a restaurant, an upmarket establishment he always wanted to visit as a child but was never able to. Inside the restaurant, Albert catches sight of an attractive woman, someone who reminds him very strongly of a girl he used to know, someone from his dark and mysterious past. The woman is with her young daughter, but there is no man on the scene; in some ways, their shared loneliness strikes Albert as being even more tragic than his own. After exchanging glances a few times during their meals, Albert and the woman end up leaving the restaurant at the same time. It could be a coincidence, but maybe it isn’t…

We came together again at the exit. I held the door open. She thanked me and her heart-rending gaze hit me point blank. She had eyes I couldn’t describe but could have looked at for hours without stirring, without speaking, and maybe even without thinking. (p. 17)

Before long, Albert finds himself accompanying the woman and her daughter back to their home, an apartment attached to a book binder’s premises, a dark and creepy place served by a steel cage lift. Once inside the woman’s flat, Albert is drawn into a disorientating situation; a number of baffling events take place, the true significance of which only become clear to Albert as the night unfolds.

Right from the start there is a sense of unreality to this story, almost as though Albert is in a dream – or maybe nightmare would be a better way of describing it. As Albert enters the woman’s flat, it is as if he is stepping into an ‘unexpected labyrinth’. At certain points during the night, our protagonist wonders whether he is hallucinating, calling into question his own senses in the process.

At the centre of this story is a crime, one that is fiendishly clever in its execution. I don’t want to say too much about this, but suffice it to say that poor Albert finds himself caught in the middle of it. As this fateful night unravels, there is at least one occasion when Albert could walk away from the situation, removing himself from any imminent danger in the process. Instead, he chooses to remain close at hand, almost as though he is fascinated by this woman and everything she appears to represent.

Threaded through the novella are Dard’s wonderful descriptions of Albert’s surroundings, little touches that add to the unsettling, melancholy mood of the story. Here’s a typical example.

This Christmas morning was sinister—overcast, with a cold breeze sure to bring snow. The area felt dead and the few passers-by who hurried along close to the walls to keep out of the wind had faces even more grey than the sky. (p. 112)

All in all, this very gripping noir is a fine addition to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this strange and unnerving night. As Albert reflects the next morning:

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do… (pg. 123)

Guy and Max enjoyed this novella too – just click on the links to read their excellent reviews.

Bird in a Cage is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate 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 people 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. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!