Tag Archives: France

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

The Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li has been on my radar for a while, ever since her 2019 novel Where Reasons End popped up in my Twitter timeline with recommendations from readers I trust. Published last year with equally positive reviews, The Book of Goose is my first experience of Li’s work, but hopefully not my last. It’s a strange, compelling, captivating novel, full of different layers and ideas. On one level, we have a story about childhood friendship, devotion, manipulation and the power dynamics of relationships; but on another, the novel digs deep into the power of storytelling and the games children play to escape boredom – how fantasies can become truths if we pursue them too avidly, blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary. There’s so much to absorb with this one, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a long time to come…

The book opens in 1966 with the passing mention of a death in a letter. Twenty-seven-year-old Agnès – now married and living in America with her husband, Earl – receives news that her childhood friend, Fabienne, has died in childbirth. The letter set off a series of memories for Agnès, reminiscences of her close, intense friendship with Fabienne, the two girls having grown up together in the farming village of Saint Rémy in France.

Rewinding to France in the early 1950s, we find Agnès and Fabienne at thirteen, growing up in a poverty-stricken post-war environment with little external excitement to stimulate their curiosity. As is often the case in such friendships, the two girls are the polar opposites of one another. While Fabienne is the natural leader – bold, creative, insolent and unpolished – Agnès is the more passive of the two – a follower by nature, keen to please Fabienne with her loyalty and compliance.

But were we not, in a sense, two blind girls? One would walk everywhere as though not a single mine were buried in the field. The other would not find the courage to take a step because the whole world was a minefield. Had they not been placed side by side by fate, they would have lived out their different lots. But that was not the case for us. Fabienne and I were in this world together, and we had only each other’s hands to hold on to. She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will. (p. 122)

One of the things Li does so well here is to capture the close, obsessive nature of the girls’ friendship, particularly how Agnès longs to be with Fabienne every spare minute of the day. We see the girls playing games together, often hanging out in the village cemetery, with Agnès posing questions to Fabienne about life’s great mysteries and the possibility of death.

Fabienne frequently invents games for the two friends to play, largely to alleviate the boredom of their lives. One day, she comes up with a plan to write a sensational book as a sort of collaboration between the two girls. With her highly imaginative mind, Fabienne will create a series of macabre, sinister stories, while Agnès will draw on her well-developed penmanship skills to write them down and pose as the book’s author. When it comes to securing a publisher, Fabienne is smart enough to realise that Agnès is best placed to ‘front’ the book, largely due to the latter’s patient, biddable nature and higher standard of education.

Following some input from the local postmaster – a poetry-loving widower Fabienne manipulates as part of her plan – the stories are published to great critical success. Agnès is hailed as a child prodigy, ‘a savage young chronicler of postwar life with a mind drawn to morbidity’. As such, she finds herself on the end of considerable interest from the press, keen to gain an insight into her life and creative talents.

But I [Agnès] was lucky to have come up with how best to present myself as a child author: I was imagining a person who was half Fabienne and half Agnès, and I had no trouble stepping into the shoes of that person. A mysterious girl who had made up for her lack of education with good intuition—that was what the press needed to see. (p. 86)

After serving a useful purpose, the postmaster is swiftly dispatched by Fabienne in another of her manipulative plans – a move that illustrates how calculating she can be when faced with a potential threat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, literary success opens up some exciting new opportunities for Agnès, who soon finds herself at Woodsway, a prestigious finishing school in England run by the formidable Mrs Townsend. This changes the dynamics between the two childhood friends as Agnès mixes with the other schoolgirls – all from wealthy families of a higher social class – while Fabienne stays in Saint Rémy. In essence, Fabienne seems quite content for Agnès to be out there in the world, experiencing things that will be useful for their forthcoming books.

Despite missing her soulmate terribly, Agnès becomes more assertive and rebellious at Woodsway, while Fabienne continues to orchestrate the dynamics of the girls’ relationship through her letters from home. With Agnès becoming increasingly restless and unhappy with the strict regime at the school, the stage is set for a denouement of sorts, but I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot for fear of revealing any spoilers.

In some respects, The Book of Goose reads like a fairy story or fable with a fatalistic undercurrent throughout – a kind of darkness or unease that permeates the book. Li makes great use of various metaphors and symbols in the narrative – for instance, apples, oranges and knives, with Agnès acting as ‘a whetstone to Fabienne’s blade’. The childhood game of paper-scissors-stone is another highly relevant metaphor, capturing something of the dynamics of the story and its leading players – the smart but manipulative Fabienne and the naïve yet hopeful Agnès.

Often I imagine that living is a game of rock-paper-scissors: fate beats hope, hope beats ignorance, and ignorance beats fate. Or, in a version that has preoccupied me: the fatalistic attracts the hopeful, the hopeful attracts the ignorant, and the ignorant, the fatalistic. (p. 106)

Some of the most beguiling aspects of Goose stem from the philosophical reflections and questions Li weaves into her book. While some of these represent the adult Agnès’ reminiscences of her childhood with Fabienne, others take the form of questions the two girls discuss as adolescents while hanging out in the cemetery. The existential nature of these questions fits so naturally within the text, capturing the kinds of discussions about life, growing up, ghosts and death one could easily imagine happening between girls of this age.

Another element that Li handles particularly well is how fantasies and stories can become forms of ‘truth’ to those involved if pursued very rigorously, blurring the margins between the imaginary and reality. While Fabienne invents fantasies and games as a way of dealing with boredom and an indifferent world, Agnès is thrilled to play along in the hope these fantasies can continue indefinitely.

Fabienne and I had raised ourselves to be the best make-believers. The world was often inconvenient or indifferent to us, and it was our ingenuity that made what was inconvenient and indifferent interesting: the stinging nettles left bloody marks on our legs as we ran, but we pretended that those were the nail scratches of the girls greedy for our attention; […] A hard life, unlike what we were taught at school, did not make us virtuous; the hardest life was the most boring, the most unrewarding. How else could we overcome this boredom but to bring ourselves up in our own make-believe, which, as we grew older, had become more elaborate, more exhilarating, and, most of all, closer to the truth? (p. 307)

Nevertheless, only Fabienne is mature enough to realise these games must come to a natural end. While Agnès wants a form of their childhood to go on forever, Fabienne knows it cannot last. The intensity of their friendship has been sustained by the fantasies of adolescence, but the adult world is beckoning, and their current relationship might struggle to survive. Soon there will be considerable pressure for the girls to get married and have children; it’s what their families expect of them, especially given their upbringing.

This is such a thoughtful, intelligent book, full of meaning and mystery. A captivating story of obsessive childhood friendship and the alluring nature of fantasies. A layered, literary novel – beautiful, strange and beguiling.

The Book of Goose is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute by Lauren Elkin

Earlier this year, I read and loved Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s fascinating exploration of notable flâneuses down the years, a book that celebrates various women walkers in touch with their cities. Elkin’s latest book, No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute, shares something with its predecessor – a curiosity and a sense of engagement with the inhabitants of a metropolis.

From September 2014 to May 2015, while teaching at a Paris university, Elkin jotted down various notes during her twice-weekly bus journeys to and from work (the numbers 91 and 92 refer to the bus routes she used). These diary-style entries are presented in No. 91/92 with very few edits, preserving the spontaneous, unfiltered feel of Elkin’s impressions. The initial aim was for Elkin to observe her surroundings from the position of a commuter, using her phone to note these thoughts and observations; however, as the project progressed, a more personal record emerged – something I’ll return to later in this review.

Elkin openly acknowledges a debt to Georges Perec here. His book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (a collection of observations which Perec wrote as he sat in a café in Saint-Sulpice Square for three days in 1974), is clearly a touchtone for Elkin, as is the work of Annie Ernaux. Like Perec, Elkin is interested in capturing the regular rhythms of everyday life – not the big dramatic events or occurrences, but the small micro-observations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The individual entries vary in length from just a few sentences (often unpunctuated) to a couple of paragraphs – few vignettes extend over a page. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elkin’s fellow commuters feature heavily in these notes, highlighting a sense of curiosity about other people’s lives and the stories we imagine from the clues and hints we can see.

I clamber into a seat and move aside the coat of the man sitting next to me to keep from sitting on it. Excusez-moi I say politely. I have a headache. He is wearing too much cologne. When this man gets off the bus I notice his head is completely bald under his blue woolen beanie. Not the kind of bald that comes naturally for some men with age. I don’t know how I know he’s been sick, it’s just something I feel I know. (p. 17)

Some passages are playful, almost like flash non-fiction or poetry, often demonstrating a sharp sense of wit.

Blue tutu Chanel bag fake lashes girl you look amazing. (p. 35)

Your glittery sandals are awful but the rest of your outfit is good. (p. 27)

Occasional flashes of anger and frustration burst through, especially in Elkin’s observations of other commuters’ treatment of their fellow passengers, particularly women. Bus etiquette and common codes of courtesy feature regularly in these notes. For instance, the reluctance of some passengers to slide over to an adjacent window seat when another person wishes to sit, forcing the latter to clamber over them to reach the unoccupied space.

When Elkin falls pregnant, she starts noticing different things on her journeys, such as the practicalities of getting on and off the bus with toddlers in strollers, what children do on the bus, and how pregnant women are treated – sometimes very poorly.

A pregnant woman tries to get on but another woman nearly throws her off the step in her hurry to get on the bus first. She finally makes it on but the only open seat is inhabited by a woman’s bag. The pregnant woman is able to make her move it but only with effort. The woman thinks her bag needs her seat more than a woman with a soccer ball for a stomach. (p. 82)

It’s a revealing picture, highlighting how, in our rush to save time, we often lose sight of general pleasantries towards others, especially those who may be more vulnerable or fragile than ourselves.

As the diary progresses, the tone changes somewhat as we realise both Elkin and the city of Paris are dealing with the fallout from loss. For Elkin, it is the loss of an unborn child due to an ectopic pregnancy, an experience that leaves her feeling shattered – both physically and emotionally.

The days have come apart. I don’t leave the bed. Don’t use my phone except to write this. Check email on my laptop. I can’t answer any messages though people send nice ones.

I watch television, I lose myself in other people’s plot lines, I watch people who exist pretend to be people who don’t exist. (p. 101)

For Paris, it’s the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which prompts the city’s inhabitants to reflect – an incident that ultimately leads to twelve deaths and the injury of several others. As Parisians try to process the impact of the attack, a delicate balance emerges. While most people feel anxious, as if their world has shifted in some terrible, uncontrollable way, this is balanced by a sense of defiance, a necessity to carry on as normal to get through the days.

20/01/15

Tuesday morning

We’re all thinking the same thing, it’s the first day back to work since it all happened and it feels like we swallowed something down the wrong pipe and we’re just starting to be able to take regular breaths again we came out of our houses ok I came out of my house and we marched in defiance but the defiance has taken a backseat to our commute as we try to get on with things even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week. (p. 50)

What works so well here is Elkin’s ability to capture the sense of togetherness that stems from the regular commute, especially in a time of crisis. While each individual traveller is alone with their own thoughts and preoccupations, they are also united with several others through a shared activity and spirit.

The penultimate entry in the book is one of the most thoughtful and reflective. Writing in November 2015, a day or two after the Bataclan attacks, when the mundanity of everyday life was so cruelly interrupted, Elkin begins to see things in a slightly different light, one that emphasises the fragile nature of our existence and how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments. A train caught or missed; a decision to go out or stay in; the choice of one concert over another. These reflections and more highlight the importance of appreciating our surroundings, the sense of wonder to be found in the ordinary and everyday.

In summary then, a really interesting book that may well inspire readers to look at their immediate world with a fresh perspective, ready to jot down whatever catches their eye.

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is published by Les Fugitives; personal copy.

Clouds Over Paris by Felix Hartlaub (tr. Simon Beattie)

When I was casting around for something suitable to read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month, Clouds Over Paris (The Wartime Notebooks of Felix Hartlaub) caught my eye. It’s a series of vignettes and observations penned by the German-born historian and fledgling writer Felix Hartlaub, who was posted to Paris in 1940 as a researcher for the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his time in the French capital, Hartlaub recorded his impressions of a city under occupation, frequently finding beauty amid the harsh realities of war. As such, Clouds Over Paris offers readers the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of an outsider, a man who felt somewhat uncomfortable about his presence as a German national.

Hartlaub’s style is wonderfully impressionistic (almost stream-of-consciousness in style), and the notebooks are full of evocative imagery, capturing the feel of a city under siege. With an artist’s eye for detail, he writes vividly of soldiers hanging out in cafés and bars, Parisians queuing for food at a butcher’s shop, and anglers fishing in the Seine, their wives desperately waiting to bag any catches. The night-time scenes are particularly atmospheric, with the eerie silence accentuating the sound of soldiers’ movements through the streets.

Blackout. There is an eleven o’clock curfew for Parisians. Only occupying forces are left on the streets, which are deathly quiet. Military boots, solitary or in groups, the odd civilian scooting past, the brim of his hat pulled down low. A breezy night, some big marauding clouds float past at a reasonable height, a burnt-brownish colour. In a patchy bank of cloud, scattered spots of moonlight. Further south, in the rough direction of the Dôme des Invalides, a searchlight shoots up, fixing on a low, ragged cloud, which appears to stop, stretching out paws anew.  The searchlight, cut off from the ground, dies away in a fraction of a second. (p. 59)

Something that comes across very strongly here is the sense of discomfort Hartlaub feels about his presence in the city. Unsurprisingly, he is met with suspicion by the French – as an outsider and an occupier, there is an air of isolation surrounding him as he goes about his day.

The icy ring of alienation and mistrust he has cast about him. He is firmly pinned down within it, his gestures winning no space, his words lacking the air to carry. […]

A couple in the neighbouring séparé, back-to-back with him. Muffled words into each other’s shoulders, the silence of long kisses. The couple leave, eyeing him as they go past, in his empty red mirrored compartment. He returns their gaze: benign, full of admiration, and at the same time veiled, not quite there. (pp. 36–37)

Journeys on the Métro only heighten this sense of unease, especially when Hartlaub is required to show his travel pass, the distinctive colouring of which clearly reveals his nationality. Interestingly though, he is equally uneasy in the company of German soldiers with whom he feels ‘no connection whatsoever’ as his eyes land on their epaulettes.

Alongside the fragments of encounters between soldiers and various ladies of the nights, there are some marvellously evocative descriptions of the buildings in Paris, ranging from views of the city’s streets to a sequence of sketches of a once-glamorous hotel, now a little careworn in the midst of occupation. Night-time trysts are a regular occurrence here, as are minor infringements of the blackout regulations. Nevertheless, the staff go about their usual business as far as possible, from the three lift operators, each with his own distinctive personality, to the room service staff, expertly manoeuvring their trays with precision.

Room service staff scoot across the carpets: a hive of activity, as nearly all the milords and ladies breakfast in bed. The heavy tray clamped at shoulder height, head tucked at an angle. The other hand is for opening doors. The long coat-tails like the wing-cases of giant beetles. One, with thick horn-rimmed spectacles, sweaty red face, a strong smell of wine sometimes trailing behind him, is a farmer’s boy from Picardy. The stiff curved shirt front, clippers for ration cards in his pocket on a silver chain. (pp. 114–115)

Hartlaub writes particularly vividly about the skies over Paris, capturing the various colours, the shapes of clouds and the contrast between light and shade with consummate ease. (The notebook entries cover the period from March to August 1941, with Hartlaub taking the opportunity to record a wide range of impressions, reflecting seasonal changes and variations in weather.) Despite the trials of war, he clearly finds immense beauty in the Paris skyline, especially in spring.

The reflection of the Seine carries the pale brightness of the western sky away to the left, to the east. Approaching frost spices the air, yet the weeping willow which leans out over the river from the Square Notre-Dame is already covered with green. The thick, broad crowns of the chestnut trees, which, neither discoloured nor deformed, have managed to retain all that frost and moisture and hold up the snowy sky, are now seized with white foam, pale bursting stars. (p. 43)

Sadly, Hartlaub died in 1945, disappearing from Berlin just days before the war ended. As such, he never had the opportunity to see his work in print. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether he thought of these fragments as notes for a future novel or a private record of his time in Paris. Many of the passages break off suddenly, and there are a number of omissions that give some of the vignettes an unfinished feel. Nevertheless, the book offers a fascinating insight into an occupied city glimpsed from the perspective of an outsider who felt uncomfortable about certain aspects of the war.

Clouds Over Paris was translated by Simon Beattie and published by Pushkin Press in 2022 – making the book available in English for the first time. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

The critically-acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux is fast becoming one of my favourite chroniclers of the female experience. She writes with remarkable honesty, clarity and a note of vulnerability about various aspects of life, including adolescence, lovemaking, abortion and family. Throughout her work there is an interest in broader society, from social development and progression, to the relationship between individual and collective experiences. 

In Simple Passion (which clocks in at just under 40 pages), Ernaux reflects on the emotional impact of her two-year affair with an attractive married man in the late 1980s. Ernaux is approaching fifty at this time, while her lover — a smart, well-dressed Eastern European with a resemblance to Alain Delon — is thirteen years younger. The passion she feels for this man – referred to as ‘A’ in the book – is all-consuming, to the extent where virtually everything she does revolves around their liaison.

I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment. (p. 13)

All other activities — work, reading, the routines of day-to-day life — are for Ernaux simply a means of filling in time between their hastily-arranged meetings. He communicates with her by phone, often at short notice, whenever an opportunity arises for him to get away.

What Ernaux does so well here is to convey the emotional impact of living her life almost entirely to fit around the availability of her lover. She captures the uncertainly of waiting by the phone, not knowing when he will call; the rush to get dressed and put on make-up once she knows he is about to come; their pleasurable afternoons of lovemaking; and the overwhelming rush of fatigue she experiences once he’s gone – swiftly followed by the pain of absence.

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum. (p. 16)

Ernaux is not giving us an objective, factual account of a liaison here; as far as she is concerned, the most important thing is to reflect the key determinant of her mood, i.e. the distinction between the absence and the presence of her lover. Similarly, she has no desire to search for the origins of her passion in her past or recent history, nor does she seek to rationalise or justify this experience — only to capture and convey it through her prose.

As ever with Ernaux, the approach is deeply introspective, moving seamlessly between her recollections of the ‘feel’ of the affair and the process of writing about it here. There are times when Ernaux feels she is living out her passion in a similar way to writing a book, channelling her natural determination to capture every scene correctly, with the same attention to detail without lessening or diluting the desire.

During all this time, I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I am not sure in which style I am writing about it, whether in the style of a testimony, or possibly even the sort of confidence that can be found in women’s magazines, maybe a manifesto or a statement, or perhaps a critical commentary. (p. 21)

Throughout their affair, this man becomes an obsession of sorts for Ernaux, prompting her to actively avoid things that prevent her from basking in the pleasures of passion. Nevertheless, after six months or so, Ernaux becomes convinced that ‘A’ is seeing another woman, to the extent that she cannot enjoy his company in quite the same way when he reappears. In truth, she dreads his eventual departure, and her pleasure in the moment becomes tinged with future pain. On the one hand, there is a longing to end the affair so as not to suffer further, but on the other, the emptiness that ultimately lies ahead proves a powerful deterrent.

In time, ‘A’ leaves France to return to his home nation, leaving Ernaux to pick up the threads of her life. At first, the pain is unbearable and she no longer cares if she lives or dies. While the act of writing doesn’t diminish the impact of her loss, it does offer an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, there is an element of vulnerability here, a slight reluctance to share something private, potentially attracting questions or judgements from others.

To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, an emotion I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion or writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgement and the ‘normal’ values of society. (pp. 43–44)

As with Happening, her remarkable book on sourcing an illegal abortion in the early 1960s, Ernaux hopes to create something meaningful and universal from her experiences, capturing emotions that may prove useful to others.

Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal. Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere. (p. 41)

Once again, the writing is clear, precise and emotionally truthful. There is a beauty to Ernaux’s prose – a degree of elegance that belies its simplicity.

In summary then, this is an exquisite book by a very accomplished writer – so honest, so insightful, so true. Best read in one sitting to maximise the impact.

Simple Passion is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

Women in Translation – some book-and-wine matches, just for fun!

Something a little different from me today. Some book and wine matches to tie in with #WITMonth (Women in Translation), a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers, which runs every August. This year’s event has just finished – possibly the most successful yet, with hundreds of recommendations and reviews flying around the web over the past few weeks.

This year, I’m trying to make ‘WIT’ a regular thing by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman writer in translation each month rather than just thinking about them for August. Plus, there are lots of WIT reviews from my eight years of blogging gathered together in this area here.

So, here are a few of my favourite WIT reads, complete with suitable wine matches. For each book, I’ve tried to select wines made from grape varieties grown in the same region as the setting, just to keep the pairing as local as possible. Naturally, my fondness for European whites and rosés comes through quite strongly here, but please feel free to suggest some book-and-wine matches from further afield. South America in particular is a bit of a gap for me!

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War. The novel focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. One of my favourite books this year.

Wine Match: Given that Ginzburg grew up in Turin, I’m looking at wines from the Piedmont region as suitable matches for this one. The area is famed for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape variety. However, these fine wines tend to be quite pricey. A Langhe Nebbiolo is a more approachable, cost-effective option. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Langhe Nebbiolo is a great example – made by the Rizzi estate, this wine has a lovely cherry, raspberry and rose-petal aroma with plenty of juicy red fruit on the palate. G. D Vajra is another excellent producer worth seeking out.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow blogger, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells 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. 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. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Wine Match: Bazán’s novel is set in Galicia in northwest Spain, home to the Godello grape variety, one of my favourite Spanish whites. The Maruxa Godello, from the Valdeorras Denominación de Origen (DO), is a great example. There’s plenty of lemony and peachy fruit here, with enough body to stand up to chicken or fish. The Valdesil Montenovo Godello (from the same DO) is another winner, too.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash vs Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Côte d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, with a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

Wine Match: As we’re in the South of France for this one, it’s got to be a rosé from Provence! There are several good producers here, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Côtes de Provence Rosé (from Château des Mesclances) is a good bet when available. Dangerously drinkable with lovely redcurrant and strawberry fruit, this round, fresh-tasting rosé is made from Cinsault – maybe with a touch of Grenache in the blend. The Mirabeau en Provence Classic Rosé (readily available from Waitrose) is another excellent choice.

Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

This striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne is an underrated gem. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly impressive book in more ways than one.

Wine Match: Cologne is not too far from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine region, making Riesling a great match for Gilgi. The von Kesselstatt Rieslings tend to be excellent. Their Niedermenniger Riesling Kabinett is round and racy with plenty of citrus fruit. Off-dry in style with a nice balance between acidity and sweetness, this wine would pair brilliantly with Chinese or Thai food. The Rieslings from Dr Loosen and J.J. Prūm are worth checking out, too.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Wine Match: Empty Wardrobes is set in Lisbon, making a white wine from the Lisboa Valley a potential choice. Alvarinho is grown here – the same grape variety as Albariño, found in the Galicia region of Spain. The AdegaMãe Lisboa Valley Selection looks like a fun one to try. A blend of Arinto, Viosinho, Alvarinho and Viognier, the wine notes promise stone and citrus fruits with a touch of Atlantic freshness and zest. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a red, a wine made from Touriga Nacional or Tinto Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) would be an excellent bet.

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

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

Wine Match: Italian white wines from the Campania region would be ideal here. Luckily, they’re also some of my favourites, making this novel a pleasure to match. A wine made from either Fiano, Falanghina or Greco would be perfect for this one. The Falanghina from the Feudi San Gregorio estate is delicious – fresh and vibrant with some lovely citrus and stone fruit notes, this is summer in a glass. Alternatively, some of the major supermarkets have partnered with reputable producers to offer own-label wines, including those made from Fiano or Falanghina – and these are always worth a try.  

So, I hope you enjoyed that little tour around some of my favourite WIT reads and wines of Europe. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on these books, together with any wine matches or recommendations of your own in the comments below!

Women Writers in Translation – some of my recent favourites from the shelves

As many of you will know, August sees the return of WIT Month, a month-long celebration of books by Women in Translation. It’s an annual event hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, aiming to raise the profile of translated literature by women writers worldwide.

This year, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on this area by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation each month, rather than just thinking about them for August. So, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here’s a round-up of my recent faves.

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

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

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

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story unfolds, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully-constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This quirky, sharply-observed novella is both darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which might sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations. Alongside its central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the novella also touches on various related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A very thought-provoking read.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. Here we have a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Two separate but related late ‘70s novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in a lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be and how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment. Several characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through life, trying to navigate the things that cause pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg maintains a lightness of touch in these books, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the various relationships with insight and depth.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

First published in French in 2000 and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was studying literature at Rouen University while also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy at the age of twenty-three. In essence, the book is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of a backstreet abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. A powerful, vital, uncompromising book that deserves to be widely read.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952, this is the first of two collections of short stories brought together in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories. (I’m planning to post my review of the second collection during WIT Month itself.) These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity. In short, it’s one of the very best collections I’ve read in recent years. Very highly recommended indeed.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. Sam Bett and Davis Boyd)

This excellent novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in. Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is known to us only by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions, and what (if anything) do victims gain from enduring it? A beautifully-written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject – shortlisted for the International Booker earlier this year.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? If so, please feel free to mention it below.

You can also find some of my other favourites in my WIT Month recommendations posts from July 2020 and 2021, including books by Olga Tokarczuk, Françoise Sagan, Yūko Tsushima, Ana Maria Matute and many more. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone here!

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man – a well-dressed dandy, possibly like the central pen-and-ink sketch on the cover of this Vintage edition of Flâneuse. The flâneur is a consummate observer, looking without participating, preferring to remain somewhat distanced from the action in his leisurely pursuits.

In this fascinating book, the critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of flâneusing, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. While the male flâneur has been well documented over time, much less has been written about his female counterpart, possibly due to the social restrictions placed on women’s movements around the cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as Elkin eloquently argues, women walkers have often been present in cities; they just haven’t been identified or mythologised as flâneuses.  

To suggest that they couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.

If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street. (p. 11)

Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike.

Each chapter highlights a different female walker in touch with her city. So, we have Virginia Woolf walking through London’s Bloomsbury, an experience vividly portrayed in the writer’s evocative essay Street Haunting; George Sand, who has to dress like a man to roam freely in 19th-century Paris; and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and travel writer who captures the Civil War through a series of remarkable reports, straight from the front line in late ‘30s Madrid.

Elkin also explores leading cultural figures that fit the bill, most notably the acclaimed writer Jean Rhys and the legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda – two of my favourite artists in their respective creative fields.

Many of Rhys’ early novellas and stories feature desolate women marginalised from society through poverty, abandonment, banishment and ageing. They drift around the Left Bank of Paris, frequently shuttling from one down-at-heel boarding house to another, totally reliant on men for clothes, meals and drink. It’s a solitary and painful existence, brilliantly conveyed through Rhys’ laconic, incisive prose.

Varda, on the other hand, shows us how a woman in the city – essentially a flâneuse – can move from being the object of someone’s gaze to the one doing the looking. In one of her most famous films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (shot in 1962), the camera follows a young woman as she moves around Paris, nervously awaiting the results of a biopsy, naturally fearing the worst. Elkin posits that the film challenges the view that a woman could not traverse the streets of Paris the way a man does – i.e. anonymously, observing without being seen. However, by shifting Cleo’s status from object to subject – i.e. the one doing the looking as opposed to being watched – Varda is portraying a new sense of liberation for women in the city.

As Cléo stops thinking of herself purely in terms of how others see her, the camera stops watching Cléo only from the exterior, and begins to represent the world from her point of view. The film specifically challenges the idea that a woman could not walk the streets the way a man does, anonymously, taking in the spectacle; a woman is the spectacle, goes this argument. Looking, not simply appearing, signals the beginning of women’s freedom in the city. (p. 220)

Interspersed with these portraits from cultural history are Elkin’s own thoughtful reflections on her explorations of various cities around the world. Flâneusing is Elkin’s preferred method of getting to know a city, exploring its geography on foot, crossing through different areas and neighbourhoods, and ultimately connecting them together to build a mental picture or map. It’s her way of feeling more at home in a new territory, grounding herself in its physical spaces, urban geography and, importantly, the attendant social culture.

Having grown up in the Long Island suburbs – an environment she found somewhat stifling and restrictive – Elkin moved to New York as a student, revelling in the freedom and diversity this metropolis represented. Over the past twenty years, she has spent time in Paris – the city she now considers her home – Venice and Tokyo, the latter proving particularly challenging to the habitual flâneuse.

I had been trying to find the city on street level, but that’s not where it was. To flâneuse in Tokyo I had to walk up staircases, take elevators, climb ladders, to find what I was looking for upstairs, or on rooftops. You can’t just walk through the city waiting for beauty to appear. This isn’t Paris. (p. 180)

The move to Tokyo is dictated by external influences when a change of role for Elkin’s boyfriend, a successful banker, prompts a transfer to Japan. Sadly, it’s a step too far for Elkin, ultimately exposing the fault lines in the couple’s relationship, culminating in a permanent split and Elkin’s return to Paris.

In Flâneuse, Elkin has given us an elegant meditation on women traversing the urban landscape on foot, exploring the geography, boundaries and cultural ‘feel’ of various cities through the wanderings of the flâneuse. As she remarks towards the beginning of the book, once you start looking, it’s possible to spot the flâneuse pretty much anywhere, typically in a state of ‘in-betweenness’, coming or going from one place to another.

She [the flâneuse] gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it. (p. 22)

Elkin is a marvellous companion – articulate and informative without being didactic, likely to inspire readers to embark on a bit of flâneusing of their own. This is such a thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging – probably my favourite non-fiction read so far this year.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what took place during the procedure and the days that followed, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen  

First published in 1935, The House in Paris is probably one of Elizabeth Bowen’s most accomplished novels. It’s certainly the most atmospheric of the four I’ve read to date, an elegantly constructed story of deceptions, infidelity and identity, infused with a sense of secrecy that feels apparent from the start.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third of which (both titled ‘The Present’) take place on the same day – a fateful day in the lives of Bowen’s four main characters, as the narrative ultimately reveals. As the book opens, eleven-year-old Henrietta has just arrived in Paris, where she will spend the day with the Fishers before continuing her journey to Menton, where her grandmother is spending the winter. In short, the Fishers’ is a stopover point for Henrietta between trains – a visit arranged by the girl’s grandmother, Mrs Arbuthnot, and her friend, Miss Naomi Fisher.

Also waiting at the Fishers’ house in Paris in Leopold, a nine-year-old boy who is due to meet his mother, Karen, for the first time since his birth – a reunion that coincides with Henrietta’s visit purely by chance, much to Naomi’s concern. The circumstances surrounding Leopold’s parentage are clearly something of a mystery, with Bowen dropping clues here and there for the reader to piece together. For instance, when Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ house, she is introduced to Naomi’s mother, Mme Fisher, a manipulative elderly lady in the dying days of her life. While Naomi is keen for Leopold to be treated sensitively, Mme Fisher is much less discreet, readily disclosing her daughter’s link to the boy’s father as she talks to Henrietta.

‘Oh,’ Henrietta said, ‘did you know his father too?’

‘Quite well,’ said Mme Fisher. ‘He broke Naomi’s heart.’

She mentioned this impatiently, as though it had been some annoying domestic mishap. Henrietta, glancing across the bed, saw Miss Fisher’s eyelids glued down with pain. Then, with the air of having known all along this would come, the helpless daughter rolled up her knitting quickly, as though to terminate something, perhaps the pretence of safety, jabbing her needles through it with violent calm. (p. 43)

Leopold, too, learns something of the mystery surrounding his birth during his time at the Paris house. While Henrietta is upstairs with Miss Fisher and her bedridden mother, Leopold finds some letters in Naomi’s handbag – one from his guardians, the Grant Moodys, outlining various sensitivities to Naomi, and another from Mrs Arbuthnot on the details of Henrietta’s trip. However, a third letter – a note from Leopold’s mother to Naomi – is missing, remaining unavailable to the reader and Leopold himself. Nevertheless, there are worrying references to his parents’ temperaments – ‘instability on the father’s side’ and a ‘lack of control on the mother’s’ – in the first letter that Leopold discovers. 

Slowly but surely, Bowen ratchets up the sense of tension as the two children circle one another in the Paris house. It’s a dark, claustrophobic place, heightened by the oppressive air in Mme Fisher’s sick room and the poisonous events of the past.

Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash. Henrietta had never been in a room so full and still. (p. 36)

Bowen excels at portraying these children, skilfully capturing their growing awareness of the adult world while a fuller picture of its mysteries remains tantalisingly out of reach.

In the novel’s second section (‘The Past’), Bowen takes us back ten years to a time when Naomi was engaged to Max Ebhart, a Jewish banker of French-English heritage. Central to this section is Naomi’s friend, Karen Michaelis – herself engaged to Ray Forrestier, a respectable man from the ‘right’ background and social class – and it is by focusing on Karen’s story that we learn the origins of Leopold’s birth.

One of the things Bowen does so well here is to show us how the past shapes the present, how former indiscretions and secrets can bleed into the here and now in the most painful of ways. Consequently, there is an air of damage or trauma surrounding Leopold, a lack of motherly love and sense of identity that have left their marks on his character.

Bowen’s prose is beautiful, if a little tricky to get to grips with from time to time. Nevertheless, there is some lovely descriptive writing here, from the glimpses of Paris in the morning light to the sun-drenched cul-de-sacs of Boulogne during a secret assignation.

Today, the salt sunshine bought every shape nearer, as though distance has been parched out. Doorways, cobbles, arches and stone steps looked sentient and porous in the glare. Buildings basked like cats in the kind heat, having been gripped by cold mists, having ached in unkind nights, been buffeted in the winter. Hot wind tugged now and then at the flags down on the Casino, stretching the flags, then letting them drop again. Flashing, a window was thrown open uphill. What you saw, you felt. (p. 139)

The House in Paris is an elegantly constructed novel in which the past is firmly intertwined with the present – a structure that Tessa Hadley mirrors in her 2015 novel, The Past, with a clear nod to Bowen’s approach.

The House in Paris is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

My second review for Karen and Simon’s #1976Club is The Doctor’s Wife, the Booker shortlisted novel by the Belfast-born writer Brian Moore. Set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, this compelling narrative explores the tensions between personal freedoms and the restrictions imposed by marriage, particularly in a traditional society.

The novel’s focus is Sheila Redden, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who lives in Belfast with her surgeon husband, Kevin, and their fifteen-year-old son, Danny. Attractive and intelligent by nature, Sheila married young, sacrificing any personal aspirations for a life of marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Now, sixteen years after their wedding, Sheila has persuaded Kevin to return to Villefranche on the French Riviera for a second honeymoon, a chance perhaps to rekindle their relationship after years of stagnation.

When the pressures of the surgery cause a delay, Sheila sets off for France alone, hoping that Kevin will follow two or three days later, despite his apparent reluctance to travel. En route to the South of France, Sheila stops in Paris to stay the night with Peg, a friend from her student days, and it is here in the city that the stability of her marriage is derailed. When Sheila meets Tom Lowry – a carefree American graduate ten years her junior – the attraction between the two of them is instant and undeniable. To Sheila, Tom represents freedom, opportunity and the possibility of fulfilment – elements that have been sorely lacking in her life for the past several years.

She turned to him, seeing him toss his long dark hair, his eyes shining, his walk eager, as though he and she were hurrying off to some exciting rendezvous. And at once she was back in Paris in her student days, as though none of the intervening years had happened, those years of cooking meals, and buying Danny’s school clothes, being nice to Kevin’s mother, and having other doctors and their wives in for dinner parties, all that laundry list of events that had been her life since she married Kevin. (p. 27)

Before she knows it, Sheila is embroiled in a passionate affair, a relationship that deepens in intensity when firstly, Tom follows her to Villefranche and secondly, Kevin’s departure for France is further delayed. Naturally, Kevin eventually discovers what his wife has been up to, enlisting the help of her brother, Owen – another doctor – in his attempts to persuade his wife to return home.

As in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore demonstrates his ability to get into the minds of his characters – skilfully conveying their hopes and dreams, their failings and violations. With the exception of Tom – who feels rather lightly sketched compared to the other individuals in the novel – the characterisation is excellent, rich in detail and shading. Owen Deane is a particular case in point, a man caught between a sense of loyalty and duty of care towards his sister and the pressure being wielded by Kevin in his attempts to bring Sheila ‘to her senses’.

As the narrative plays out, Sheila must try to reconcile her marital commitments and responsibilities with the lure of freedom and fulfilment. Over the years, she has been ground down by Kevin, complete with his patriarchal attitude and petty jealousies – issues that bubble up now and again whenever another man shows an interest. It is no accident that Sheila is referred to as ‘Mrs Redden’ throughout the novel, a woman defined by her position in the marriage.

The novel also explores mental illness and how men sometimes try to use this excuse as leverage to control women, particularly those they consider to be wilful or wayward. The shadow of religion is another visible presence, adding to the complexities of the struggle between family loyalties and personal liberation. There is a lot going on in this subtle novel, even if I didn’t quite buy into Tom as a character and the speed with which he fell for Sheila Redden…

The Doctor’s Wife is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.