Tag Archives: Literature in Translation

The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

This compelling memoir by Béla Zombory-Moldován, a Hungarian artist and illustrator, is at once both historically insightful and deeply personal. It spans the eight months from the outbreak of WW1 at the end of July 1914 to the spring of the following year, a period that resulted in sustained losses to the Austro-Hungarian forces, the nature of which left an indelible mark on Hungary in the years and decades that followed. It’s a remarkable piece of work, very moving in its depiction of the experiences of the war through the reflections of one man. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone with an interest in the Great War or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in general.

As the memoir opens, Béla, a member of the Hungarian privileged classes, is holidaying with friends at the Adriatic resort of Novi Vinodolski. He is twenty-nine years old at this point, enjoying life and everything it has to offer.

All too soon Béla’s carefree existence is dramatically interrupted when word reaches the group that war has broken out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (with Russia swiftly following in support). While some of Béla’s immediate friends are of the belief that the war will be swift and not too serious, Béla himself remains somewhat unconvinced. Rather presciently, our protagonist senses a broader threat to society, a feeling that socialism has been creating significant unrest and anxiety for a number of years. As a consequence, Béla fears a long and complex period of conflict ahead.

After a brief visit home to say goodbye to his parents, Béla reports for duty at Veszprém where he is assigned the rank of Ensign in the Royal Hungarian Army – he is also given the role of platoon leader. To Béla, the prospect of war is terrifying – a totally unknown quantity he must face with little in the way of experience or understanding.

I had no experience to fall back on. Anything I had heard of war had fallen on deaf ears; an anachronism, it had held no meaning for me. No one in my family since my grandfather had been in a war. They knew even less about it than I did, and had no experience on which I might draw. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was a reality. If it was any consolation, the enemy must be having the same problem. Except that they had learned to handle firearms up there in the mountains of Serbia. We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here. (p. 13)

This is a challenging work to summarise as it really needs to be experienced in person rather than second-hand through a review. There is a cumulative effect here – the sense that Béla’s reflections build in power with each chapter, thereby giving the memoir a greater sense of weight and importance.

It is especially strong on the sheer foolishness of some of the decisions that were made by those in command – in particular, the drive to conform to certain principles of honour or ceremony at the expense of soldiers’ lives. For example, Béla’s regiment is ordered to march the seventy-five kilometres from Veszprém to the point of deployment near the front. However, by the time they reach their destination, half the troops in the group are unfit for battle due to damage incurred to their feet and general exhaustion. The lack of any clear sense of foresight is completely galling. Then, in the thick of the action at Rava Ruska, it is rumoured that the Colonel in command plans to outlaw any digging of foxholes for protection as it would be considered cowardly and ill-disciplined on the part of the troops. Luckily for Béla, this veto doesn’t quite come to pass and the instinct to survive soon kicks in.

As one might expect, the memoir is also fairly explicit on the horrors of war, the physical and emotional effects of being trapped at the front with death and destruction everywhere. The scenes Béla describes are urgent, chaotic and utterly terrifying.

The continuous deafening explosions, the howling of the flying shell fragments have practically stupefied me. Beside me, between salvos, Miklósik frantically digs himself deeper into his hole. I don’t think he’d respond to any order now. Then a blast quite close to me; something has hit my knapsack and I’m almost suffocated under falling sand. My sole thought now, like an animal, is to save myself. Utterly helpless, I give myself up to my fate and, with no emotion, wait for the end to come. (pp. 53-54)

Having sustained a head wound in one of these early battles, Béla is dispatched back to Budapest for further treatment and a period of recovery. There is an anxious scene in which Béla only just manages to make it out of the battle zone on one of the last railway wagons to leave the territory before the Russian Army moves in – a fortuitous break for our protagonist, particularly given the nature of his injuries. As Béla travels back to the capital, he is incensed by newspaper reports of the conflict, clearly penned by fêted writers cocooned in the relative safety of the city’s coffeehouses, far away from the harsh realities of life at the front.

Report from the battlefield! Glorious weather! Battle-readiness of our troops unbreakable! They await the Russian attack from new positions, etcetera. It had evidently been composed by the armchair generals of the Pest coffeehouses. I leafed through the paper, looking mostly at the headlines. How alien it was! How far removed these people were from the agonies, the mortal fear as shells exploding around you, the marches that exhaust to the limits of consciousness, the mangled dead, their open eyes staring into oblivion. Yes, far away, and with no conception of the reality of war. (p. 72)

Back at home, Béla tries hard to reconnect with his former life, his family, his friends and, of course, his love of painting. However, the trauma he has experienced on the battlefield makes this very difficult to achieve. It is as if something inside him has ruptured, possibly forever.

It was impossible. All that I had thought, imagined, or conceived felt alien, incapable of development. […] Something had been broken inside me; or perhaps in the whole order of the world. Or in everything. For now, there was no way out. (p. 114)

Béla is declared unfit for military service for a period of three months, after which time he will be assessed again. Unsurprisingly, given what he has been through at the front, he is experiencing what is now commonly recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD).

As the memoir draws to a close, Béla finally finds some solace in the form of a trip to the coastal town of Lovrana where he stays with the Mausers, a generous and caring family who support his recuperation. It is here, in the spring of 1915, that Béla reconnects with nature and the enduring beauty of the world. His love of painting returns as he strives to capture the energy and subtleties of the waves in glorious watercolours. This is the most touching section of the memoir, a period of relative peace and calm which ends with Béla travelling back to Budapest to see what the future might hold for him.

This striking book comes with an excellent introduction from Béla’s grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldován, who also translated the manuscript. It offers an invaluable insight into the political context of the time and the extent of the losses endured by Austria-Hungary during this devastating war.

While it is never easy to read about these experiences, it is almost always rewarding in some way, and that’s certainly the case here. This is an absorbing memoir, written in a natural, unaffected style, shot through with moments of beauty amidst the traumas of war. I’ll finish with a passage that illustrates Béla’s painterly talents, his eye for a beautiful scene. At this point, he is on his way to Rava Ruska, marching to the front and the decimation which lies ahead.

We were passing through a wood. The beauty of nature in August reigned everywhere. The boughs were a deep green, but the sprigs of barberry, the wild rose hips and the leaves of the sumac were already glowing in flaming colors of carmine, cinnabar, minium, and orange. Beauty before death, for autumn and decay were coming. In the meadows and fields, nothing but stubble and fine ploughed soil, the stalks of maize left tied into bundles. Subjects for landscapes: the colors from burnt sienna and ochre to gray umber. Marvelous colors in the shadows. (p. 29)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Burning of the World is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal 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. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

Earlier this year, I read and loved Bird in a Cage, a devilishly clever noir by the French writer Frédéric Dard. Originally published in 1956, The Executioner Weeps is my second Dard – and thankfully it’s just as intriguing as the first.

The novella is narrated by native Frenchman Daniel Mermet, a moderately successful artist who has travelled to a seaside town near Barcelona for a holiday. One night, as Daniel is driving alone in a remote part of the Spanish countryside, a beautiful young woman steps out of nowhere in front of his car – Daniel is travelling too fast to stop, so he hits the woman, crushing her violin case in the process. The incident marks a turning point in Daniel’s life, the full significance of which only becomes apparent much later in the story. Nevertheless, there is a sense of foreboding right from the start, particularly in the series of thoughts that flash through Daniel’s mind in the seconds before impact.

The instantaneousness of thought is remarkable. In less than a second I’d asked myself a whole lot of questions about my imminent victim. I found time to wonder who she was, what she was doing at that hour on that deserted road carrying a violin case, and especially why she’d deliberately thrown herself under the wheels of my car. But most particularly I’d asked myself another more secret, more human question: how many sins was I about to rack up with this disaster? At that time of night, there’d be no witnesses to testify that it was a case of suicide. (p. 10)

Believing the woman to be largely unharmed, Daniel decides to take her back to his motel where she can rest for the night – and besides, as he doesn’t speak the local language, involving the authorities at this stage might turn out to be problematic.

When the woman wakes up the next morning, it becomes clear that she is suffering from a case of amnesia – her knowledge of a past or present life is non-existent. In the absence of any formal papers, the only clues to her identity are a handkerchief embroidered with the letter ‘M’ and her clothes which carry the label of a dressmaker based in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris.

In an effort to help the woman uncover her background, Daniel contacts the French consul and the local police, but neither seems interested in pursuing the case. After all, there’s nothing to prove that she is definitely a French citizen or a missing person – and if her family are worried, surely they will initiate any necessary enquiries themselves?

Meanwhile, Daniel finds himself falling in love with this sweet-natured woman who by now has developed an affinity with the name ‘Marianne’. As their relationship blossoms, the couple spend long lazy days together in the idyllic surroundings of Castelldefels, enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company as they live their lives in the moment – so much so that Daniel begins to dread someone coming along in search of Marianne as this would almost certainly bring an end to his happiness. To Daniel, Marianne represents beauty and purity, qualities he hopes to capture in her portrait which he sets out to paint. Nevertheless, while the finished painting is a technical success, there is something rather unnerving about it. Albeit subconsciously, Daniel’s brushstrokes have revealed a curious look in Marianne’s eye, a sinister glint that seems to hint at some unknown element in her personality.

I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her; it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity. (p.48)

Much as Daniel would like to remain in a secluded dream world with Marianne, two things come together to force his hand. Firstly, he hears that his work is to be exhibited in the US, a development that will require him to travel to the country in question to support the event. If he is to attend, then Marianne must come too – but without a confirmed identity, how on earth will she be able to travel?

Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, Daniel finds that he cannot separate himself from the mystery of Marianne’s past, especially once certain clues about this period start to emerge. In particular, he is haunted by some unanswered questions about his lover’s former life. Why did Marianne appear to throw herself at his car that night on the road? Who or what was she trying to escape from? With the fear of the unknown gnawing away his heart, Daniel decides to travel to Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the hope of uncovering the truth for himself. What he finds there is truly devastating, both shocking and heartbreaking – so much so that he is forced to see Marianne in a completely different light.

She’d seemed so distant, so far away, in the white-painted Casa and on the wide beach lit by an infernal sun. I saw her, so to speak, through the wrong end of a telescope. She was tiny, out of my reach. There was a whole world between us. I’d just crossed the frontier to the land of her past and it was just as if I was now watching her from a point inside her old life. (p. 86)

The Executioner Weeps is both a dark mystery and an intriguing love story, the two strands coming together to form a highly compelling whole. Like Bird in a Cage, it is another of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, an unsettling noir with a distinct psychological edge – the pace really steps up a gear in the final third as the net starts to close in on Daniel’s world.

Stylistically this is a beautifully-written book, shot through with an undeniable sense of tragedy and loss, a quality that adds a touch of poignancy to the noirish tone. In essence, Daniel is caught between his desire to cling on to his idealised vision of Marianne – an image typified by her apparent tenderness and beauty – and his fear of having to confront the emerging darkness in her past. I’ll finish with a final quote from a relatively early point in the novella, one that hints at some of the unsettling developments to come – Daniel is just about to paint Marianne’s picture for the first time.

There’s nothing more terrifying for a painter than a blank white canvas. It’s like a window that opens onto infinite possibilities. A window from which the most disturbing metamorphoses may emerge. (p. 42)

This is my contribution to Richard’s Literature of Doom event – now extended to cover French ‘Doom’ as well as the Argentinian and Russian varieties. Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Executioner Weeps is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

I have long wanted to read the German writer Irmgard Keun, ever since Grant and TJ started to cover some of her books – Gilgi and After Midnight – on their respective blogs. Then last summer, Karen reviewed another of Keun’s novels, The Artificial Silk Girl, and when I read her post, I knew this was the one for me – well, as a starting point at the very least. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin.

First published in 1932, Silk Girl is narrated by Doris, a striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start. It reflects her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Doris longs for the finer things in life, fashionable clothes and accessories, the bright lights and the big city. She dreams of becoming a successful actress in the movies. Instead, she’s stuck in a provincial town, in a dead-end office job she’s barely qualified for, trading on her charms and good looks to keep on the right side of the boss. Moreover, Doris is forced to pass the majority of her wages to her lazy father who promptly uses the money to get drunk. What little is left over goes on a treat, in this case a new hat – well, a girl’s got to keep up appearances, especially if she wants to get ahead.

But I immediately bought a hat for myself with the 50 marks I had left, with a feather and in forest green – that’s this season’s fashion color, and it goes fabulously well with my rosy complexion. And wearing it off to the side is just so chic, and I already had a forest green coat made for myself – tailored with a fox collar – a present from Käsemann, who absolutely almost wanted to marry me. But I didn’t. Because in the long run, I’m too good for the short and stocky type, particularly if they’re called Käsemann. But now my outfit is complete, which is the most important thing for a girl who wants to get ahead and has ambition. (p. 5)

Shortly after getting the push from her job by knocking back the advances of an amorous attorney, Doris lands a small break as an ‘extra’ with the theatre company in her hometown. Once there, she uses all her womanly wiles and a few white lies to move forward, securing a walk-on part with a spoken line in the process. However, it’s not long however before Doris is found out, leaving her no other option but to hightail it to Berlin with little more than a stolen fur coat for company. On her arrival, she is dazzled by the new environment, the sights and sounds of this glamorous city.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated. (p. 77)

All too soon the harsh realities of life kick in and Doris finds herself moving from one temporary room to another, her fortunes ebbing and flowing according to the generosity (or not) of the people she encounters along the way. With the police possibly on her tail and no official papers to hand, Doris knows it would be difficult for her to find a short-term job – in any case, she doesn’t particularly want one, not if her previous experiences of conventional work are anything to go by. There are various encounters with men – some kind and charming, others less so – but the most promising ones always seem to have a wife or another woman tucked away somewhere. Doris is smart enough to know her own value, so she uses her looks and personality to blag herself some decent clothes and a few drinks every now and again. Even though life in the city can be tough and lonely, Doris is determined to follow her own path in an effort to get on. The conventions of marriage and domesticity are not for her, something she learned a while ago by observing the lives of those other girls back home.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead. I learned that from Lorchen Grünlich, who married the accountant at Grobwind Brothers and is happy with him and her shabby tweed coat and one bedroom apartment and flower pots with cuttings and Gugelhupf on Sundays and stamped paper which is all the accountant allows her to use, just to sleep with him at night and have a ring. (p. 69)

Rather cleverly, the story is conveyed through a series of reflections, ostensibly presented as a set of journal entries that capture Doris’ thoughts as she strives to survive. In some respects, Doris is like a camera, recording and portraying the highs and lows of life in Berlin. There are some dazzling passages here, presented in a compelling stream-of-consciousness style, particularly the impressionistic sections in which Doris relays the vibrancy of Berlin to her blind neighbour, Herr Brenner, complete with all its characteristic lights and colours. The journal entries also reveal elements of Doris’ backstory – in particular, her impoverished and less-than-happy childhood – along with her sharp observations on the social order of the day, especially the situation for women. The last quote is a great example of this critique of society’s views and expectations.

While the narrative begins in a very breezy, upbeat manner, the tone darkens significantly as the story progresses. The initial surface glamour of life in Berlin soon falls away, leaving Doris hungry for a little food, warmth and affection – things she knows she may have to rely on a man to provide.

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds. (p. 118)

Keun’s heroine has been likened to Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel Goodbye to Berlin. While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two characters, particularly in terms of their attitudes and the Weimar-era setting in which they find themselves, the women I was most reminded of while reading Silk Girl were those from the works of Jean Rhys. In this scene, Doris is so desperate that she allows herself to be picked up by a man, a stranger who stops her in the street, probably in the belief that she is a prostitute. It could have come straight out of one of Rhys’ early stories.

And we talked to each other at a restaurant and I was supposed to order wine and I would much rather have had something to eat. But that’s just like them – they don’t mind paying large sums for something to drink, but as soon as they have to pay just a small amount for something to eat they feel taken advantage of, because food is a necessity, but having a drink is superfluous and therefore elegant. (pp. 125-126)

All in all, The Artificial Silk Girl is a very impressive novel, an evocative insight into a city on the cusp of political change – in this respect, it would make a great companion piece to the Isherwood I mentioned a little earlier. Doris is such a wonderful creation, an instinctive woman who turns out to be more sensitive and fragile than she appears at first sight. (In fact, the book itself is also much deeper than its initial breeziness suggests – more thoughtful and considered in many respects.) It can be so hard to strike the right note with a first-person narrative, but Keun nails it here, giving us a very convincing portrait of this feisty yet vulnerable girl about town.

I read this novel for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which is running throughout November – there’s some info about it here. If you’re interested in learning more about Irmgard Keun, you might want to take a look at Max’s review of Volker Wiedermann’s book, Summer Before the Dark, which includes passages covering Keun’s relationship with the writer Joseph Roth, whom she met in Ostend 1936. It’s a very poignant story, all the more so because we know what was looming on the horizon for the years that followed.

The Artificial Silk Girl is published by Other Press; personal copy.

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker)

The Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata is perhaps best known for Snow Country, the story of a doomed love affair between a wealthy city-based man and an innocent young geisha who lives in a remote area by the mountains. It is a work of great poetic beauty and subtlety – and yet there is something strange and elusive about this novella, a quality that makes it hard to pin down. The same could be said of The Sound of the Mountain, written in the early fifties and translated into English in 1970. Once again, I find myself being drawn into a world that feels so different from my own, delicately conveyed like the brushstrokes of a watercolour painting.

The novel focuses on Ogata Shingo, a sixty-two-year old man who lives with his wife, Yasuko, in the city of Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. After thirty years, any feelings of love or passion have long since disappeared from the couple’s marriage, leaving Shingo preoccupied with a number of things – mostly concerns about his family, the inexorable march of time and his failing memory. There is a sense that life is gradually slipping away from Shingo; the world around him is changing and not necessarily for the better. In this scene, he has just been struggling to do up his tie.

Why should he suddenly this morning have forgotten a process he had repeated every morning through the forty years of his office career? His hands should have moved automatically. He should have been able to tie his tie without even thinking.

It seemed to Shingo that he faced a collapse, a loss of self. (p. 195)

Shingo is at an age where several of his contemporaries are succumbing to various illnesses, some of which end in death –  a strong sense of loss pervades throughout the novel. Moreover, there are times, especially at night, when Shingo is visited by the sound of the mountain, a distant rumble that seems to suggest that his own passing might not be too far away.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in the ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain. (p. 4)

Also living with Shingo and Yasuko are their wayward, unsympathetic son, Shuichi and his long-suffering wife, Kikuko, a beautiful, sensitive young woman who represents the main source of brightness in Shingo’s life. In short, she reminds Shingo of Yasuko’s sister, the long-lost love of his youth who died before he decided to get married.

Kikuko was for him a window looking out of a gloomy house. His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. (p. 25)

Even though he has only been married to Kikuko few years, Shuichi already has a mistress, Kinu, whom he visits after work, frequently leaving Shingo to travel home alone from the Tokyo office where the two men are based. Like Shingo himself, Kikuko also feels rather lonely and isolated in her life. In the absence her husband, she enjoys Shingo’s company, helping him to unwind on his return from the city. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual about Shingo’s relationship with Kikuko; for the most part, it seems more a case of mutual respect coupled with a deep sense of empathy. In other words, their attraction is predominantly spiritual rather than physical. Nevertheless, there are occasions when Shingo’s fondness for his daughter-in-law starts to raise questions in his mind.

There was an undercurrent running through his life the abnormality that made Shingo, drawn to Yasuko’s sister, marry Yasuko, a year his senior, upon the sister’s death; was it exacerbated by Kikuko? (p. 78)

Yasuko, for her part, is more forthright than Shingo, and she urges her husband to tackle Shuichi head-on over his affair and subsequent neglect of Kikuko. Furthermore, Yasuko believes her husband to be soft, particularly in his favouritism for Shuichi over their other child, Fusako. Shingo, however, has a tendency to procrastinate over familial relationships, preferring instead to avoid any unnecessary conflict. That’s not to say that he doesn’t feel guilty about his lack of intervention here – in fact, he feels it very deeply – but in spite of this, he allows the situation to fester.

This same sense of procrastination also characterises Shingo’s relationship with his rather disagreeable daughter, Fusako, who has recently come back to the Ogata family home following the breakdown of her own marriage. Moreover, Fusako has two young children in tow: a petulant toddler who clearly takes after her mother, and a more placid baby who spends most of her time asleep. Once again, guilt-ridden passivity is the order of the day as Shingo opts to let matters run their natural course.

He knew that as her father he should step forward to give Fusako advice; but she was thirty and married, and matters are not simple for fathers in such cases. It would not be easy to accommodate a woman with two children. A decision was postponed from day to day, as if the principals were all waiting for nature to take its course. (p. 25)

Kawabata paints a very nuanced portrait of Shingo here, a man troubled by the tensions and difficulties in the relationships that surround him, especially those in the modern world of post-war Japan. One feels great sympathy for this individual in spite of the inherent flaws and shortcomings in his character – after all, we are all human with our own particular weaknesses and failings. Central to the novel is the question of how much responsibility a parent should take for the happiness of his or her children, particularly where their marriages are concerned. As the consequences of complications in Shuichi’s and Fusako’s respective marriages unfold, Shingo finds himself haunted by a sense of guilt. While he tries to do the right thing, especially for Kikuko and Shuichi, a number of unanswered questions continue to prey on his mind.

How many times would Kikuko, now in her early twenties, have to forgive Shuichi before she had lived with him to the ages of Shingo and Yasuko? Would there be no limit to her forgiving?

A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of the partners. Kinu’s love for Shuichi. Shingo’s love for Kikuko – would they disappear without trace in the swamp that was Shuichi’s and Kikuko’s marriage? (p. 96)

All in all, this is a beautiful, delicate novel laced with a sense of longing for the past, a time when human relations and emotions seemed more straightforward, certainly as far as Shingo is concerned. In several respects, I was reminded of The Gate by Natsume Söseki, a story of urban angst in early 20th-century Japan which I wrote about last year.  At first sight, The Sound of the Mountain might seem a relatively uneventful story of an ordinary Japanese family trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, there is a lot going on here; we just have to tune in to the author’s rhythm to see it.

The book also contains some lovely writing on the natural world. A majestic display of sunflowers in neighbouring gardens; a flock of buntings taking flight; the sight of fresh buds on a Gingko tree – all of these things represent moments of beauty and simplicity in Shingo’s life.

For more reviews of Japanese literature, see Dolce Bellezza’s event which is running to the end of the year.

The Sound of the Mountain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

A couple of summers ago I read Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de ___ (1951), an exquisite novella that follows the fate of a pair of earrings as they pass from one person to another. (You may be familiar with the story via the Max Ophüls film, The Earrings of Madame de…, widely considered to be a masterpiece of French cinema.) In my eagerness to try another by de Vilmorin, I tracked down a copy of Les Belles Amours (1954), a novel that explores the complexities of romantic liaisons, a subject close to the author’s own heart. As outlined by John Julius Norwich in his afterword to Madame de ___, de Vilmorin’s love life was characterised by a series of intricate romantic entanglements. These included an engagement to the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an affair with Orson Welles (to whom Les Belles Amours was dedicated), and an extended liaison with Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to France at the time. As Francis Wyndham once commented, ‘You couldn’t say she [de Vilmorin] was beautiful, but there was an aura about her. In some mysterious way, she was tremendously attractive’.

So, back to the novel itself, Les Belles Amours is in a similar style to Madame de ___. In short, it is another beautifully constructed story, by turns elegant, artful, astute and poignant. I hope to find a place for it in my 2017 highlights.

The narrative revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the two men in turn.)

At nearly sixty, the distinguished Monsieur Zaraguirre remains irresistible to women – the fact that he now resides in South America only adds to his attraction. Wherever he goes, this successful businessman makes a lasting impression; women fall at his feet, longing to capture his attention and maybe his heart too. While M Zaraguirre clearly enjoys the company of women, he remains somewhat detached from his lovers, avoiding emotional involvement at all costs. When he senses that a woman is getting too close to him or tiring of the uncertainty of the situation, he bids her farewell with a diamond ring, a parting gift to remember him by.

To love him was to regret him, his kiss did not diminish his essential remoteness, liberty could be divined beneath his ardour and independence showed through his fidelity. He inspired and disarmed possessiveness, and as he was inaccessible women longed to own him. ‘Ask me for anything you want, except a promise,’ he told them… (p. 18)

During his frequent business trips to Europe, Monsieur Zaraguirre often spends time with his closest friends, the Duvilles, at their home of Valronce in the French countryside. The Duvilles long to see their thirty-year-old son, Louis, settled with a suitable wife and to this end Mme Duville spends her days inviting a succession of attractive young girls to the house in the hope that her son will fall in love with one of them. Louis, for his part, remains somewhat immune to these beauties, preferring instead to spend his leisure time in Paris where he amuses himself with a succession of casual love affairs. Easily bored, he is a lover of late nights, fast pursuits and glamorous mistresses, all to the mild distress of his parents.

Then, one weekend, Mme Duville’s cousin, a distinguished Colonel, brings his niece, a beautiful young widow, to Valronce where she meets and forms a bond with Louis. The pair are instantly attracted to one another, so much so that they announce their engagement before the day is out.

Carried away by love, he made up his mind from one moment to the next, without thinking it over, so certain was he of his love. It is true that the violence of love makes patience impossible; however, it was not only love, it was doubtless a presentiment which made him wish to be married at once, without waiting. (p. 21)

The Duvilles are delighted by the news, and preparations for the wedding immediately swing into action – the couple are to be married within the month. Naturally, the Duvilles invite their good friend, M Zaraguirre, to their son’s wedding, an invitation the latter is only too keen to accept. Nevertheless, when M Zaraguirre arrives at Valronce only days before the marriage is to take place, he too finds himself falling in love with Louis’ fiancée – and what’s more, the feeling is mutual. During this scene, M Zaraguirre and the young woman in question are alone in the garden. In response to an enquiry about her feelings, Louis’ fiancée opens her heart. In the eyes of the experienced roué, it seems she has mistaken an affectionate form of friendship for one of love.

‘He is charming, he charmed me and I wanted the happiness he offered me. It is understandable that I should be delighted by so simple a prospect, and I loved Louis, yes, I loved him and I love him still with all my heart. Tell me, have I confused love with affectionate friendship, or am I really heartless?’

She was touching, sincere and in great distress.

‘Friendship is often as sudden as love,’ answered M. Zaraguirre. ‘Friendship is a wise form of love that reassures the heart and doesn’t disturb the imagination.’

‘Ah! I don’t want to lie to Louis or deceive him, yet that is what I am doing when I realise that in the future I shall do nothing else. My life was blameless before you came but since you are here everything has changed, even myself.’ (pp. 44-45)

M Zaraguirre and the young woman spend the night together and then elope the following morning (the day of the wedding) thereby leaving poor Louis in the lurch. Naturally, the Duvilles are devastated, and M Duville senior breaks off all relations with M Zaraguirre once the true nature of the situation comes to light. Within a matter of weeks, Louis’ former fiancée has become Mme Zaraguirre, and the couple waste no time in departing for South America where they settle into a rhythm of life together, sheltered by the beauty of M Zaraguirre’s colonial country house, Tijo.

Some five years later, Mme Zaraguirre decides to accompany her husband on one of his business trips to Europe. It will give her an opportunity to visit various members of her family whom she has not seen since her elopement. While in France, Mme Zaraguirre makes a new friend, a rather silly, gossipy woman who encourages her to live a little by spending some time in Paris, a city she has never been interested in visiting until now. As M Zaraguirre has business to attend to elsewhere, Mme Zaraguirre accompanies her friend to the capital where she runs into Louis Duville at a gathering. At first, it would appear as though Louis has forgiven his former fiancée for deserting him, but at heart, the underlying situation is more complex than that. When it transpires that Mme Zaraguirre would like nothing more than to bring about a reconciliation between her husband and his old friend M Duville, Louis sees an opportunity for revenge, thereby setting in motion an elaborate dance, one in which each party hopes to play the other to their own advantage.

They could not escape the past for long. Days at Valronce and in Lorraine emerged one by one from their conversation; they remembered the same moments with the same emotion and yet their thoughts were not alike: while Mme Zaraguirre, slightly committing herself, wished only to obtain from Louis Duville a favour that would add to her husband’s happiness, Louis Duville, still moved by the memory of his beautiful love, hoped to avenge himself on a man who had humiliated him. When the comedy they were acting was over, Mme Zaraguirre thought that she had reconquered a heart free from bitterness and Louis thought that he had re-won a woman who loved easily. Besides, she attracted him. (p. 75)

What follows is a complex sequence of manoeuvres, something that doesn’t quite go according to plan for either player. I won’t go into the details here; I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you decide to read the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, my sympathies were firmly with Louis – and with M Zaraguirre for that matter. Mme Zaraguirre is a complex character, at times rather selfish and indifferent to the feelings of others. While I loved reading about her, I certainly wouldn’t trust her as a friend or a potential ally. Perhaps the signs were there at an early stage with this description, a reflection on her demeanour as a young widow.

It was doubtless to cheat loneliness and boredom that, apparently ignorant of the passions she aroused, she played a game of promising without compromising herself. There was even a suggestion of distance in the way she held out the flower of illusion like a sceptre. She was mistress of a reserve that made men dream, and women resented that. No one could reproach her for anything, and yet no one trusted her. However she had a heart and was capable of love. (p. 34)

There is something timeless about Les Belles Amours. The story is set in the mid-1920s, but it could easily have been any time in the late 19th century. My Capuchin Classics edition comes with a set of beautiful pen and ink drawings which add a lovely touch, enhancing the mood of particular scenes.

I loved this novel of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – highly recommended for lovers of French fiction and classic literature in general.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

Last summer, I read and adored Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s seminal novella about love, jealousy and desire – in essence, the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions. This year I was keen to read her follow-up, the 1956 novella, A Certain Smile – this time in the Irene Ash translation which was rushed out in the same year. (You can read my additional post about Heather Lloyd’s recent translation of Bonjour Tristesse here). In summary, A Certain Smile is the bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth complete with all their intensity and confusion. While I didn’t love A Certain Smile quite as much as Tristesse, I did enjoy it a great deal. It’s a lovely book for the summer, best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side. Perfect reading for #WITMonth (women in translation) which is running throughout August.

The novella is narrated by Dominique, a law student at the Sorbonne, who is experiencing an overwhelming sense of boredom with life. She is bored by her rather immature and petulant boyfriend, Bertrand, by her studies at the University, and at times by the city of Paris itself. Dominique spends her days idling her time away in cafes, listening to records on the jukebox, and generally lolling around. Sagan perfectly captures this sense of ennui, the feelings of listlessness and detachment that stem from a lack of clear purpose in Dominque’s life.

Nevertheless, everything looks set to change for Dominique when Bertrand takes her to meet his Uncle Luc, a businessman and traveller. Luc is older than Bertrand, more self-assured and sophisticated. Naturally, Dominique is instantly attracted to him. In some ways, she sees Luc as a kindred spirit; his expression suggests a certain sadness, a weariness with the world in general.

He had grey eyes and a tired, almost sad expression. In a way he was handsome. (p. 12)

Luc, for his part, is also attracted to Dominque; somewhat unsurprisingly, her youth and freshness prove appealing to him.

To complicate matters further, Luc is married to the charming Françoise, a kind and generous woman who takes Dominique under her wing, buying her clothes and acting as a sort of mother figure in a gentle, subtle way. (In reality, Dominique’s sees little of her own mother who is still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of her son, an event which took place some fifteen years earlier.)

In spite of her fondness for Françoise, Dominque finds herself getting more involved with Luc, especially once he invites her to dine alone with him without Bertrand or Françoise. Dominque knows she is playing a dangerous game here, but what does that matter? This is the most interesting thing to have happened to her in months.

I was young, I liked one man and another was in love with me. I had one of those silly little girlish problems to solve. I was feeling rather important. There was even a married man involved, and another woman: a little play with four characters was taking place in the springtime in Paris. I reduced it all to a lovely dry equation, as cynical as could be. Besides, I felt remarkably sure of myself. I accepted all the unhappiness, the conflict, the pleasure to come; I mockingly accepted it all in advance. (p.29)

In time, Luc asks Dominique to come away with him to the Riviera. He is keen to spend time with her alone, to show her the sea, and to teach her how to feel less inhibited. Even though she knows Luc will return to Françoise at the end of the trip, Dominque accepts his proposal, complete with all its inherent risks and uncertainties. She steels herself to be resilient, deep in the knowledge that Luc will not fall in love with her. It is clear that there have been other affairs in the past, so why should this one be any different?

‘Afterwards I’d go back to Françoise. What do you risk? To get attached to me? To suffer afterwards? But after all, that’s better than being bored. You’d rather be happy and even unhappy than nothing at all, wouldn’t you?’

‘Obviously,’ I replied.

‘Isn’t it true that you’d risk nothing?’ repeated Luc, as if to convince himself.

‘Why talk about suffering?’ I said. ‘One must not exaggerate. I’m not so tender-hearted.’ (p. 47)

Dominique and Luc spend an idyllic fortnight in Cannes, making love and generally enjoying one another’s company. They are united by a common lethargy, a weariness for the day-to-day business of life.

We walked in step, had the same tastes, the same rhythm of life; we liked being together, and all went well between us. I did not even regret too much that he could not make the tremendous effort needed to love someone, to know them, and to dispel their loneliness. We were friends and lovers. […] Sensuality was not the basis of our relationship, but something else, a strange bond that united us against the weariness of playing a part, the weariness of talking, in short: weariness itself. (pp. 64-65)

Somewhat inevitably and in spite of her best intentions, Dominque finds herself falling in love with Luc. She is young and inexperienced in these matters, and her natural emotions soon take over; but when the holiday comes to an end, Luc goes back to Françoise, leaving Dominque on her own in Paris to pick up the pieces.

Everything had turned to dust and ashes. I realized that I was not suited to be the gay paramour of a married man. I loved him. I should have thought of that sooner, or at least have taken it into consideration; the obsession that is love, the agony when it is not satisfied. (p. 101)

This is a book in which emotions are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. The prose is cool, clear and candid, a style that perfectly suits Dominique’s character and the nature of her story, while the mood is free-spirited and oh-so-French – like a Jean-Luc Godard movie or Mia Hansen-Løve’s appropriately-titled 2011 film, Goodbye First Love.

In spite of everything that has gone before, Dominque’s story ends on a more hopeful note. There are moments of brightness earlier in the narrative too, like this scene in which our narrator reflects on Paris, the ‘shining golden city’ that stands apart from so many others. I’ll leave you with this final passage which I loved for its youthful exuberance.

Paris belonged to me: Paris belonged to the unscrupulous, to the irresponsible; I had always felt it, but it had hurt because I was not carefree enough. Now it was my city, my beautiful, shining golden city, ‘the city that stands aloof’. I was carried along by something that must have been joy. I walked quickly, was full of impatience, and could feel the blood coursing through my veins. I felt ridiculously young at those moments of mad happiness and much nearer to reality and truth than when I searched my soul in my moods of sadness. (p. 28)

A Certain Smile is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has also reviewed this novel.