Tag Archives: Margaret Jull Costa

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!

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

First published in 1966, this remarkable novella by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho was recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. 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.

The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow who we see over the course of ten years from the age of twenty-five through to thirty-six. For ten years, Dora mourns her husband Duarte’s death, making a career out of grief and widowhood, effectively building a shrine to him through the memories in her mind. Duarte – a lazy, unambitious man – left Dora virtually penniless, forcing her to embark on a humiliating round of visits, searching for handouts from family and friends. These are ‘the others’, separated from Dora and her daughter, Lisa, by the nature of their circumstances.

Many of Duarte’s friends and acquaintances distance themselves from Dora, fearing she will ask for help or financial support. Even Duarte’s mother – the forthright, morally powerful Ana – is reluctant to provide any money, despite her conspicuous wealth. While Ana is happy to look after Lisa, caring for her while Dora looks for a job, she draws the line at anything else.

…all this happened under the simultaneously suspicious and reticent eye of her mother-in-law, the eye of someone who “in her place” would have done things differently. However, this suddenly easy life didn’t smooth any corners or heal any riffs. She and her daughter continued to be on one side and the others on the other side. (p. 15)

Carvalho quickly conveys a striking portrait of Dora, a woman suppressed by the hand that life has dealt her, an inward-looking individual who seems old before her time.

She never said more than was strictly necessary—the bare indispensable minimum—or else she would begin to say only what was necessary, then quickly grow tired, or stop mid-stream, as though she suddenly realized that it wasn’t worth going on and was a waste of effort. She would sit quite still then, her face a blank, like someone poised on the edge of an ellipsis or standing hesitantly at the sea’s edge in winter, and at such moments, all the light would go out of her eyes as if absorbed by a piece of blotting paper; (p. 5)

Luckily for Dora, a friend finds her a suitable job, managing an antique shop while the owner is abroad. ‘The Museum’, as her daughter Lisa calls it, seems a fitting environment for Dora, with its collection of vintage tables, desks and chairs, ‘gathered together like decaying aristocrats in a home for superior elderly folk’.  

Despite Duarte’s fecklessness and impractical principles, Dora still worships her deceased husband, whom she reflects on during the evenings after work. Her life is small and uneventful, except for the Museum and her visits to Ana and Aunt Júlia’s house for supper on Sunday evenings. Júlia too has been permanently damaged by men, haunted by the shame of her illegitimate son, who died young from Scarlet Fever. Now she is plagued by severe fits – possibly signs of madness – babbling uncontrollably in imaginary conversations with her former lover.

For Ana – who is desperate to hold off any signs of ageing – the future lies in her granddaughter, Lisa, a bright, inquisitive young teenager whose whole life is ahead of her. At seventeen, Lisa wants to travel the world, viewing a career as an air stewardess as her ticket to exotic locations. She sees her mother as hopeless and antiquated – a somewhat dowdy but polite woman who is wedded to the past.

One night, while Júlia is recovering from one of her episodes, Ana reveals something to Dora – a secret relating to Duarte which shatters Dora’s world.

[Dora:] “…At the moment, I don’t know where I am or who I am. I must be crumbling into pieces, there must be bits of me all over the place.”

[Ana:] “Sweep them up when you’re feeling brave enough and put them together again.”

“Yes, that’s what I have to do, isn’t it?” Dora said, not even thinking about what she was saying. And then immediately afterward, her voice rose dangerously in volume: When would she, too, fall and shatter? It was as if she had lost control of herself and of her voice. Or perhaps it was as if she were screaming for help from inside a coffin that had just that minute been nailed shut: (pp. 63–64)

Consequently, Dora sets about reinventing herself while simultaneously erasing Duarte from her memory, catalysing a series of events that ends in devastation.

Carvalho’s novella is narrated not by Dora herself but by a friend, Manuela, who also finds herself drawn into the turmoil generated by Ana’s revelations. Manuela has man troubles of her own; effectively isolated, she is stuck in a stagnating relationship with Ernesto, a vain, self-centred man in his early forties. In her failure to provide Ernesto with a child, Manuela realises that she is no longer her partner’s lover or companion. Instead, Ernesto sees her as ‘the landscape to which he had grown accustomed’ – a convenient audience or backdrop to reflect back his greatness.

He [Ernesto] would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whiskey, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, and ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph. (p. 158)

I don’t want to say how this story plays out, other than to confirm it’s devastating to observe. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them. Betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all play their parts in marginalising these women, confining them to the roles deemed acceptable by Portuguese society – a patriarchal doctrine, heavily influenced by Catholicism and Salazar’s authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the relationships between these women are also far from ideal. Following Duarte’s death, Dora receives little support from her few remaining female friends or family members. Ana makes no secret of the fact that she partially blames Dora for Duarte’s lack of ambition – he didn’t amount to anything when alive because Dora had never pushed him. In light of this perception, Ana’s actions towards Dora – especially the bombshell revelation – seem unnecessary and cruel.

This brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. A timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them. All credit to Two Lines Press for publishing this English translation – and Gary Michael Perry, whose recommendation brought it to my attention. As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, fans of Anita Brookner, Natalia Ginzburg (and possibly Penelope Mortimer) would likely enjoy this rediscovered gem.

Spanish Lit Month – some reading recommendations for July

As some of you may know, July is Spanish Lit Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at the Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here. In recent years, Stu and his sometimes co-host, Richard, have also included Portuguese literature in the mix, and that’s very much the case for 2021 too.

I’ve reviewed quite a few books that fall into the category of Spanish lit over the lifespan of this blog (although not so many of the Portuguese front). If you’re thinking of joining in and are looking for some ideas on what to read, here are a few of my favourites.

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

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow Spanish Lit Month veteran, 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. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This intriguing, elusive novella by the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, uses various different forms to examine a timeless story of love and misunderstandings. We hear accounts from three different individuals embroiled in a love triangle. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail – and we are never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists. Who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others? This is a thoughtful, mercurial novella to capture the soul.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina McSweeney)

A beautiful collection of illuminating essays, several of which focus on locations, spaces and cities, and how these have evolved over time. Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle) as we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts. A gorgeous selection of pieces, shot through with a melancholy, philosophical tone.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another wonderful collection of short pieces – fiction this time – many of which focus on the everyday. Minor occurrences take on a greater level of significance; fleeting moments have the power to resonate and live long in the memory. These pieces are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed, highlighting situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. While Fraile’s focus is on the minutiae of everyday life, the stories themselves are far from ordinary – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play, one of my favourite pieces from this selection.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

My first Marías, and it remains a firm favourite. A man is stabbed to death in a shocking incident in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes an immersive meditation, touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. Those long, looping sentences are beguiling, pulling the reader into a shadowy world, where things are not quite what they seem on at first sight.

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

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing – the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Best approached as a volume to dip into whenever you’re in the mood for something different and beguiling.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he previously spent in this city, trying to live the life of an aspiring writer – just like the one Ernest Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable FeastVila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’; and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during the month, possibly more if the event is extended into August, as in recent years.

Maybe you have plans of your own for Spanish Lit Month – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book, first published in Spanish or Portuguese? Feel free to mention it alongside any other comments below.

Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Regular readers of this blog may be aware of my fondness for the novels of Javier Marías, widely regarded as one of the preeminent writers of our generation. So, it was with a strong sense of anticipation that I picked up his epic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, generally considered to be his greatest work.

That said, I wasn’t sure about this series when I read the first volume, Fever and Spear, back in November last year, so much so that I didn’t write about it at the time. While thoughtful and philosophical (perhaps more so than some of the other Marías novels I’d previously read), this opening instalment was fairly slow going throughout, especially in terms of narrative drive. Nevertheless, I preserved with the series, returning to it during my recovery from a fracture earlier this year (big chunksters being very much the order of the day at that point). Now that I’ve read the other two books in this masterful trilogy, I can see what that first volume was setting out to achieve in laying the essential groundwork for the revelations to come.

In brief, the overarching story revolves around Jacques Deza, a Spanish man who has just moved to England following the recent split from his ex-wife, Luisa, and their two young children. (Those of you who are familiar with Marias’ earlier novel, All Souls, will recognise Deza from there.) Back in the UK, Deza reconnects with various former colleagues from a previous stint at Oxford University, through which he is introduced to the shadowy surveillance expert, Bertram Tupra – a man who appears to be linked to, or possibly employed by, MI6.

Tupra believes Jacques has a particular gift or sense of intuition – more specifically, an ability to assess a person’s inherent character and predict how they are going to behave in the future. In short, by looking at a person’s demeanour today, Deza can ‘foresee’ their face tomorrow.

With this in mind, Deza is recruited into Tupra’s organisation, a nameless group whose overall objectives remain something of a mystery. Ostensibly, Deza will be called upon to assess various individuals in the public eye – typically politicians, celebrities and other figures in positions of power. However, as the true nature of Tupra’s operations become increasingly apparent, Deza is drawn into a deeply sinister world, one where violence and torture are second nature and manipulative deceptions are frequently employed.

The state needs treachery, venality, deceit, crime, illegal acts, conspiracy, dirty tricks (on the other hand, it needs very few acts of heroism, or only now and then, to provide a contrast). If those things didn’t exist, or not enough, the state would have to invent them. It already does. Why do you think new offences are constantly being created? What wasn’t an offence becomes one, so that no one is ever entirely clean. Why do you think we intervene in and regulate everything, even where it’s unnecessary or where it doesn’t concern us? We need laws to be violated and broken. What would be the point of having laws if everyone obeyed them? We’d never get anywhere. We couldn’t exist. (p. 128, vol 3, Poison, Shadow and Farewell)

Almost without realising it, Deza finds himself intimately involved in Tupra’s dirty work, both indirectly as a hapless witness to scenes of a brutal assault and more directly as an active participant. His transformation from horrified onlooker to aggressive perpetrator is one of the trilogy’s key masterstrokes. Along the way, the narrative touches on incidents from the deeply personal, such as Deza’s ex-wife and her current relationships, to the broadly political – the latter including a devastating betrayal of trust from WW2 and horrific episodes from the Spanish Civil War.

Many of Marías’ familiar trademarks are present here, from the long, looping sentences and extended meditations that form a key part of his reflective style, to the key symbols and motifs which recur throughout – for instance, the image of a drop of blood on the floor, the rim of which proves particularly stubborn to remove. (The need to erase the final traces of a ‘taint’ or ‘stain’ crops up again and again, each time in a different context, resonating and reverberating with increasing power.)

The ongoing fascination with listening and surveillance is there too – an element which appears in some of Marías’ earlier books, perhaps most notably, A Heart So White. In some ways, the art of assessing character can be viewed as a form of interpretation or translation – another recurring theme in this writer’s work. Marías’ own particular brand of humour is also in evidence, providing some nicely judged moments of levity amidst the darkness of Tupra’s empire. Volume two of the trilogy, Dance and Dream, contains a fabulous disco scene, complete with wild dancing and some outrageously indecent behaviour before the violence kicks in. in this scene, Deza is observing an associate, the licentious attaché De la Garza, who appears to be taking quite an interest in , Flavia Manoia, the wife of an important contact.

He was clearly a man who had no time for good taste, or in whom bad taste was so pervasive that it crossed all frontiers, the clear and the blurred; more than that, he was someone capable of taking a lascivious interest in almost any female being – a rather smutty interest, verging on the merely evacuative – at Sir Peter Wheeler’s party, he had been capable of taking a fancy, and quite a large fancy at that, to the not-quite-venerable reverend widow or Deaness Wadman, with her soft, straining décolletage and her precious stone necklace of orange segments. (I mean, of course, an interest in any female human being, I would not like to insinuate things I know nothing about and of which I have no proof.) Flavia Manoia, who was of a similar age, but with considerably more style and dash (a dash of her former beauty, I mean), could easily turn his head after the couple of drinks he already had inside him or was planning to drink in the next few minutes. (pp. 65-66, book 2, Dance and Dream)

(For more wild nights at the disco, see the earlier Marias novel, All Souls.)

Overall, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. As a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. It also forces us to question our own likely responses were we to find ourselves in Deza’s precarious situation. How can any of us ever know just how we would react in the face of extreme adversity? How far would we go to protect the life of a loved one or the safety of our children? It’s almost impossible to tell. The prediction of future behaviour or ‘your face tomorrow’ is more challenging than you might think.

Final notes: If you are thinking of embarking on this trilogy at any point, I would highly recommend you read both All Souls and A Heart So White first – the former to gain an appreciation of Deza’s backstory and earlier time at Oxford University (many of the individuals he encountered in his academic days are referred to again here); the latter for an insight into Custardoy, a rather brash copier of famous paintings who plays a key role in YFT volume three, Poison, Shadow and Farewell.

Also, do persevere with the trilogy even if you find it slow going at first – it really does pay off by the time you get to volumes two and three, I promise!

(This is my contribution to Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature month – you can find out more about it here.)

My edition of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy was published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

When Richard and Stu decided to host Spanish Lit Month in July, it seemed like the right time for me to read another Javier Marías (you can find my thoughts on the others I’ve read here:  The Infatuations, A Heart So White and All Souls). First published in Spanish in 1986, The Man of Feeling would make a good introduction to Marías; it’s a short, hypnotic novel in which Marías’ long looping sentences add to the slippery feel of the narrative, a feature that seems so characteristic of much of his work.

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As The Man of Feeling gets underway, the narrator, an opera singer named León de Nápoles, is travelling by train to Madrid where he is to perform the role of Cassio in a production of Verdi’s Otello. Sitting opposite him in the compartment are three other people, two men and a woman, possibly travelling together (although it is a little unclear at first). As he observes his fellow passengers, the narrator begins to hypothesise about their lives: their personalities, their potential situations, and what they might do for a living. In particular, he is intrigued by the woman whose face, at least initially, is shielded by her hair.

Her hair, arranged with a single, much-practiced toss of the head, did not even allow one to build up an image of the whole face from a single feature, falling as densely as an opaque veil. (pg. 8)

When a sudden jolt in the movement of the train allows the narrator to catch a brief glimpse of the woman’s face, he senses in her features a kind of melancholy disposition, a look that stays with him as he continues his journey.

A few days later the narrator spots one of the men from the train in the bar at his hotel. The two men recognise one another from the journey, so they strike up a conversation. The man’s name is Dato, and by a strange coincidence he and his two travelling companions happen to be staying in the same hotel as the narrator. On the face of it, Dato is employed as a private secretary to the other male traveller, a Belgian banker named Manur. However, in reality, he serves as a near-constant companion to Manur’s wife, the melancholy Natalia, accompanying her on visits to shops, trips to the theatre and suchlike while her husband goes about his business. In effect, Dato’s role is to keep Natalia amused, a challenge that has become increasingly difficult of late as strategies for maintaining the lady’s interest are rapidly running low. Furthermore, Dato is there to protect Natalia from the advances of any potential admirers, men such as the narrator himself should he be so inclined.

Before long, the narrator finds himself spending much of his spare time with Natalia and Dato. As Manur is tied up with work from morning till night, Natalia and Dato are free to do what they choose during the day. They watch the narrator rehearse at the opera house, take all their meals with him, and include him in their various trips around the city. Somewhat inevitably, the narrator finds himself deeply attracted to Natalia, but to reveal anything more about what happens next would be a little unfair of me. What I will say, however, is that Manur is a self-confident, imposing and commanding man, someone who seems to exert a rather strange hold over his wife, the true nature of which is only revealed once events take their natural course.

Marías uses a very interesting structure to frame his narrative. In telling us his story, the narrator is recalling the details of a dream he experienced the previous night, a dream which replicates (more or less exactly) the events that happened during his trip to Madrid. Everything I have described above – the train journey and the various meetings between the narrator and the three travellers – all took place some four years earlier.

And last night I dreamed about what happened to me four years ago in the real world, if such a term serves any purpose or can usefully be contrasted with anything else. Of course there were differences, because although the facts and my vison of the story all correspond, I dreamed what happened in another order, in another tempo and with time apportioned and divided differently, in a concentrated, selective manner and – this is the decisive and incongruous part – knowing beforehand what had happened, knowing, for example, Dato’s name, character and subsequent behaviour before our first meeting took place in my dream. […] But it is also true that now I do not know to what extent I am recounting what actually happened and to what extent I am describing what happened in my dream version of events, even though both things seem to me to be one and the same. (pg. 25-26)

There is a sense that the narrator is not necessarily revealing everything he knows, prompting the reader to look between the lines, filling in the gaps, searching for meaning where necessary. Once again Marías blurs the margins between dreams and reality, between what is experienced, what is remembered and what might be imagined. At the heart of the novel is the idea that in some respects, much of the power of love stems from its anticipation and its recollection. In other words, it is not necessarily the present moment itself which is the key focal point here, but rather the anticipation of what might be experienced in the future or the memory of what has been experienced in the past.

Alongside the novel’s central thread, the narrator takes time to reflect on other aspects of his life, most notably the somewhat solitary existence of an opera singer, forever moving from one lonely city to the next. In some respects, it is not unlike the life of a commercial traveller, a comparison that allows Marías some scope to demonstrate his rather dry sense of humour. Moreover, there are one or two priceless glimpses into the eccentricities of the leading opera singer, someone the narrator performs with during his tour.

As with the other Marías novels I’ve read, certain themes are revisited during the novel, echoing earlier notes and references. It all makes for a spellbinding reading experience, the narrative almost coming full circle towards the end. This is another very fine novel by this writer – not simply a love story, but a beautiful meditation on memory too.

The Man of Feeling is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. (#TBR20 Book 1)

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

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

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Set in Madrid in the late 19th century, Tristana, by Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós, is a classic story of a love triangle. As the novel opens, we are introduced to Don Lope Garrido, a handsome lifelong womaniser now living in somewhat reduced circumstances in rented rooms in the Chamberí district of Madrid. At fifty-seven (although he thinks of himself as perpetually aged forty-nine), Don Lope still cuts a dashing figure with his noble face, slim figure and his distinguished goatee beard. Here’s a great description of this gentleman:

He dressed as smartly and impeccably as his slender means permitted: a well-buffed top hat, a good-quality winter cape, dark gloves at every season of the year, an elegant cane in summer, and suits more appropriate to youth than to maturity. Don Lope Garrido – just to whet your appetite – was a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity than he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one, he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shoot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: “You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier…” (pg. 4)

Don Lope is aptly named as while ‘Garrido’ can mean ‘handsome and elegant,’ it also carries a suggestion of ‘garras’ meaning ‘claws’.

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Living with Don Lope are two women: his maid, Saturna, and a twenty-one-year-old girl named Tristana. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood enjoy speculating on the nature of Tristana’s relationship with Don Lope. Various theories are bandied about ranging from daughter to niece to wife. But in reality the young girl is Don Lope’s ward. As the orphaned daughter of a close friend of her Don Lope’s, Tristana is entirely dependent on her guardian’s generosity, a status which this serial seducer has exploited. Within two months of Tristana’s arrival, Don Lope has added her to his very long list of conquests; she is, in effect, his plaything.

The problem was that the good gentleman’s moral sense lacked a vital component, and like some terribly mutilated organ, it functioned only partially and suffered frequent deplorable breakdowns. In accordance with the fusty old dogma of a knight sedentary, Don Lope accepted neither guilt nor responsibility when it came to anything involving the ladies. While he would never have courted the wife, spouse, or mistress of a close friend, he considered that, otherwise, everything was permitted in matters of love. (pg. 17)

At first Tristana accepts this way of life almost without question, failing to appreciate the reality of her situation. She is young, pretty and innocent. But as her twenty-second birthday approaches, Tristana begins to experience an awakening, a longing for independence and a sense of freedom.

Then there came a time when, like the shoot of a perennial plant that pushes its way up into life on a warm spring day, her mind suddenly flowered and filled with ideas, in tight little buds to begin with, then in splendid clusters. Indecipherable desires awoke in her heart. She felt restless, ambitious, although for quite what she didn’t know, for something very far off, very high up, which her eyes could not see; (pgs. 20-21)

As a result, there are signs that Tristana is starting to find life as Don Lope’s mistress more than a little distasteful. An ambitious and intelligent young woman, she dreams of learning a skill or profession, of living life as a painter, a writer or a teacher. Meanwhile, Don Lope is beginning to feel the effects of his advancing age. Sensing Tristana’s growing appetite to spread her wings, he begins to tighten the net around his young captive fearing she may deceive him or flee the nest forever.

Sensing that he was now an old lion, he, who had never considered any other man his rival, was suddenly filled with anxieties and saw robbers and enemies hiding in his very shadow. Aware of his own decrepitude, he was devoured by egotism, like a kind of senile leprosy, and the idea that the poor young woman should compare him, even if only mentally, with the imagined exemplars of youth and beauty, soured his life. His good judgement, it should be said, did not desert him entirely, and in his lucid moments, which usually occurred in the morning, he recognized the inappropriateness and irrationality of his behaviour and tried to calm his captive with trusting, affectionate words. (pgs. 29-30)

One day while out walking, Tristana meets and falls for Horacio, an attractive young artist and kindred spirit. The two young lovebirds continue to meet on a daily basis, a romance nurtured through afternoon strolls and, in time, secret trysts in the painter’s studio. Horacio, too, has experienced a difficult childhood. Orphaned at a young age and poorly treated by his tyrannical grandfather, he has found an outlet for his creativity through art. Horacio encourages Tristana’s eagerness to learn and the two feed off one another in a sense of mutual fascination and desire. Their love affair is teasing and playful.

Inside her, emotion was kicking and stamping, like a living being far larger than the breast containing it, and she vented this emotion by laughing wildly or bursting into sudden, passionate tears. It was impossible to say if this feeling was a source of joy to them or a lacerating sorrow, because they both felt as if they had been wounded by a sting that plunged deep into their souls, and were both tormented by a desire for something beyond themselves. (pg. 48)

With her spirit fully awakened, and scarred by Don Lope’s predatory behaviour, Tristana longs for the day when she can make her own way in life. Despite her love for Horacio, she is keen to reach a state of ‘honourable freedom,’ unwilling to accept dependency upon any man however much she idolises him.

And what of her home situation?  Although she does not love her guardian, Tristana still feels tied to Don Lope in some way; she experiences a strange mix of emotions towards him. There are times when Tristana loathes Don Lope for taking away her virginity, but she also feels something bordering on affection as a daughter would for her father. In reality, Don Lope’s character is far from black and white; he is a curious blend of altruistic qualities and terrible failings. He seems to have two opposing consciences: one very pure and honourable in certain respects, the other rather reprehensible. In effect, he chooses which to apply depending on the situation putting them ‘on and off like shirts’.

Don Lope wielded such power over her, such mysterious authority, that in his presence, even though she had ample reasons to rebel, she could not dredge up so much as a breath of willpower. (pg. 60)

Don Lope soon guesses that Tristana has a suitor. The evidence of love is there; he can see it on her face and hear it in her voice. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot of this wonderful novel, but there are a number of moves and counterplays to come which keep the reader guessing.

Tristana is a joy to read, a subtle story of love, power, liberty, and creativity. As you may have gathered from my opening quote, Don Lope is a cunning strategist and not to be underestimated. At times, he behaves like a jealous lover, at others a watchful father or doting grandfather. He is a tricky character to pin down as we see various different facets of his personality. Tristana, too, is a complex individual, and her wishes change as the story moves forward. Even Don Lope’s maid, Saturna, is painted in a vivid and lively manner. She is Tristana’s confidante, and the conversations between the two women are one of the book’s many pleasures. The writing is sublime too: Galdós’ prose is elegant and sprightly; Margaret Jull Costa’s translation reads very smoothly.

This is my second contribution to Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, and I must thank Guy and Scott for recommending Tristana, which I suspect will make my end-of-year highlights. You can read their excellent reviews by clicking on the links.

Tristana (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 2/20, #TBR20 round 2.

All Souls by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Spanish in 1989, All Souls is my third Marías (you can read my thoughts on the other two here: A Heart So White and The Infatuations).

The unnamed narrator of All Souls is a man in his late thirties recently married and living in Madrid with his wife and young son. The narrative is comprised of a series of reflections on the two years the narrator spent in Oxford as a visiting lecturer in translation, a fairly recent period in his life but one that seems to belong to another time.

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As with Heart, the experience of reading All Souls feels a little like observing a sequence of vignettes – each one conveying a vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is somewhat episodic. Perhaps the strongest thread running through the narrator’s recollections is his affair with fellow tutor, Clare Bayes, a somewhat careless, nonchalant and at times, indifferent woman whom he meets at a college dinner.

Clare had few scruples, but then no one who knew her would ever have expected anything else, for her charm lay in large measure precisely in her lack of consideration both for other people and for herself. (pg. 23)

It’s a relationship with no future, an affair mostly played out in the brief intervals between classes. They meet in hotel rooms, at the narrator’s house and in Clare’s home where they run the risk of being ‘discovered’ by Clare’s husband, Edward, another lecturer at the University.

As his teaching duties amount to very little, our narrator spends most of his time meandering around the streets of Oxford, visiting second-hand bookshops where he develops an interest in the work of Arthur Machen, author of supernatural and horror fiction. In time, this interest extends to the life and work of another writer, John Gawsworth. There is a mischievous undercurrent to some of the passages in All Souls, and you can see it here in this description of Oxford bookseller, Mrs Alabaster:

Mrs Alabaster was a smiling, authoritarian woman, with one of those very English smiles that you see adorning the faces of famous stranglers in films as they’re about to choose their next victim. She was middle-aged with greying hair, fierce eyes and capped teeth and, wrapped in a pink woollen shawl, she would sit at her desk, writing incessantly in an enormous accounts book. (pg. 75)

By way of a neat counterpoint, Mrs A’s husband ‘was equally smiling, but his smile was more like that of the strangler’s anonymous victim just before he realises his fate.’

Now that I’ve read a few of Marías’ novels, I am beginning to notice some common themes in his work. One of the most noticeable is a preoccupation with the passing of time or, to put it another way, a growing awareness of one’s own mortality. In this story, the title All Souls could be seen as having a dual meaning – not only the name of the University College but also a reference to the souls that haunt the pages of the novel. The narrator’s closest friend and confident, fellow-lecturer Cromer-Blake, is seriously ill and not long for this world. (We know this from the outset.) Moreover, during his time at Oxford, the narrator comes into contact with Professor Emeritus Toby Rylands, a respected literary scholar. Rylands too feels his own death is not very far away, the only difference being that unlike Cromer-Blake he has had plenty of time to get used to the idea.

For years now I’ve watched the days pass with that slow downhill feeling we all experience sooner or later. It doesn’t depend on age really, some people experience it even when they’re children; some children already have a sense of it. I felt it early on, some forty years ago, and I’ve spent all these years letting death approach and it still frightens me. The worst thing about the approach of death isn’t death itself and what it may or may not bring, it’s the fact that one can no longer fantasize about things still to come. (pg. 136)

The ability (or not) to keep secrets is another Marías theme. In The Infatuations and Heart, the focus is on our desire to conceal information from those closest to us. There is an element of this in All Souls, with a ‘reveal’ in the closing stages that took my breath away, but there are whispers of other covert activities too. Rylands is rumoured to have been involved with MI5 in the dim and distant past. With his mastery of Russian, another academic by the name of Dewar (aka the Inquisitor) is called to London to assist in interrogating Soviet citizens seeking political asylum in the UK. In one of the novel’s many wonderful set-pieces, the narrator imagines Dewar interrogating a nervy, freshly escaped ballet dancer still wearing their ‘Peter Pan outfit’ with ‘that look of Robin Hood’ they all seem to have. And on his arrival in Oxford, the narrator soon learns that the gleaning and trading of information is a major form of currency within the colleges.

Giving information about something is, moreover, the only way of not having to give out information about oneself, and thus, the more misanthropic, independent, solitary or mysterious the Oxonian in question, the more information about other people one would expect him to provide in order to excuse his own reserve and gain the right to remain silent about his own private life. The more one knows and tells about other people, the greater one’s dispensation not to reveal anything about oneself. Consequently the whole of Oxford is fully and continuously engaged in concealing and suppressing itself whilst at the same time trying to winkle out as much information as possible about other people… (pgs. 26-27)

Like the other Marías novels I’ve read, All Souls meanders around. The style is philosophical, reflective and at times surprisingly funny too. There is more sly humour here than in Heart (which contains a few darkly comic scenes involving translators and interpreters, another recurring theme in Marías’ work). All Souls contains three glorious set-pieces: the interrogation of Russian ballet dancers I mentioned earlier; a marvellous high table dinner featuring a drunken, lecherous warden and an insufferable college bore whose only topic of conversation is an obscure eighteenth-century cider tax; and finally, our narrator’s recollections of nights lost to the local discotheque, a place frequented by loose women, young Oxfordshire dandies and the occasional bachelor don.

…but on my fourth night there I spotted my own boss Aidan Kavanagh, the author of the horror blockbusters, performing a wild, loose-jointed dance out of time with the music. I couldn’t see very well – amongst all those bodies lit by that feverish light – and at first I thought with some alarm that his usually sober, anodyne clothes had given way to an eau de nil waistcoat and little else, but I realised immediately afterwards – with only a modicum of relief – that only his arms were in fact bare albeit to the shoulder: that is, he was as usual wearing a shirt and tie (apricot and bottle green respectively) beneath the eau de nil waistcoat, but it was a strange kind of shirt comprising only a shirt front. I wondered if he wore the same model to the faculty and determined to have a good look next time I met him in the Taylorian to ascertain whether or not his shirtsleeves were visible beneath his jacket cuffs. (pgs. 116-117)

Heart remains my favourite of the three Marías novels I’ve read so far, but there is much to enjoy in All Souls. Once again, particular images and passages recur and reverberate throughout the novel in a slightly different context each time: a woman glanced in passing; a hand tugging at a companion’s sleeve; the light of a fickle, mellow moon…there are many more.

There is some wonderful writing here too, not least in the narrator’s recollection of a chance encounter with a woman one night. Never before has Didcot railway station sounded more atmospheric or romantic.

In England strangers rarely talk to each other, not even on trains or during long waits, and the night silence of Didcot station is one of the deepest I’ve ever known. The silence seems even deeper when broken by voices or by isolated, intermittent noises, the screech of a wagon, for example, that suddenly and enigmatically moves a few yards then stops, or the unintelligible cry of a porter whom the cold wakes from a short nap (rescuing him from a bad dream), or the abrupt, distant thud of crates that the invisible hands quite gratuitously decide to shift despite the complete absence of any urgency, at a time when everything seems infinitely postponable… (pg. 15)

For alternative views of All Souls, which I read for Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, here are links to reviews by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos), Seamus (Vapour Trails) and Victoria (Tales from the Reading Room).

Please feel free to comment on All Souls, Marías or any of his novels, all are welcome – I’m convinced I want to read pretty much everything he has ever written.

All Souls is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Medardo Fraile, an eminent Spanish writer of short stories, was born in Madrid in 1925. Following a period of work in the theatre, he turned to short-story writing and his first collection of stories was published in Spanish in 1954. In the 1960s, he left Spain for the UK eventually settling in Scotland to teach at the University of Strathclyde. Things Look Different in the Light consists of twenty-nine of his stories taken from a range of collections first published between 1954 and 2010. This book represents the first selection of Fraile’s stories to be translated into English and what a little gem it is.

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Several of Fraile’s stories focus on the everyday: small occurrences that take on a level of significance; fleeting moments with the power to resonate and live long in the memory.

In Restless Eye, we follow a married couple over the course of one Saturday night. As they walk home from the cinema, the woman seems happy yet wistful, ‘filled by a pleasant sensation, by the playful, flickering flame of a vague desire, the savour of a different world, a world of carefree amusing people.’ As the couple approach their apartment, the woman hears the footsteps of a lone man following close behind. While her husband unlocks the door, she grasps the grille of the street door and looks out towards the pavement. It is as if she is transfixed by the sight of this stranger. He seems to represent a sense of freedom, excitement, perhaps even danger…something different to life with her husband:

The man following behind passed at precisely that moment. He was a dark, stocky young man, who, oblivious to her presence, glanced casually in through the door. She was standing motionless behind the grille, nonchalant, apparently distracted, a glint of boldness and fear in her restless eyes, following the man as he passed, following the wake left behind by his slow, deliberate swaying walk, by the sound of his sudden rasping cough. She felt the cold iron beneath her hand and saw the closed door. There was Saturday striding off down the street. She realized that her husband was holding the glass-panelled door open for her to pass… (pg 105)

Fraile manages to convey a range of moods through his stories. Several are sad or melancholy in tone. In other stories the mood shifts from one moment to the next; what starts as a happy occasion turns into an uncomfortable one. In Berta’s Presence, the opening story in this collection, a young man, Jacobo, is visiting friends as they celebrate their baby’s first birthday. The baby likes Jacobo, and she gurgles away as he produces a box of sweets from his pocket. But the situation changes when a young woman named Berta joins the gathering. Berta is imaginative and assured – she knows how to talk to children. Her mere presence appears to disturb Jacobo’s equilibrium; he worries that his efforts to amuse the baby will seem stilted and pointless by comparison.

In the title story from the collection, a painter is working underground on a sign for a metro station. Despite a lack of help from his surly boss, the man takes pride in his work, and he leaves the tunnel believing he has done a good job. His emergence into the sunlight signals a change in mood – his anger and frustration with the foreman are replaced by a more cheerful aura.  But there’s a twist in this tale; things really do look different in the light, but to say any more would only spoil this simple yet memorable story.

Given the title of this collection, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of these stories feature light, or more specifically, the ability of light to enliven or to enhance a particular mood. In Child’s Play, one of my favourites in the collection, two elderly sisters combat the darkening of their world by dialling up the light in their sitting room. As the sisters grow old, their desire for light increases; they need a little more each day to erase the years, to recapture the shine in their hair and the sparkle in their eyes. They continue to add more pendants and bulbs to their crystal chandelier. As the installation grows, the furniture has to be reduced in size to make room for the fittings. The chandelier seems to have assumed a life of its own:

So vast and intricate was the crystal chandelier that its arms touched the four walls of the room and nearly reached the floor, stopping only half a metre away. In the evening, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light. (pgs. 51-52)

Full Stop (another favourite) is one of the most poignant stories in the collection. This tale features a teacher who sets his class a dictation exercise based on a passage from one of his own letters. One student is asked to note the text on the classroom blackboard while the others must write the passage in their exercise books. Once the exercise is complete, the pupils seem eager to clear the board – they are in a rush to move on to the next thing. As he watches his words disappear from the blackboard, the teacher becomes aware of the transient, impermanent nature of life itself. It’s almost as if his own life has been erased:

He was left alone, putting on his gloves. He thought: “They didn’t even erase me slowly.” He was looking at the black rectangular board, like a precise, deep, dark hole. The now silent blackboard. He had been written on that board and now he had been erased. And with such rancour, such haste! His heart, he sensed, was clouding over. “How many others like me,” he thought, “lie behind that board, forgotten, lost, erased for ever, just like that?” (pg. 137)

Fraile grew up in Madrid and lived through the siege of the city during the Spanish Civil War. This experience appears to have seeped into An Episode from National History, one of the most powerful stories in the collection. Set in Madrid, it features a young boy of twelve and his school friend, Plácido. One day in 1938, Plácido and his mother call at the boy’s apartment in search of refuge. The boy is out at the time, and his stepmother and aunt turn Plácido and his mother away. It’s a poignant story tinged with sadness and regret; I wondered if it was semi-autobiographical or inspired by someone known to Fraile at the time.

It’s not all heartache and sorrow though; some of these stories are playful or humorous in tone. This passage from What’s Going On in That Head of Yours?, for instance, offers a glimpse of Fraile’s talent for wry humour. (The narrator is describing his time at University):

It was a curious world full of very pompous people, whom one gradually got used to. The girls weren’t like that. They were ordinary and pretty and often burst into tears. Generally speaking, the girls led a life of leisure in the afternoons, quite different from ours. We gave ourselves over to scepticism, getting chilled to the bone and talking. Many of us spent the afternoons recovering from colds. Everyone hated the textbooks. (pg. 28)

Things Look Different in the Light is an excellent collection, one of the best I’ve read for a while. Fraile’s stories are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed. I love how they highlight situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. Fraile’s focus is in the minutiae of everyday life, but these are no ordinary stories – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play.

I must thank Grant at 1st reading and Scott at Seraillon for introducing me to the delights of Fraile’s writing – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Things Look Different in the Light (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) comes with an excellent foreword by Ali Smith.

Published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20 in my #TBR20.