Tag Archives: Memoir

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

As someone whose childhood in 1970s Britain was soundtracked by the likes of Bowie, ABBA and The Jam, I was always going to fall squarely within the target market for Broken Greek, the glorious coming-of-age memoir by the respected music journalist, Pete Paphides. However, when Gordon, my music-obsessed neighbour, mentioned to me back in May that it was shaping up to be his book of the year, I knew I had to read it pretty damn quick. And he was right to praise it. This is such an engaging book, full of warmth, honesty and humour; it just might turn out to be one of my books of the year, too.

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares.

Back in the early ‘60s, Paphides’s parents – Chris, a traditional Cypriot with socialist values, and Victoria, an emotionally intuitive woman from Athens – move to England with little in the way of money or secure job prospects. When a potential contact fails to materialise, the couple fall into the fish and chip business, ultimately scraping together enough money for an outlet in Acocks Green. The move to Britain was originally intended to be a temporary one, with Chris harbouring ambitions to return to Cyprus where he would open a garage using profits from the couple’s time in England. However, a combination of the realities of working life and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the early 1970s ultimately puts the kibosh on any plans for that.  

With mum and dad working all hours at the chippy, young Pete and his older brother, Aki, have ample time on their hands to try and make sense of the world around them. As the book opens, Pete – or Takis as he is known at this point; the name-change to ‘Pete’ comes later – is in the midst of a long silent phase (a 3-year period that eventually ends through a well-judged intervention by Aki). It’s an astute opening, one that secures the reader’s emotional investment in the book’s protagonist right from the start. Pete – a quiet, emotionally sensitive boy at heart – finds something in music that speaks to him very clearly, a deep sense of connection/reassurance that touches a raw nerve. 

For a few years in the mid-late ‘70s, Pete becomes convinced that his parents are secretly planning to leave him, largely due to his inability to speak to anyone outside of his immediate family circle – a condition that causes his mother much embarrassment. As a consequence, Pete begins to line up a sequence of ‘fantasy childminders’ or ‘pop parents’ should the unthinkable happen with his real parents. ABBA, Kiki Dee and Brotherhood of Man are all high on the list of candidates, especially when BoM’s appearance on Top of the Pops (TOTP) results in a sort of epiphany for young Pete.

‘Save Your Kisses for Me’ was my prepubescent ‘Starman’ moment. But this was no alien gang leader exhorting me to help him overthrow the hidebound post-war torpor of my parents’ generation and invert this monochrome dystopia to reveal an iridescent post-apocalyptic ambisexual utopia. No, this was serious. I felt like Brotherhood of Man – the dark-haired bloke with the moustache; the sleepy-eyed, super-affable guy with brown shoulder-length hair, just the way I secretly wanted my hair to be; the kind-faced blonde woman; the only slightly less kind-faced looking dark-haired woman – understood me. 

As the years go by and the Paphides family move from one Birmingham-based fish and chip shop to another, Pete’s connection with music grows, deepening in intensity.

The memoir perfectly captures young Pete drawing on a litany of pop music, effectively using it as a means of creating a cultural identity for himself – one that is very much his own, independent of that of his parents. While Aki has a knack for discovering the coolest bands (The Clash, Echo & The Bunneymen, and The Teardrop Explodes, subsequently claiming them as his own), Pete puts more weight behind emotional connections, falling hard for the resonances stirred by ABBA, Olivia Newton-John and Janet Kay, whose hit single, Silly Games, is a song I adore. In short, pop music is akin to ‘a third parent’ for Pete; something that explains the world to him so that his real parents don’t have to.

In ‘Silly Games’, Kay’s vulnerability echoed the uncertainty of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘A Little More Love’. The other obvious point of comparison was ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game’, whose love-struck narrator edges by tiny increments towards emotional disclosure, ever wary that her feelings might not be reciprocated: ‘if I trust in you, would you let me down? / Would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you? / Could you feel the same way too?’

Given that my parents had little that corresponded to my somewhat idealised definition of a relationship, it probably wasn’t surprising that I was searching ABBA records for clues. 

ABBA prove particularly useful in imparting the harsh realities of love, their music effecting mirroring the dissolution of first Bjorn and Agnetha’s marriage, and then Benny and Frida’s, as one emotionally-revealing album follows another. Bowie too is another touchstone, one that only becomes fully apparent following his death in 2016.

Bowie’s vocal seemed to come from a place near the edge of life itself. Either awakening from a period of unconsciousness or about to enter one. Over time, I would come to realise that his ability to refract unspeakable, unknowable peril through the prism of melody was unsurpassable. It was there in ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. By the time he released Blackstar, knowing that he had weeks to live, it didn’t occur to anyone that Bowie might, this time, actually be writing about his own death. 

Cultural identity is a theme that permeates virtually every page of this book. From an early age, Pete is cognisant of the sense of tension between two very different cultures in his life: the traditional Greek-Cypriot heritage of his parents and the more exciting world enveloping him in Britain. Like many children of first-generation immigrants, Pete and his brother Aki soon begin to identify more strongly with the country of their childhood than their parents’ beloved homeland. In Message in a Bottle by The Police, Pete finds something that resonates with his own situation and the ‘looming identity crisis’ he is trying to ‘will out of existence’. More specifically, the fact that he doesn’t feel very Greek and cannot see himself fulfilling his parents’ expectations of a son – namely, someone who marries a nice Greek girl and settles down in the family business.

Even though I was no longer mute, an awareness was growing both in me and my brother that all the things that we found exciting were culturally alien to our parents. Rightly or wrongly, it increasingly felt as though it was our destiny to disappoint them. 

As the memoir unfolds, we learn more about the Paphides family back in Cyprus and Greece. The guilt Victoria experiences after leaving her mother and sister for a new life, one that turns out to be very different from the dreams she envisaged; the anguish of having to send baby Aki back to Greece for a couple of years, purely because childcare isn’t an affordable option when you’re trying to save for a business in the UK; and the grief Victoria ultimately has to deal with following the death of her mother, a woman whose life was defined by deference and hardship. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

On the music front, there is so much that resonates with me here, from the taping of pop songs on the Radio 1 chart rundowns, to the thrill of discovering a new band through a memorable appearance on TOTP, to the regular trips to Woolworths to buy the latest singles. As Pete looks to music to navigate the challenges of childhood, the musical references come thick and fast, covering a myriad of artists including ABBA, The Jam, Orange Juice, Duran Duran and Dexys Midnight Runners. While many of the issues touched upon here are relatively common childhood concerns – dealing with school, the fickle nature of friendships, irrational phobias, worries about not fitting in etc. – it is the wonderfully humane manner in which Paphides recounts his experiences that makes this book such an engaging read.

In Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too.  

Broken Greek is published by Quercus; personal copy.

Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

One of my current aims is to read more memoirs, largely prompted by some critically-acclaimed releases such as Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, a book that made my end-of-year highlights in 2019. Motherwell: A Girlhood is a memoir by the late Deborah Orr, the esteemed Guardian journalist who died from breast cancer last year. Rather than documenting Orr’s career in journalism, Motherwell focuses on the author’s childhood, mostly spanning the period from the mid-1960s through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, a time of significant social change in some regions of the UK. Moreover, the book’s title has a dual meaning, representing both the Scottish town near Glasgow where Orr grew up – Motherwell – and the nature of the relationship between Orr and her mother, Win – the latter prompting the question as to whether Win was able to ‘mother well’ when caring for Deborah and her brother, David.

Ostensibly, this memoir is an exploration of Orr’s fractured relationship with Win, the formidable woman who held the reins of power within the Orr household, much to the frustration of Deborah if not the rest of the family. A series of memories and reflections emerge, several of which are connected to ‘the bureau’ an imposing cabinet housing various objects and documents controlled by Win, a serial hoarder. (It is a highly symbolic object, an heirloom ultimately inherited by Deborah and installed in her London home.)

The bureau, like all three of my childhood homes, was the unchallenged domain of my mother, scrupulously well organised and governed by a surprisingly complex web of boundaries. […]

John [Deborah’s father] never delved behind the flap in the bureau. Win handled all the household’s paperwork, writing in her neat, cursive script or her neat block capitals. He would add his impressive signature where she told him to put it.

The rules were Win’s – and the power – but John tended to be their enforcer. (pp. 4-5, W&N)

As the book unfolds, the subtle nuances of Deborah’s relationship with Win become increasingly apparent. For the most part, Win is tenacious and terrifying, a woman obsessed with the need to keep up appearances; and yet she is also spirited and sociable, hailing from a large, working-class family with traditions of its own.

Having moved to Scotland from Essex at the time of her marriage to John, Win has experienced much suffering during her life, a point that becomes clear as her backstory is revealed. Furthermore, there is the sense that Win is unable to break that pattern of hardship with her own daughter, thereby implying that Deborah must bear a similar burden and conform to the expectations of the local community and society as a whole. The principle of conformity looms large in Motherwell, a town with the power to crush individuality and aspiration, notions it considers to be either shameful or fanciful.

Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places I was a chimerical beast, an oddity. (p.43)

Unsurprisingly, Deborah longs to break free from the restrictions imposed by Win and by the town of Motherwell itself. In truth, Win would like nothing better than to keep Deborah with her in Motherwell, almost as an extension of herself – like an extra limb or appendage, the removal of which would lead to major trauma and grief.

Nevertheless, for all her pride, prejudices and other faults, Win is capable of occasional moments tenderness where a more loving relationship emerges between mother and daughter. There are recollections of shared experiences, instances of Win and Deborah lying in bed together, just like the members of any ‘normal’ family might do.

John, too, is anything but black and white. Initially seen as the more playful and supportive of the two parents (the young Deborah idolises him), John has his own demons in the form of drink, gambling and a capacity for occasional violence – factors that prompt a reassessment of his personality over time. As with other sections of the book, there is a striking sense of honesty in the way Orr writes about these aspects of family life, the gradual process of realisation that someone close to you may not be quite so perfect after all.

Alongside the author’s reflections on the nature of motherhood and family, there is another, equally compelling side to Motherwell, one of broader significance. In writing this remarkable book, Orr has given us a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the decimation of the steel industry – particularly on Motherwell and the surrounding community. At its peak, the steelworks employed more than half of Motherwell’s adults, many of them stationed at Ravenscraig, the beating heart of the local manufacturing trade. After years of financial starvation, Ravenscraig closed in 1992, with the demolition of its the iconic cooling towers following in 1996 – an eerie event witnessed by Deborah and her immediate family.  

Motherwell is the town I was born and bred in, a coal and steel town on the lip of the Clyde Valley. By the time I was thirty years old, it wasn’t a coal and steel town any more. Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do. (pp. 1-2)

Also running through the book is the theme of narcissism, acting as a kind of lens or filter through which several elements are viewed. The spectre of narcissism is present in many aspects of Deborah’s life, from the relationship with ex-husband, Will Self, to the politics within the Orr household during childhood, to some of the ongoing failings of wider society itself.

Because here’s the thing. Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you, whether in a family, a group or in the whole wide world, is a need that many people feel, especially in this age of individualism. (p. 208)

In short, Motherwell is a remarkable memoir – poignant, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. (I couldn’t help but feel some element of compassion for Win despite her terrible failings.) Orr weaves together all the different strands so brilliantly, moving seamlessly from memories of her upbringing to expressions of anger about the devastation of the steel industry to pertinent asides on the toxic nature of narcissism and its power to destroy. She is so candid in her analysis of a difficult childhood, unsparing in the visceral act of self-exploration. This is a powerful, humane and beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Motherwell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

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

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Thoughts on a couple of recent reads – both excellent, both published this year.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed.

In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own.

The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)?

The failings of human nature constitute another key theme here – a fear of shame and the desire to maintain appearances both play their part in dictating Betty’s path in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts.

The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago. Then it seemed to me that all we needed was more evidence to solve it, more knowledge in the form of documents, letters, hard facts. But to my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. (pp. 12–13)

Only by repeatedly sifting these details, returning to them again and again, is Cumming able to come to some kind of resolution about the nature of her mother’s past. The need to consider all the alternatives, to view the situation from various perspectives, is crucial to unravelling the enigma at its heart.

When viewed as a whole, this book is a loving testament to Laura’s mother, a woman whose warmth, generosity and compassion shine through the text. This deeply personal story also conveys a vivid portrait of a small, close-knit community in the early 1930s, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business – except, perhaps, the central individual concerned. All in all, this is a remarkable story, exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

This book caught my eye when it ended up on the Booker shortlist, largely because it was one of two contenders that seemed to be attracting the most positive reviews at the time (the other being Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). So, when Girl won the Prize itself – a controversial decision as we know – I felt I had to read it.

In short, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant portrayal of twelve different characters – mostly black, mostly women – who together offer an insight into a sector of British society over the past hundred years. Here we have women spanning a variety of ages and walks of life, from nineteen-year-old Yazz, a street-smart young woman just starting out at University, to ninety-three-year-old Hattie, keen to remain self-sufficient in her home on the family farm. In between there are mothers and daughters, cleaning entrepreneurs and theatre directors, teachers and bankers, many of whom are forging unfamiliar paths in life – hopefully for others to follow suit.

Over a sequence of thirteen chapters – one for each character and a final after-party scene – Evaristo teases out the connections between various characters, some clear and direct, others more tenuous.

These women are bright, dynamic, resolute and determined, largely irrespective of the hand they’ve been dealt by society at large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have encountered abuse and prejudice over the years, and yet they have managed to find their own ways through it, often with the aid of sheer grit and perseverance. I suspect there is more than a hint of Evaristo herself in Amma, a fifty-something director of ground-breaking feminist theatre. Having lived most of her creative life on the radical fringes, Amma now finds herself joining the establishment with her new play due to open at the National, hopefully to great critical acclaim.

What I love about this book is the way Evaristo prompts readers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes of black women typically presented to us in films, TV and other cultural media, encouraging us to see her characters for who they really are – rounded individuals with a multitude of thoughts and feelings.

Yazz wishes the play had already opened to five-star universal acclaim so that she can watch it stamped with pre-approval, it matters because she’ll have to deal with the aftermath if it’s slagged off by the critics and Mum’ll go on an emotional rampage that might last weeks – about the critics sabotaging her career with their complete lack of insight into black women’s lives and how this had been her big break after over forty years of hard graft blah di blah and how they didn’t get the play because it’s not about aid workers in Africa or troubled teenage boys or drug dealers or African warlords or African-American blues singers or white people rescuing black slaves

guess who’ll have to be on the end of the phone to pick up the pieces?

she’s Mum’s emotional caretaker, always has been, always will be

it’s the burden of being an only child, especially a girl

who will naturally be more caring. (pp. 49 – 50)

The narrative explores many themes of relevance to our society over the past century, delving into class, race, gender, sexuality, feminism and social mobility, with some of the dialogue in the novel offering a vehicle for raising key issues and prompting debate.

In summary, this is a thoroughly absorbing, cleverly-constructed novel featuring a myriad of interesting voices – by turns exuberant, striking, funny and poignant. There is a richness of experience on offer here which makes it feel highly pertinent to our current times. In spite of the diversity of modern multicultural Britain, Evaristo shows us that maybe, just maybe there is more that connects us as individuals than divides us. A thoroughly inspiring story in more ways than one.

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus, Girl, Woman, Other by Hamish Hamilton; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

Childhood is the first in a series of three volumes which together form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen (1917-78). It is a striking text, shot through with a tangible note of sadness, in which the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an austere world. (The subsequent volumes – Youth and Dependency, which I’ll touch on at the end of this piece – cover the author’s adolescence and adult years respectively.)

Born into a working-class family in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen, Tove experiences a rather harsh and lonely childhood. With her love of books, songs and poems, Tove is considered somewhat unusual by her family – particularly her mother, whose intolerance and dismissive attitude give rise to a fractured mother-daughter relationship.

Tove finds her childhood narrow and restricting, ‘like a coffin’ in which she is shackled and constrained. In search of solace and a means of expression, Tove longs to write down all the words that flow through her, the fledgling poems that come naturally throughout her days. Nevertheless, she keeps these artistic ambitions to herself for most of her early years, jotting down her poetry in a private album which she hides in her room – mostly out of a fear of being ridiculed by her family. In essence, these poems become a way for Tove to cover the exposed areas of her childhood by enriching her limited existence through creative expression.

It is only once Tove reaches middle school that her world begins to widen somewhat, sparked by her introduction to the public library and everything it contains. While the librarian suggests books suitable for children, Tove finds these too basic for her requirements. It is more challenging fiction that she is after, grittier stories like Les Misérables and other such texts.

By the age of twelve, Tove is experiencing signs of depression, haunted by thoughts of death and mortality. A foreigner in her own world, she longs to escape the narrow confines of her local community, eager to make her own way in life. The conventional trappings of marriage and motherhood are not for her; she shuns everything a reliable, steady life represents, including its feeling of security.

While Tove finds her childhood very restrictive, there is also a sense that she acknowledges these early years to be precious in their own way – possibly something to be looked back on with a degree of nostalgia or fondness, even if they never seem quite so rosy at the time. As her childhood draws to a close with her confirmation, Tove becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of the future, ‘a monstrous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.’

What particularly strikes me about Childhood is Ditlevsen’s powerful tone of voice. The memoir is written in a candid, unvarnished style, almost childlike in certain respects, which fits so naturally with the subject matter at hand. Nevertheless, the reader is frequently pulled up short by the arresting nature of Tove’s experiences – made all the more shocking due to the plain-speaking style in which they are delivered.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.… Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different. (pp. 30–31, Childhood).

In this respect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the British writer Barbara Comyns, whose excellent semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a favourite of mine. (There’s a link to my review here if it’s of interest.)

Now that I’ve read all three books in Ditlevesen’s trilogy, I can safely say that they’re all just as absorbing as the first – perhaps even more so given the way Tove’s life develops into adulthood. There is a frankness to Tove’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist.

In Youth we follow Tove through a string of unsuitable menial jobs, some of which only last a few days before she is fired for her naivety and unfiltered views. As far as Tove is concerned, her eighteenth birthday can’t come soon enough, a time when she can finally strike out on her own outside of the boundaries of her family.

Throughout her adolescence, Tove continues to write poetry, frequently composing pieces and songs for work colleagues and associates. Her life remains lonely and challenging; nevertheless, there is a seam of dark humour running through this volume (and parts of the subsequent one, Dependency), largely stemming from the author’s matter-of-fact tone of voice and narrative style.

One evening Nadja comes over, dressed, as usual, as if she had just escaped a burning house. (p. 29, Dependency)

There are moments of brightness too, glimmers of hope and determination on the part of Tove that one day some of her poems may be published.

I can’t explain to myself, either, why I want to so badly to have my poems published, so other people who have a feeling for poetry can enjoy them. But that’s what I want. That’s what I, by dark and twisting roads, am working towards. That’s what gives me the strength to get up every day, to go to the printing office and sit across from Miss Løngren’s Argus eyes for eight hours. That’s why I want to move away from home the same day I turn eighteen. (p. 63, Youth)

Meanwhile the impeding outbreak of WW2 rumbles away in the background, casting a shadow of darkness over the external world.

By her early twenties, Tove is a published poet, now married to a literary editor, a much older man named Viggo F – a most unsuitable match as it turns out. In Dependency, Tove recounts the experiences of her early adult life: a sequence of love affairs and marriages, some gratifying and others not so much; pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted (a distressing search for a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion is painfully relayed); and ultimately, a battle with opioid addiction that will consume her day-to-day existence and emotional soul.

There are brief periods of solace when Tove finds an outlet through creative expression, her writing remaining a source of fulfilment whenever it is possible. Nevertheless, the spectre of addiction continues to hover overhead, even during Tove’s ‘clean’ periods of remission.

It [the pharmacy] radiated a muted light from containers of mercury and beakers filled with crystals. I kept standing there, while yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realized while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it. I pulled myself away reluctantly, and kept walking. (p. 130)

This is a remarkable series of books – clear, candid, striking and elegant. It has something of the power of the most compelling memoirs, coupled with a simplicity that feels almost poetic, certainly at times. In short, very highly recommended indeed. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of the publishers.

Childhood, Youth and Dependency are published by Penguin; personal copies.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

First published in 1946 (and now back in print courtesy of NYRB Classics), More Was Lost is a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, editor and keen gardener, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Eleanor Stone is just nineteen years of age when she is captivated by Zsiga, an unconventional, liberal man with a keen interest in people. At thirty-seven, Zsiga is somewhat older than Eleanor, but personality-wise he is a good match; so, following a short courtship and engagement, the pair marry and ultimately make their way to Zsiga’s Ruthenian estate at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was no Eastern European Versailles. It was small, and infinitely lovable. It had a sort of touching elegance. And there were little barbaric bits here and there that were particularly pleasing in a building meant to be so classic. For instance, the water spouts, which were fierce little mermaids wearing crowns. (p. 121)

While the Perényis have little money to speak of, their assets are substantial as the estate comprises 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest. The baroque property itself is characterful but dilapidated and in significant need of repair – there is much work to be done to make the dwelling comfortable for the newlyweds.

While the Stones are fearful for their daughter’s future in an unfamiliar land, Eleanor herself is much more optimistic, buoyed by the richness of her new life with Zsiga. Money is of little importance to her, particularly compared to the pleasures of the estate.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything. (p. 45)

The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on Eleanor’s adjustment to her new world, situated as it is on the shifting borders between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At the time of her arrival, the area surrounding the estate is under the auspices of the Czechs; however, as Zsiga speaks Hungarian, this is the language she decides to learn, aided by the trusty Györffy, a long-standing employee of the Perényi family and manager of the estate.

Alongside her lessons, Eleanor must also get to grips with managing the household, the gardens and ultimately the orchard, all of which need regular care and attention. There is little time for her to feel bored, especially as there are several renovations and refurbishments to be made around the house. With her flair for colour and interior design, Eleanor sets about rearranging and furnishing the rooms, rescuing past glories including paintings, maps and a collection of old books, many of which belonged to Zsiga’s grandfather, Alexei. With most of the ground floor given over to the kitchen, office and storerooms, the Perényis establish their living quarters in the upstairs rooms of the house, complete with a new library furnished by Eleanor.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. (p. 130)

This section of the memoir reads like a sequence of vignettes – snapshots of the Perényis’ lives as they lovingly restore the estate. There are local dignitaries to visit, traditional festivities to host, and strange customs to uphold, all of which Eleanor handles beautifully – she doesn’t seem phased by any of it. In one particularly evocative episode, the couple cross the border into Hungary to stay with Zsiga’s cousin Laci, a larger-than-life character with an enormous bushy beard. Eleanor is captivated by Laci and his dashing friend, Bottka, with their enduring stamina and thirst for enjoyment.

All too soon, however, developments in the outside world begin to impinge on the Perényis’ existence, and their position in the liminal zone between borders becomes all too perilous. Eleanor is acutely aware that if Czechoslovakia were to enter the war against Germany, Zsiga’s status as a Hungarian national would lead to his internment as a foreign subject. The situation in Europe is changing fast; too fast for Zsiga to arrange for Czech citizenship to secure his position. So, after much soul-searching, the couple make a dash for the border in the hope of making it into Hungary and back to Budapest.

We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. (p. 168)

They make it, but only just – crossing the border at the last barrier where the frontline defences are in the process of being established.

Back in Hungary, the Perényis find themselves caught up in the schizophrenic, illogical nature of Hungarian politics. As the disputes over the Czech territories rumble on, the couple dearly hope that their area will be returned to Hungary. (While a continuation of life under the Czechs would be perfectly acceptable, all hopes for the nation’s survival are rapidly ebbing away; it seems merely a matter of time before the capitulation occurs.) Alternatively, the prospect of being ruled by the Ruthenians is unthinkable, a situation that would leave the Perényis exposed to the whims of barbarians.

We would have been quite happy to go on living under the Czechs, but if in this nearly final partition of Czechoslovakia we were left to the Ruthenians, we knew it would be very bad news indeed. There was all the difference in the world between the enlightened civilized Czechs and the savage Ruthenians. If that happened to us, we would be left without any competent authority, lost in a remote province. For there was no doubt that the Ruthenians were going to demand and, with the Czechs reduced to complete impotence by this latest blow, get complete autonomy. (p. 178)

I won’t reveal how the decision on these territories works out for Eleanor and Zsiga; you’ll have to read the memoir yourselves to discover the outcome. Suffice it to say that there are testing times ahead for this couple as they try to navigate the turmoil of war.

More Was Lost found its way onto my radar when Dorian wrote so enthusiastically about it back in 2016 (do take a look at his posts which you can find here). It is by turns beautiful, illuminating, poignant and sad; one of those rare books that feel expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once. There is a sense of lives being swept up in the devastating impact of broader events as the uncertainty of the political situation begins to escalate. The pivotal decisions that Eleanor and Zsiga must take are conveyed with clarity and openness, qualities that make their story all the more moving to read.

Perényi is a wonderful writer, describing her life on the estate and the changing of the seasons with great attention to detail. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book, from the snowy landscapes of the surrounding areas to the grand portraits and photographs of Zsiga’s ancestors – the last remnants of an idyllic vanished world.

The book comes with a lovely introduction from J. D. McClatchy, an author and close friend of   Perényi, which outlines what happened to Eleanor and Zsiga both during and after the war. Like many introductions, it is probably best left to the end to avoid any spoilers.

All in all, this is a superb memoir written in a thoroughly engaging, straightforward style. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in the period.

More Was Lost is published by NYRB Classics. Huge thanks to Dorian for kindly gifting me a copy of the book.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been trying to read from my shelves over the past year or so, limiting the acquisition of ‘new’ books in favour of reading older titles from my TBR. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights has been sitting there for some time, patiently waiting for its moment in the sun (or maybe I should say ‘the glow of autumn’ as we are in October now).

It’s a difficult book to describe – part fiction, part memoir, Sleepless Nights blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In terms of style and form, the closest comparison I can think of is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a wonderful book that blew me away with its shimmering vignettes and episodes from the narrator’s life.

Like Speedboat, Hardwick’s book doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. Instead, we are presented with a series of fragments from a woman’s life, the recollections of journeys undertaken, of people encountered and situations observed. The writing has a poetic quality, rich with vivid images with the ability to linger in the mind.

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist. The phlox bloomed in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seemed to be passing away. Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock. (p. 5)

While at first, the individual fragments may seem somewhat unconnected, there is a sort of framing device at work here. As the narrative opens, a ‘broken old woman’ – also named Elizabeth – living in a shabby nursing home is looking back over the years that have gone before.

Over the course of her life, Elizabeth travels from her home in Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, and then to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there are various relationships with men along the way. We learn of Elizabeth’s first lover at the age of eighteen, a casual, romantic figure twelve years her senior. There are other affairs too, perhaps most notably with Alex, a rather vain man in possession of a certain charm. Following the break-up of a long-term relationship with a different lover, Elizabeth reflects on the nature of their bond – in essence, what it can mean for a man and a woman to be joined together in this way.

I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business. (p. 51)

One of the most evocative sections of the book captures Elizabeth’s memories of her time in New York: the sleazy atmosphere of the Hotel Schuyler where she shared rooms with a friend; the smoky jazz clubs of the city, often characterised by their rapidly changing owners; and the magnetic presence of Billie Holliday, a woman drawn to self-destruction like a moth to a flame.

The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. (p. 31)

There are other memories too, reflections on Elizabeth’s father and mother, their values and characteristics. Stories of friends, acquaintances and lovers light up the pages, all coming together to form an intriguing collage or scrapbook of the protagonist’s life.

In the following passage, Elizabeth recalls her former neighbour, Miss Cramer, an old music teacher who has fallen on hard times. Once elegant and self-assured, Miss Cramer is now a dishevelled and sorry presence in her torn canvas shoes and thin dress – following the death of her elderly mother, the advent of poverty was swift and destructive.

Poverty for the autocrat came like a bulldozer, gouging out her pretentions, her musical education, her trips to Bayreuth. The mother died, summers vanished, the voices were silent. Out of the apartment went the piano and the trash of two and a half decades., brilliant American, English, and European trash. Miss Cramer moved down the street, and the move was a descent on the roller coaster, hair flying, trinkets ripped off the ears and the fingers, heart pounding and head filled with a strange gust of air, which was never again released and seemed to be still blowing about behind the brow, rippling the dark eyelashes. (pp. 46-47)

The narrative is also laced with a number of perceptions and insights, particularly those on the status of women and their standing relative to men. There are observations on the ease with which society can define a woman by her relationship with a man, almost as if she has little identity or agency of her own. In this fragment, Elizabeth considers the nature of life for spinsters, reflecting that a form of spinsterhood may even exist within marriage – for some women at least.

The paradox of the woman who reaches her true spinsterhood only after she is at last married and settled. She takes command and reaches a state of dominating dependency to which only she has the clue. How confident her reign, how skillful the solitary diplomacy, the ordering of the future and control of the present. She gathers in revenues and makes dispensations, carefully, never forgetting that she is alone. (p. 20)

Like Adler’s book, Sleepless Nights was first published in the late 1970s, and its slightly detached tone leaves me wondering whether this was some kind of reflection of the sense of unease in the US at the time. It’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, there is a fluidity and luminosity to Hardwick’s prose that makes her novel a real pleasure to read. There is a dreamlike quality to the overall feel of the book, akin to the way in which seemingly unconnected fragments or shards of memories seem to emerge from nowhere to flow through the mind. All in all, this is a beautiful, elegant read to stimulate the senses.

I’ve posted this review today to coincide with Lizzy’s NYRB Classics fortnight which is running from 1st– 14th October. You can find out more about it via the link.

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

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.