Tag Archives: Memoir

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.

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

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

books-of-the-year

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

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

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

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

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

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

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

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

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

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

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

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

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

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

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

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

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

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

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

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

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

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

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

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. (pg. 3)

On the evening of 30th December 2003, Joan Didion sat down to dinner with her husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, at their home in New York. Moments later, John experienced a massive coronary event that was to lead to his death. At the same time, the couple’s only child, Quintana, was lying unconscious in an intensive care unit at the Beth Israel North Medical Center in the city. She had been there since Christmas Day when, what had at first appeared to be a case of flu, suddenly morphed into pneumonia and septic shock. The Year of Magical Thinking charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed these tumultuous events in her life, a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness and death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage and children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times.

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Written between October and December 2004, the book’s title has its origins in “magical thinking,” a state whereby a person believes that their thoughts and wishes can bring about certain events or change an outcome in some way. Despite the fact that Didion appeared cool and rational in the hours and days immediately following John’s death, she began to believe that she could bring him back, ‘to reverse time, to run the film backwards.’

I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. […] Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone. […]

I needed to be alone so that he could come back. (pgs. 32-33)

As she looks back at that time, Didion identifies a number of instances of this covert thinking which remained somewhat hidden from others and even from herself: she had not been able to read the obituaries when they appeared in the papers as they would have confirmed John’s death; she had resisted the suggestions to clear his clothes, to give them away to charity, as he might need them when he returns; she had declined a request from the hospital to donate his organs. ‘How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?’

In an attempt to make sense of the range of emotions she is experiencing, Didion begins to explore the literature on grief, turning initially to poetry, novels and memoirs. Given that grief touches virtually all of us as some stage in our lives, there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the sources Didion finds close to hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most illuminating insights into grief come from Didion herself. In this passage, she distinguishes between our image of what grief will be like and the reality of actually experiencing it for ourselves, a description that rings completely true to me based on my own experience of loss.

In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (pgs. 188-189)

Didion is also very good on the feeling of utter disorientation and dislocation that follows the death of a loved one, that fuzzy, ‘mudgy’ state of mind that perhaps only others going through a similar experience can fully recognise. There is clear sense of fragility and vulnerability here.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. (pg. 75)

Intercut with these reflections on bereavement are Didion’s examination of her life with John, in particular, the years they spent in California and their time with Quintana. She describes how even the smallest of objects – often chanced upon at the most unexpected of times – can trigger the vortex effect, the opening up of a tunnel of memories that catapult her into the past. While glancing at a TV commercial, Joan happens to catch sight of a familiar stretch of coastal highway – all of a sudden she is back at Palos Verdes Peninsula, immersed in memories of the house where she and John lived with Quintana when she was a baby.

Reflections from the months leading up to John’s death form another focal point. There are a number of occasions when Joan wonders whether John had sensed that time was running out for him. In the autumn of 2003, John persuaded Joan that they should take a trip to Paris as he feared that if they did not go then, he might never see the city again. Moreover, when she thinks back to the time shortly before his death, Joan recalls John saying several things about his current and previous work which, at the time, made it difficult for her to dismiss his mood as depression (something she considers a typical phase of any writer’s life). Here is just one example of the things that continue to gnaw away at her. It was either the evening of John’s death or the previous night; John and Joan were travelling home in a taxi having just visited Quintana in the ICU unit at Beth Israel North.

Everything he had done, he said, was worthless.

I still tried to dismiss it.

This might not be normal, I told myself, but neither was the condition in which we had just left Quintana.

He said that the novel was worthless.

This might not be normal. I told myself, but neither was it normal for a father to see a child beyond his help. (pg 81-82)

I don’t think I’m up for this, he had said in the taxi on our way down from Beth Israel North that night or the next night. He was talking about the condition in which we had once again left Quintana.

You don’t get a choice, I had said in the taxi.

I have wondered since if he did. (pg. 217)

‘Did he have some apprehension, a shadow?’ These questions and more continue to haunt Joan as she tries to make sense of John’s death, prompting a re-examination of life with her husband as she had previously understood it.

Magical Thinking is a remarkable piece of writing, at once utterly compelling, deeply affecting and emotionally truthful. (There are other threads within Magical Thinking which I haven’t even touched on here, most notably Joan’s account of Quintana’s illness and its impact on her own state of mind.) Didion brings a great deal of honesty and candour to this work. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. Certain questions are left unanswered, doubts remain in the mind; and yet there is a sense that the very process of writing this book has helped Didion in some way.

As is often the case when I try to write about a favourite book, I am left feeling that I have fallen short, that I haven’t done it justice, that I have failed to articulate what makes it special. All I can say is that this is an exceptional book. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Delphine de Vigan’s autobiographical novel, Nothings Hold Back the Night, a book that made my ‘best-of’ list last year.

The Year of Magical Thinking is published by Harper Perennial. Source: personal copy.