Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

Time for another couple of mini reviews from me – in this instance focusing on books by two of my favourite writers, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton. (It’s the turn of the Americans today.)

The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

In many ways, this reads like a companion piece to (or a continuation of) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of Didion’s essays published in 1968. Here we have another volume of non-fiction pieces exploring various events and reflections in the author’s life during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, all expressed in Didion’s effortlessly cool and erudite style. Like the essays in Slouching, most of these pieces had previously appeared in journals/magazines before being collected together in one volume.

As I’ve already written at length about Didion’s non-fiction in my review of Slouching, I’m not planning to go into a lot of detail about the twenty essays in The White Album; instead my aim is to give you a brief flavour of the book, mainly by way of a couple of quotes that I noted while I was reading the collection.

The essays included here cover a fairly diverse range of topics from Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s former home in California to a recording session with The Doors. Running through many of these snapshots is a sense of social fragmentation and disintegration, a deep-rooted feeling of unease that seems to have characterised Didion’s life, reflecting both her own state of mind and her view of the broader cultural environment in California at the time. In the following passage – taken from the opening piece, The White Album – Didion is reflecting on the mood in LA in the summer of 1969, just before the brutal murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.

I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumours. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. (pp. 41-42)

While Didion is always clear-eyes and insightful, in some respects she is at her best and most affecting when her reflections touch on the personal, the events and circumstances which have had a profound impact on her own life and ability to function. She writes openly about her relationship with migraine, a debilitating condition she has learned to accept and cope with in spite of its intensity and frequency. There is also the time when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a moment that pulls into focus her own vulnerability and sense of mortality.

In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist’s office in Beverley Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. “Lead a simple life,” the neurologist advised. “Not that it makes any difference we know about.” In other words it was another story without a narrative. (p. 47)

Through these highly compelling essays, Didion seems to be saying that there is little use in us trying to look for too much reason or narrative in our lives as reality simply doesn’t operate that way – sometimes we just have to accept the randomness of events or developments however unsettling that may be.

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Described by some as a companion piece to Ethan Frome (reviewed here by Max of Pechorin’s Journal), Edith Wharton’s Summer is a powerful novel set in North Dormer, a small, insular village in the New England region of America. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Ethan, I did like it a lot.

The story focuses on Charity Royall, an impulsive and independently-minded young woman who lives with her guardian and widower, the dour and surly Lawyer Royall. As a young child, Charity was rescued from a bleak life with a group of outcasts from the nearby Mountain, a structure whose ominous presence looms large over North Dormer and Charity’s existence there. Charity feels little affection or gratitude towards Lawyer Royall for his earlier actions; if anything, she resents being constantly reminded of the need to be grateful to her guardian for the lifestyle he has provided, away from the feral nature of the Mountain community. Even her name is a reflection of her questionable status in society, a signal of her reliance on the benevolence of other, more ‘rightful’ citizens in the village.

Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she ought to consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer. She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilisation. Everyone in the place had told her so ever since she had been brought there as a child. (p. 5)

Thankfully, Charity has already managed to thwart a sexual advance and proposal of marriage from Lawyer Royall, thereby asserting herself as a strong presence in the red house, the home they share in North Dormer.

Charity longs to escape from the boredom and constraints of her drab life in the watchful village, her only respite being a part-time job in the deathly quiet memorial library where she hopes to earn enough money to strike out on her own. So, when the handsome and kindly architect, Lucius Harney comes to town to make a study of the local buildings, young Charity’s passions and restless nature are promptly aroused.

What follows is a sequence of encounters in which Charity wrestles with her feelings for Lucius, an educated man who belongs to a completely different social class from her own. There is a sense of blossoming and awakening in Charity as her relationship with Lucius develops and deepens with each additional meeting, particularly once it is agreed that she will act as his guide.

In addition to the sense of emotional growth described above, the novel also touches on themes of identity, belonging, society’s expectations of women, and the difficulties of bridging a class divide – especially given the relevant period and setting. While I don’t want to say too much about the plot, there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s narrative arc as the story reaches its poignant conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a few glimmers of hope towards the end, particularly once Lawyer Royall is revealed as being somewhat more sympathetic and compassionate than might appear at first sight.

The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages, fragments that act as reflections of Charity’s fondness for the open landscape and natural world. I’ll finish up with one of these, but there are many more to be found in the book itself.

The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. (p. 40)

The White Album is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Summer by Oxford World’s Classics; my thanks to the publisher for the copy of Summer.

Ali and Simon have also reviewed Summer – just follow the links if you’d like to read their reviews.

Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano (tr. Mark Fried)

If you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the thrills and spills of the 2018 World Cup, this could be the ideal book for you: Football in Sun and Shadow by the eminent Uruguayan journalist, novelist and writer Eduardo Galeano.

First published in 1995 and subsequently updated to 2010, Football in Sun and Shadow is a marvellous collection of short essays/vignettes focusing primarily on each World Cup from the first in 1930 to the nineteenth in 2010. By adopting this approach, Galeano charts the development of the contest, touching briefly on the multitude of stars and the numerous dramas that have emerged both on and off the field over the years. In addition to providing an array of facts, this book is a wonderful paean to the artistry of football, capturing as it does the sheer grace, poetry and magic of the beautiful game.

The book begins with short sketches of the key ‘players’ and elements of the sport, from ‘The Goalkeeper’, ‘The Idol’ and ‘The Fan’ through to ‘The Referee’, ‘The Manager’ and ‘The Theatre’. While the goalkeeper is ‘the first to pay – it is always the keeper’s fault’, somewhat unsurprisingly, the idol is the star – ‘the ball seeks him out, knows him, needs him.’

These initial snippets are followed by others which offer a potted history of the origins of football, its early development in Britain and subsequent arrival on the shores of South America via the sailors, diplomats and traders of the UK. Here the game is enthusiastically embraced in the early years of 20th century, particularly by the poor and underprivileged, blossoming in the slums of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil where it requires little more than a makeshift ball and the sheer desire to play.

Football had made a lovely voyage: first organized in the colleges and universities of England, it brought joy to the lives of South Americans who had never set foot in a school. (p. 25)

Once the timeline reaches 1930, Galeano turns his focus to the World Cup, reflecting some of the highs and lows of each tournament, the main players and incidents with a particular emphasis on the most skilful goals. To give you an example, here is the writer’s portrait of Didi, the hub of the Brazilian team and leading playmaker of the 1958 World Cup.

He was a master of the deep pass, a near goal that would become a real goal on the feet of Pelé, Garrincha or Vavá, but he also scored on his own. Shooting from afar, he used to fool goalkeepers with the ‘dry leaf’: by giving the ball his foot’s profile, she would leave the ground spinning and continue spinning on the fly, dancing about and changing direction like a dry leaf carried by the wind, until she flew between the posts precisely where the goalkeeper least expected.

Didi played unhurriedly. Pointing at the ball, he would say: ‘She’s the one who runs.’

He knew she was alive. (pp. 84-85)

Each tournament is placed within the broader political, cultural and social landscape of the day by way of a brief summary covering key developments on the world stage – a technique which works brilliantly as an introduction, effectively putting football on a par with the other significant international events. The following passage is taken from the scene setter for the 1978 World Cup hosted by Argentina.

In Germany the popular Volkswagen Beetle was dying, in England the first test tube baby was being born, in Italy abortion was being legalized. The first victims of AIDS, a disease not yet call that, were succumbing. The Red Brigades were killing Aldo Moro, and the United States was promising to give Panama back the canal it had stolen at the beginning of the century. Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours. (p. 121)

That final line about the imminent fall of Castro is repeated in Galeano’s introduction to every World Cup from 1962 to 2006, acting a kind of running joke on the dictator’s position in Cuba.

The vignettes that follow give a flavour of each tournament, the sights and sounds of some of the most significant matches and moments from the Cup.

During the days that followed, TV showed images of the ’82 Cup: the billowing tunic of Sheik Fahad […], who ran onto the field to protest about a goal by France against Kuwait; the goal by Englishman Bryan Robson after half a minute, the quickest in World Cup history; the indifference of German keeper Schumacher, who once was a blacksmith, after he knocked out French striker Battiston with his knee. (p. 127)

Fundamental changes to the game also merit a mention – for example, the introduction of red and yellow cards for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, and the decision to award three points for a win in 1994 to discourage teams from playing for a draw.

While the book gives a truly international perspective on the sport, Galeano’s passion for the game stems from his early love of the football played in his native continent of South America. He writes enthusiastically of a fluid, open kind of football, typified by Argentina’s River Plate team in the early 1940s, in which the players ‘traded places in a permanent rotation’ – in addition to their natural roles, defenders attacked and attackers defended.

In particular, Galeano laments the decline of creativity and flair over the years, the increasing dominance of a ‘staid and standardized’ kind of football, ‘a game of speed and strength, fuelled by the fear of losing’. What saddens him most is the move towards teams of ‘functionaries who specialize in avoiding defeat’ rather than artists who have the freedom to express themselves with all the vision and imagination this unleashes. When a relatively rare example of creativity breaks through, it is a joy to behold.

At the World Cup in 1970, Brazil played a football worthy of her people’s yearning for celebration and craving for beauty. The whole world was suffering from the mediocrity of defensive football, which had the entire side hanging back to maintain the catenaccio* while one or two men played by themselves up front. Risk and creative spontaneity were not allowed. Brazil, however, was astonishing: a team on the attack, playing with four strikers – Jairzinho, Tostão, Pelé and Rivelino – sometimes increased to five and even six when Gérson and Carlos Alberto came up from the back. That steamroller pulverized Italy in the final. (p. 109)

*‘Door-bolt’ or backline defence.

There is praise too for the Colombian team of the early ‘90s and Nigerian team of 1998.

Galeano is equally scornful of the monetisation of the game – the increasingly lucrative television rights and advertising contracts play a crucial role here, often influencing the timing of World Cup matches to maximise the revenue gained from the European markets. Unsurprisingly, the dominance of FIFA merits a few mentions in this context, driven by the hard-nosed commercial strategy of its former president, João Havelange, a dominant force from the mid ‘70s to the late ‘90s. ‘I have come to sell football,’ he announces on taking up the presidency, a statement which seems to typify his values and general approach.

Politics and money matters aside, what really shines through from Football in Sun and Shadow is the author’s sheer love of football – the myriad of myths and legends, the stories of heroes and villains, and perhaps most of all, the sense of artistry and magic that can emerge on the field. This is a wonderful testament to the creativity of football, written by a true poet and admirer of the game.

I read this book for Richard and Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Lit event which is running in July and August. Grant has also written an excellent review of it here.

Football in Sun and Shadow is published by Penguin Books; 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.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Long-standing readers of this blog may recall my admiration for Joan Didion’s work, both her fiction and her non-fiction pieces. I’ve already written about three of this writer’s books: her debut, Run River; her seminal novel, Play It As It Lays; and, probably my favourite so far, her remarkable memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem brings together twenty of Didion’s essays, mostly articles that were originally written for magazines between 1965 and 1968. It’s a perceptive, erudite collection, piercing in its ability to capture a certain time and cultural mood, reflective in its observations on the social context of the day. There are some standout pieces here, many of which would stand up to a second or third reading – I hope to give you a flavour of them in this review. (This is my contribution to Simon and Karen’s 1968 Club which is running throughout the week.)

The book comprises three sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land; Personals; and Seven Places of the Mind. One element that runs through several of the pieces, irrespective of their central theme, is a palpable sense of place – nicely illustrated by this passage from the opening paragraph of the first essay in the collection, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.

The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. (p. 3)

Some Dreamers is an account of love and death in the golden land, the story of a marriage that has broken down, a woman who was tried for murder and judged for perhaps wanting too much from life. It’s a haunting piece, underscored with a sense of the dissolution of the American Dream.

Didion is particularly good on the eerie nature of Las Vegas, a place where the notion of time, at least in the traditional sense, does not seem to exist.

Almost everyone notes that there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future […]; neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-food sign which blinks “STARDUST” or “CAESAR’S PALACE.” Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with “real” life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train. (pp. 80-81)

In Marrying Absurd, she writes about the commercialisation of the marriage business in Vegas, the nineteen wedding chapels that compete with one another, each offering bigger, better, faster, more ‘genuine’ services than the next – the implication being that the addition of candlelight or a free phonograph record of the ceremony will somehow make the wedding feel more authentic, more sincere.

Elsewhere in this collection, Didion reveals her fondness for Hawaii, a place that moves and touches and saddens her like no other, stimulating her senses in the process. In many respects, she finds it a troubling island, one where the legacy of war runs far and deep.

War is in the very fabric of Hawaii’s life, ineradicably fixed in both its emotions and its economy, dominating not only its memory but its vision of the future. (p. 196) 

Other pieces in the collection focus on particular people, various cultural figures from the sixties: iconic individuals such as John Wayne, whom Didion visits on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder; Joan Baez and her ability to engage with a generation (‘She was the right girl at the right time’); and Howard Hughes, a man renowned for his idiosyncratic behaviour. At the time, there were endless stories about Hughes, passed around and traded ‘like baseball cards’.

By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.” (p. 71)

As far as Didion sees it, the fact that we have made a folk hero of this man – someone who actually represents the complete opposite of our traditional heroes – tells us something interesting about ourselves. She argues that the real point of money and power in America is not the obvious one (the things that money can buy and the buzz to be gained from flexing one’s muscles); rather it is the ability to facilitate personal freedom, mobility and privacy that is important. This is the real deal.

A couple of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on the personal, areas that reveal something enlightening about Didion herself. A compulsive notetaker from the age of five, Didion states that it was never her intention to make notes as a way of maintaining a factual record of what she had been doing or thinking at certain periods in her life. Instead, she views the keeping of a notebook more as a way of capturing her feelings, a reminder of how things felt to her at the time. Either way, she views the keepers of private notebooks as somewhat troubled individuals, ‘lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’

Other personal essays in the collection cover Didion’s reflections on morality, self-respect and going home to her family in the Central Valley of California. In Notes from a Native Daughter, she writes vividly about what it is like to come from Sacramento, one of the somewhat insular valley towns in the heart of the state. She describes a town that had grown up on the farming industry only to discover (much to its shock) that the land could be put to more profitable use – certainly as far as the wider world of the 1950s was concerned. In this elegiac piece, Didion mourns the passing of several things: the passage of time; the various changes to the town over the years; the loss of connections with the old Sacramento; the loss of people with the knowledge of how things used to be.

I mentioned earlier the strong sense of place that runs through many of the pieces in this collection. Before I finish, I’d like to highlight another couple of common themes, the first of which revolves around some form of social fragmentation or disintegration. It’s there in several of the essays I’ve discussed so far; and it’s also present in the titular piece, an account of the time Didion spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where she hung out with the street kids, the movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. This was a time when she observed first-hand the atomization of a society.

It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves. (p. 84)

In this piece, Didion offers the view that at some point from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, we had failed to take care of these children, failed in our duty as guardians and protectors.

‘We had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling’. (p. 123)

As a consequence, the children of Haight-Ashbury seemed less in rebellion against the society than uninformed about it.

The final theme I’d like to highlight is a feeling of anxiety or unease, a quality that underscores many of these pieces. Once again, this is apparent in some of the essays I’ve already covered. It’s even there in a brief passage on the Los Angeles weather, the hot, dry Santa Ana wind, a foehn wind with the potential to create both physical and mental turmoil in the city. I’ll leave you with a final quote which is taken from Los Angeles Notebook, one that seems to capture something of this palpable sense of angst.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. (p. 221)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 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!

Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my favourite reads from last year was Subtly Worded, a fascinating collection of short stories and reminiscences by the esteemed Russian writer, Teffi. Having enjoyed this book so much, I was delighted to hear that Pushkin Press would be publishing two more works by Teffi in 2016: Rasputin and Other Ironies, which brings together the best of Teffi’s non-fiction pieces, and a memoir, Memories – from Moscow to the Black Sea. (Both books are now available and are also published in the US by NYRB Classics.)

In this post, I’ll be discussing Rasputin and Other Ironies, but before I tell you more about this most intriguing collection, a few words on Teffi herself. Teffi – her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – was born in 1872 into a prominent and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty, she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

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The pieces in Rasputin and Other Ironies have been grouped into four sections, the first of which, How I Live and Work, gives us a view of Teffi’s life as a writer. We see Teffi living and working in a little pension in Paris, her writing table doubling as a dining table, a dressing table and a home for her various possessions. In My Pseudonym, we hear the story behind her adoption of Teffi as a pen name, while the final piece in this section offers an insight into Teffi’s first visit to an editorial office (you can read it for yourselves in The Paris Review).

The six pieces in the second section, Staging Posts, focus on Teffi’s personal life, ranging from reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence through to her days as a young mother with a toddler to care for. Liza, a story featuring one of Teffi’s childhood friends, fizzes with the tales children tell to amaze their pals. In the appropriately titled Love, Teffi recalls her first love, an experience saturated with the mix of excitement and pain that is so characteristic of this time in any young girl’s life.

And it was during this spring, the ninth of my life, that my first love came, revealed itself and left—in all its fullness, with rapture and pain and disenchantment, with all that is to be expected of any true love. (pg. 40-41)

In The Green Devil and Staging Posts, both of which focus on Teffi’s adolescence, one can sense her longing to be an adult, a grown-up lady attending dinners and dances and other such affairs. While some of the pieces in this section seem at first rather amusing or ironic, they are in fact underscored with a deep sense of melancholy and sadness, often ending on a poignant note. I found these works some of the most affecting in the collection. Running through this book are hints of Teffi’s longing for her homeland, a world virtually erased by the events of history.

Next comes one of the most interesting sections of this collection, Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War. Rasputin, Teffi’s fascinating account of her two encounters with this legendary figure, turned out to be one of the highlights in Subtly Worded, and it’s wonderful to see it reproduced here in this new volume. As I’ve already written about Rasputin, I won’t cover it again here, but please do take a look at my previous post for Teffi’s wonderful observations on this mercurial figure.

In New Life, one of the longest pieces in the collection, Teffi presents her recollections of Lenin taken from the time she spent working on the literary section of a newly established newspaper, also titled ‘New Life’. (The paper was established to take its political direction from the Social Democrats under the stewardship of Lenin himself.) This is Teffi at her most observant as she offers us a terrifying insight into the psychology of this controversial revolutionary. As far as Teffi could see, Lenin ‘considered everyone to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain. A man was good only insofar as he was necessary to the cause. And if he wasn’t necessary—to hell with him.’ All in all, his opinion of human nature was pretty low.

As an orator, Lenin did not carry the crowd with him; he did not set a crowd on fire, or whip it up into a frenzy. He was not like Kerensky, who could make a crowd fall in love with him and shed tears of ecstasy; I myself witnessed such tears in the eyes of soldiers and workers as they showered Kerensky’s car with flowers on Marinsky Square Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corners of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden. He would batter away to get the answer he wanted. (pg. 106)

Teffi is very adept at presenting stories with stories, little vignettes of life in a time of suspicion and uncertainty. I love the image of this reporter hiding under the table during a private meeting, not to mention the questions it raises the following day:

Klyachko was an extraordinary reporter. His exploits were legendary. Once, apparently, he had sat under the table in the office of the Home Secretary during a closed meeting. The next day, an account of the meeting appeared in Klyachko’s paper in the section called “Rumours”. It caused panic among those at the top. How could the reporter have founds all this out? Who had let the information slip? Or had a bribe of several thousand changed hands? But then, that was a monstrous suggestion! For some time, people tried to identify the guilty party—and they, of course, got nowhere. The guilty party was the footman, who had received a hefty tip from Klyachko for hiding him under the green baize. (pg. 97)

Also worthy of a mention here is The Gadarene Swine, a sharp and powerful piece that highlights the differing perspectives of the various factions who are fleeing from the Bolsheviks, in other words, the ‘refugees from Sovietdom’.

They are indeed all running away from the Bolsheviks. But the crazed swine are escaping from Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice, while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence. (pg 157)

In this story, Teffi highlights the plight of everyday folk, the ordinary people who find themselves cast adrift in an unfamiliar world with little in the way of food, shelter or social structure to support them. It’s brave piece of writing, all the more impactful for the artful style Teffi employs to send a message to the powers that be.

The final section of the collection features Teffi’s reminiscences of some of the writers and artists she met during her life. Authors such as Tolstoy whom she visited in her youth and the artist, Ilya Repin, who painted a very tender portrait of Teffi after being touched by one of her stories, a tale called The Top.

In The Merezhkovskys, one of my favourite pieces from the collection, we meet the writers Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius (a Symbolist poet) whom Teffi spent time with during her refugee days in in Biarritz. Both unique individuals in their different ways, they ‘each could have been the central character in a long psychological novel’. So out of touch with reality were the Merezhkovskys that they lived in a world of ideas, unable to understand other people or the fundamentals of life itself. Money in particular was a source of frustration for this couple. They were reluctant to pay for anything, often considering as unjust even the most understandable requests for payment (as illustrated in this next passage).

They were always irritated, astonished, even sincerely outraged by the need to pay bills. Zinaida Nikolaevna told me indignantly about how they just had a visit from the man who hired out bed linen.

“The scoundrel just won’t leave us alone. Yesterday he was told that we were out, so he sat in the garden and waited for us. Thanks to that scoundrel, we couldn’t even go for a walk.” (pg. 182)

This is another marvellous collection from Teffi, all the more fascinating for its diversity and glimpses of a vanished world. Her pieces are by turns ironic, insightful and poignant. This book comes highly recommended both for fans of Teffi and for readers who are new to her work.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates another of Teffi’s many talents, her skill for painting vivid pen-portraits in just a few sentences. Here she describes Izmailov, an editor on the Stock Exchange Gazette, a thin rather sinister man, dressed all in black, ‘he looked as if he had been sketched in black ink’.

Izmailov truly was weird. He lived in the grounds of the Smolensk cemetery, where his father had once been a priest. He practised black magic, loved telling stories about sorcery, and he knew charms and spells. Thin, pale and black, with a thin strip of bright red mouth, he looked like a vampire. (pg 112)

My thanks to Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book. For other perspectives, here are links to posts from Karen, Melissa and Shoshi.

Rasputin and Other Ironies was translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson.

Canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week

Back in March when I wrote about Jean Rhys’ third novel, Voyage in the Dark, Grant (of 1streading’s blog) commented that he had a stack of Rhys books just waiting to be read. If only someone would hold a Rhys reading week (hint, hint), then it might encourage him to get started. So with this in mind, along with my own interest in tackling another of her books in the not too distant future, I’d like to canvass interest in the possibility of a Jean Rhys reading week later this year. You know the type of thing: a week-long event where readers would read a book (or even a short story or two) by Rhys and share their thoughts by posting a review on their blog, by talking about it on Twitter/other social media channels or by commenting on the reviews/chatter posted during the week. (Even if you’ve already read everything by Rhys, maybe you could revisit a favourite?)

Jean Rhys

(Image from theguardian.com)

If you’re wondering who Jean Rhys is or was, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father, Rhys grew up on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, moving to England at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. After the death of her father, she drifted into a series of jobs spending time as a chorus girl, a mannequin, and an artist’s model. Rhys led a tough and tortured life, but in many ways those harsh experiences made her the writer she was. (Her work is now considered to have been way ahead of its time.) She started writing when the first of her three marriages broke up. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

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During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been published and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Please let me know in the comments if you would be interested in participating in a Rhys reading week. If so, it would be useful to hear if you have any preferences on timings. If there’s sufficient interest in an event, then I’m thinking either early-mid July or the beginning of September. That way, we could avoid the school holidays and any clashes with Women in Translation Month which runs during August. Also, if you would be interested in co-hosting the event with me, please let me know – I’m still fairly new to Rhys, so it would be useful to have someone with a bit more experience under their belt to act as a co-host. You can contact me here or via Twitter (@JacquiWine). Finally, any shares of this post would be much appreciated, just to spread the word and to enable me to gauge the level of interest. Cheers.