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Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

When Pushkin Press launched their new crime imprint—aptly named Pushkin Vertigo—back in September, I couldn’t resist buying a couple of titles: the Boileau-Narcejac I’m reviewing here, plus Leo Perutz’ Master of the Day of Judgement. I’ve yet to read the latter, but if Vertigo is anything to go by, I’ve got a treat in store.

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First published in France in 1954, Vertigo (originally titled D’entre les morts, meaning Among the Dead) is the source novel for the Hitchcock film of the same name. Even if you’re familiar with the movie, the book is well worth reading. I think the novel is darker and more disturbing than Hitchcock’s adaptation. Moreover, the characterisation feels stronger and more nuanced here. In any case, it’s a terrific read, especially if you’re interested in the themes of desire and obsession.

As the story opens, we find ourselves in Paris in 1940, and the signs of war are rumbling away in the background. Lawyer and former police officer, Roger Flavières is approached by an old friend, Paul Gévigne, who wants to ask a favour of him. Even though he hasn’t seen Gévigne for fifteen years, Flavières can tell that his old acquaintance is not entirely at ease. Gévigne is worried about his wife of four years, a lady by the name of Madeleine. According to Gévigne, Madeleine has always had a rather variable temperament, ‘up one minute, down the next’, but lately she has become prone to odd silences; more specifically, there are times when she appears to drift off into a world of her own.

‘…She’s absent-minded, as though her body no longer belonged to her, as though she had become someone else…’ (pg. 12)

Despite the fact that several doctors have examined Madeleine and found nothing wrong with her health, Gévigne remains concerned. His wife seems to have developed a strange fascination with her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who, unbeknownst to Madeleine, took her own life at a young age. With all this in mind, Gévigne asks Flavières to keep an eye his wife, to follow her from a distance and provide an opinion on her behaviour. Even though he suspects Madeleine is simply having an affair, Flavières agrees. He is also not terribly fond of Gévigne, which you’ll see in the following quote.

Madeleine… He liked the name. It had a gentle, plaintive sound. But how could she have brought herself to marry this stocky, corpulent man? Of course she was carrying on with somebody else… Those attacks!… Dragging a red herring across her own tracks… Serve him right. Gévigne deserved to be made a fool of by his wife. Because of his smug affluence, his cigars, his contract for building small craft—because of everything. Flavières didn’t like people with too much self-assurance—and, outwardly at least, Gévigne had plenty—though it was a quality he would have given anything to possess himself. (pgs. 22-23)

Once he sees Madeleine in the flesh, Flavières experiences a change of heart. She is beautiful, elegant and graceful, but there is something a little fragile about her, too. Flavières is smitten, and as he continues to follow Madeleine, he becomes increasingly fascinated with her.

Madeleine was like him: he felt sure of it; and he was tempted to overtake her. They wouldn’t need to talk. They would simply walk side by side watching the barges gliding through the water. It wouldn’t do, of course, and to curb the impulse he stopped altogether and allowed her to get well ahead. He even thought of going home. But there was something a little intoxicating and more than a little questionable in this pursuit which fascinated him, obsessed him. He went on. (pg. 46)   

One day, while he is watching Madeleine, Flavières is forced to step in and make contact. An incident occurs that appears to mirror something from Pauline Lagerlac’s past, an episode which suggests Madeleine is in need of constant protection. As he reflects on Madeleine’s behaviour, Flavières identifies two sides to her demeanour. On the one hand, she seems happy, lively and full of the joys of life—this is the luminous side of Madeleine’s character. By contrast, the other side is much darker and more mysterious. At times, she seems detached and somewhat dislocated—in other words, much more vulnerable and harder to reach.

Gévigne was quite right: as soon as you stopped entertaining her, holding her back into this life, she sank into a sort of numbness which was neither meditation nor gloom, but a subtle change of state. It was as though her soul might at any minute float away and gradually dissipate itself in the wind. Several times Flavières had seen her slip silently into this condition as she sat with him, like a medium whose real self has been summoned to another world. (pg. 58)

The second section of the story takes place four years later in Marseilles in an atmosphere that reminds me a little of Anna Seghers’ haunting novel, TransitAs Flavières pursues Madeleine with a feverish obsession, he becomes trapped in a nightmare of his own, increasingly fuelled by drink and a deep desire for the “truth”. I say “truth” in inverted commas because there is a blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary.

Vertigo is a short novel, and thoroughly absorbing with it, so I’m wary of saying too much about the plot for fear of revealing any major spoilers. I would like to mention something about the characterisation, though. It is clear from the opening chapter that Flavières has troubles of his own. He is haunted by an incident in his past when, during his days as a detective, his fear of heights prevented him from pursuing a suspect who had taken refuge on a rooftop. When Flavières’ colleague, Leriche, stepped in to help, the officer slipped and fell to his death. Consequently, Flavières still holds himself responsible for the loss of his former colleague, a story he shares with Gévigne during their initial meeting.

He always encountered the same bewildered incredulity when he told his story. No one ever took it seriously. How could he ever make them hear Leriche’s scream, which went on and on, passing from a shrill note to a lower one with the distance? Perhaps Gévigne’s wife too was burdened by some gnawing secret, but it couldn’t be half as hideous a one as his. Were her dreams torn by a scream like that? Had she allowed someone to die in her place? (pg. 20)

For me, this is one of the key passages in the novel as the themes expressed here reverberate and echo through the narrative. Flavières is more than a little vulnerable himself. His health is failing and his mental state fragile. Is Flavières simply chasing an idealised image of Madeleine, a fantasy figure he has created in his own mind, or will he find the real Madeleine in the end? And just how significant is Madeleine’s connection with her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac? I’ll leave you to discover the answers to these questions for yourselves should you decide to real this excellent, mind-bending novel.

Before I wrap up, just a few words on the Pushkin Vertigo edition. It is beautifully produced and comes with an interesting afterword on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who collaborated together under the nom-de-plume Boileau-Narcejac. Tired of traditional British crime fiction and the hardboiled style of American detective novels, they sought to create a new kind of mystery which placed the victim at the heart of the story (albeit a victim who might not realise the true extent of their position). To my mind, that’s exactly what they have achieved with Vertigo.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. Posts that have caught my eye include those from FictionFan, Guy and LitLove, some of which go into more detail about the differences between the book and Hitchcock’s film.

Vertigo is published by Pushkin Vertigo. Source: Personal copy.

A few favourite novellas for #NovellaNov

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This month, the lovely Poppy (of poppy peacock pens) is hosting an initiative to celebrate the novella. It’s called #NovellaNov – Reading Novellas in November, and you can read all about it in the introductory post here. As part of this event, Poppy kindly asked me to put together a guest post on a few of my favourites, so if you’d like to take a look at my choices, just click here for the link.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (tr. Joel Agee)

Last November, off the back of this excellent review by Grant at 1streading, I bought a copy of The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by the Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. My University of Chicago Press edition contains two novellas: The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and its sequel, Suspicion (1951), both of which feature Inspector Barlach of the Bern police. It proved to be a great choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, an event which is running throughout November. These stories offer so much more than the intrigue of traditional mysteries – they raise complex moral and philosophical questions to which there are no easy answers.

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Hangman opens with a death. One of Barlach’s subordinates, the bright and promising Lieutenant Schmied, is found shot dead in his car near the woods in the Jura countryside. Naturally, Barlach takes up the case even though he is in the twilight of his career. (Through the course of the novella we learn that Barlach is suffering from stomach cancer – surgery will prolong his life by one year but only if his doctor can operate fairly swiftly.) The killer and motive for Schmied’s death seem unclear, but nevertheless, Barlach has a hunch. He is an old-school detective, one who relies on human nature and intuition as opposed to the modern scientific criminology techniques favoured by his superior, Dr Lutz. Here’s Barlach as he discusses the case with his assistant, the methodical and eager officer Tschanz:

“You see,” Barlach answered slowly, deliberating each word as carefully as Tschanz did, “my suspicion is not a scientific criminological suspicion. I have no solid reasons to justify it. You have seen how little I know. All I have is an idea as to who the murderer might be; but the person I have in mind has yet to deliver the proof of his guilt.” (pg. 14)

As the pair commence their investigations, the trail seems to point to the shady but influential Herr Gastmann, an operator with links to local industrialists and foreign diplomats. When Barlach meets Gastmann, it becomes clear that the two men have quite a history. Some forty years ago, they spent a night drinking together in Turkey, during which they debated the psychology of human nature. In particular, the discussion centred on our behaviour and its impact on the ability to detect and solve crimes:

Your thesis was that human imperfection—the fact that we can never predict with certainty how others will act, and that furthermore we have no way of calculating the ways chance interferes in our plans—guarantees that most crimes will perforce be detected. To commit a crime, you said, is an act of stupidity, because you can’t operate with people as if they were chessmen. Against this I contended, more for the sake of argument than out of conviction, that it’s precisely this incalculable, chaotic element in human relations that makes it possible to commit crimes that cannot be detected, and that for this reason the majority of crimes are not only not punished, but are simply not known, because, in effect, they are perfectly hidden. (pgs. 50-51)

As a consequence, the pair ended up making a bet: Gastmann declared that he would commit a crime in Barlach’s presence without the young police specialist being able to prove that he did it. Three days later, Gastmann carried out his promise – Barlach had him arrested but was unable to prove his opponent’s guilt. And so the crimes continued with Gastmann remaining one step ahead of his pursuer on each occasion, the violations becoming bolder and more daring over time.

This is a very clever mystery, strong on mood and atmosphere with scenes of palpable tension, particularly in the closing stages. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, the novella’s denouement will prompt the reader to reflect on the moral issues at play. When it comes to crime and punishment, can the end ever justify the means?

Suspicion opens with Barlach recovering in hospital following his operation for stomach cancer. When he shows his surgeon, Dr Samuel Hungertobel, a photograph from Life magazine, the man turns pale. The picture shows a certain Dr Nehle operating on a prisoner without anaesthesia at the Stutthof concentration camp during WW2. Barlach picks up on his doctor’s reaction, and when he questions him, Hungertobel admits that he thought he had recognised the face of an old friend from his student days, a certain Dr Emmenberger. In spite of the resemblance between the two men, Hungertobel realises he must have been mistaken – Emmenberger was in Chile during the war. Barlach, however, is deeply suspicious:

You’re right Samuel, suspicion is a terrible thing, it comes from the devil. There’s nothing like suspicion to bring out the worst in people. I know that very well, and I’ve often cursed my profession for it. People should stay away from suspicion. But now we’ve got it, and you gave it to me. (pg. 102)

Despite his retirement from the Bern police force, Barlach is itching for one more adventure. As he recovers in hospital, he begins to investigate Nehle and Emmenberger, relying on the help of a variety of contacts in the process. When Barlach discovers a report stating that Nehle took his own life in Hamburg in 1945, Hungertobel is convinced this puts an end to any doubts. Barlach, on the other hand, keeps digging. There remains the possibility that Emmenberger and Nehle exchanged identities at some point. If this were true, the concentration camp doctor might still be alive, posing as Emmenberger and running an exclusive treatment facility near Zürich. Consequently, Barlach persuades Hungertobel to have him transferred to Emmenberger’s clinic where he hopes to uncover the truth.

Suspicion is a much darker, more unnerving story than its predecessor, especially in the second half of the novella as Barlach places his own life in mortal danger. As a consequence, the scenes in the clinic are truly chilling. The interplay between the former Inspector and Emmenberger begins as a battle of wits and becomes increasingly terrifying with each development. As Emmenberger says to Barlach:

“…We are both scientists with opposing aims, chess players sitting in front of one board. You have made your move, now it’s my turn. But there’s one peculiar thing about our game: One of us will lose or else we both will. You have already lost your game. Now I’m curious to find out whether I will have to lose mine as well.” (pg. 192)

Once again, this story touches on a range of existential issues, in particular, the nature of hope, faith and justice. There is a clear parallel between the cancer from which Barlach is suffering and his desire to fight evil, a force with the power to destroy humanity if it remains unchecked.

Dürrenmatt has been compared to Simenon, and I can see why. These are excellent, thought-provoking stories, beautifully written, too. I’ll finish with a short passage on the Jura countryside, which I hope will give you a feel for the author’s style. It’s clear-cut and wonderfully atmospheric — perfect for a cold, dark winter’s night.

They left the vineyards behind and were soon in the forest. The fir trees advanced toward them, endless columns in the light. The street was narrow and in need of repair. Every once in a while a branch slapped against the windows. To their right, the cliffs dropped off precipitously. Tschanz drove so slowly that they could hear the sound of rushing water far below. (pg 19)

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MarinaSofia has reviewed the first novella for Crime Fiction Lover. Her review of Suspicion is here.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries are published by The University of Chicago Press. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20, #TBR20 round 2.