Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is a something of classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel set over three consecutive summer seasons – recently reissued by NYRB Classics in a beautiful new edition. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The story focuses on three sisters – Maria (aged 20), Infanta (aged 18), and Katerina (aged 16) – who live with their mother, their unmarried Aunt Theresa, and their grandfather in the Greek countryside just north of Athens. The girls’ mother, Anna, is separated from her husband, Miltos, following the latter’s open affairs. A Polish grandmother, whom we never actually meet in person, is another important character in the novel. There is a whiff of scandal and romanticism around this woman, mainly because she left her husband for a travelling musician several years earlier, abandoning Anna and Theresa in their childhood.   

In an evocative opening chapter, we see how the three sisters differ from one another in terms of character, their particular patches of garden reflecting something of the nature of their personalities. While Maria’s tiny vegetable garden is ordered and divided into discrete squares, Infanta’s is wild, containing almond trees that can survive without frequent watering or special care. Katerina’s, by contrast, is more spontaneous still, bursting with flowers grown from randomly-scattered seeds – a riot of contrasting colours all packed together. As Katerina is the novel’s narrator, it is predominantly through her eyes that we see the rest of the family.

At first sight, it might appear as though the novel is presenting a simple story, one of three sisters growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world.

The houses were closer together again here. About forty all in a clump, crowded together out of loneliness, like people. The gardens were beautiful this year. The heavy rains that winter had done them good. They were full of green and the trunks of the trees were shiny. Tiny tomatoes were beginning to appear. You could already see the yellow stamen on the male pistachio trees, and the female ones waiting. The males would go to the females. All the females could do was ready their juices, receive the male and bear fruit. They waited, in the burning heat, sensitive to any gust of wind that might bring them the seed. (pp. 50-51)

Maria is the most sexually liberated of the three girls, losing her virginity during a chance encounter with a physically attractive young man in the village. Nevertheless, she is quick to choose a life of stability and domesticity by marrying Marios, the boy who has worshipped her from childhood. The first of the three seasons ends with Maria and Marios’s wedding – the arrival of their first two children swiftly follow, one in each of the two subsequent summers.

Infanta is more withdrawn than her sisters, preferring the company of her beloved horse to that of her family. A beautiful, courageous girl at heart, Infanta spends most of her time riding in the countryside, often accompanied by Nikitas, a local boy who clears harbours feelings for her.

Katerina is perhaps the most romantic of the three girls, forever daydreaming and exercising her curiosity about the world around her. By the second summer, she is wildly in love with David, an astronomer who is also writing a book. For Katerina, love is a passionate thing, a feeling characterised by a sense of anticipation and anxiety, manifesting itself in a rapidly beating heart. And yet, by the end of the novel, she is oscillating between a desire for David and a yearning for a more adventurous, independent life, one in which she has the freedom to travel the world.

I’m not like Maria. I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves are still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone. (p. 20)

To complicate matters further, Katerina has an unexpected rival for David’s affections. Maria’s forty-five-year-old mother-in-law, Laura Parigori, is forever hanging around the young man, eager to capture his imagination and affections, much to the annoyance of Katerina.

Alongside the theme of sexual awakening, the novel offers different perspectives on the nature of love and marriage, society’s expectations of women at the time, and the balance between passion and stoicism. We learn more about Aunt Theresa, how an incident with her former fiancé has coloured her life, making her somewhat nervous and fearful as a consequence. There are other family secrets too – perhaps most notably the reason for Anna’s detachment and lack of passion, something that Katerina is curious to uncover.

While Three Summers may not be the most polished or literary of novels, its language is dreamy and evocative, capturing the sultry nature of summer in lush, sensuous prose. 

Mornings were different now. Day broke with less brilliance than in the summer, but everything was somehow clearer. The air smelled of crushed apples, and left in your mouth the juicy, tart taste of apples eaten unpeeled. It was a delicate air, sometimes chilly. The sky was blue – a deep, rich blue – with white clouds racing by. (p. 81)

In the end though, it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities that are open to them and the limitations that society may wish to dictate. It’s a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the word; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the essence of the novel, replete with its languid, reflective prose. 

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own. They became the air we breathed; a thought of Maria’s became mine and mine Infanta’s – a kind of unearthly communion. (p.130)

(This is my second read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 3

A few weeks ago, I posted some pieces on The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, the first two books in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed them, you can catch up via the links here, here and here.) It’s a tremendous series, well worth reading.

Essentially, the books provide a detailed portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the looming threat of war. (The setting for the first two books is Bucharest from the autumn to 1939 to the mid-1941, a time of heightened uncertainty.) Guy and Harriet Pringle – newlyweds at the start of book 1 – are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest, a fact that gives the novels their strong sense of authenticity.

In this piece, I’m focusing on the third volume in the trilogy, Friends and Heroes, which follows straight on from The Spoilt City. But rather than delving too far into the plot (which would be annoying of those of you who might want to read the series), I’ll try to cover some of the other elements instead – particularly the development of the Pringles’ relationship and the sense of tension arising from war.

At the start of book 3, Harriet has just arrived in Athens, having left Bucharest following the German occupation of Romania. The plan is for Guy to follow, hopefully within a week or two, giving Harriet time to make contact with the British authorities ahead of her husband’s arrival. Despite her previous reservations about Yaki, Harriet is rather relieved to discover his presence in Athens, a familiar face in an unfamiliar city. Yaki – ever-resourceful to a fault – is currently working in the Information Office, a role that enables him to bring Harriet some news of Guy’s imminent arrival.

However, when Guy lands in Athens, he finds little opportunity to put his teaching skills to good use. Neatly installed at the English School are Dubedat and Toby Lush, two weaselly little men of limited talent or experience whom Guy effectively sidelined at the faculty in Bucharest, preferring instead to conduct lectures himself. Consequently, Dubedat – who is temporarily heading up the Athens department – is reluctant to concede any power to Guy, refusing him access to the appropriate higher-ups.

While Guy seems somewhat resigned to accepting the situation, Harriet can scarcely conceal her anger and mortification on her husband’s behalf. For all her frustrations with the marriage, Harriet sees Guy as someone who believes in people, trusting them to be as honourable and generous as he is himself, especially in times of need.  If only Guy could show a little more ambition, be willing to stand up to others for the benefit of his own progression, maybe then he would feel more fulfilled.

Watching the taxi drive off, Harriet marvelled at Guy’s vigour and determination in the pursuit of his political interests. Why could he not bring as much to the furtherance of his own career. He was eager – too eager, she sometimes thought – to give, to assist, to sympathize, to work for others, but he had little ambition for himself.

When she first met him, she had imagined he needed nothing but opportunity; now she began to suspect he did not want opportunity. He did not want to be drawn into rivalry. He wanted amusement. He also wanted his own way, and, to get it, could be as selfish as the next man. But he was always justified. Yes, he was always justified. If he had no other justification, he could always fall back on some morality of his own. (pp. 671–672)

The nature of the Pringles’ marriage continues to be a focus in this book. Until now, Guy has always been able to throw himself into one project or another, the absorption in work helping to keep any thoughts of war suppressed in his mind. Now without a clear purpose in Athens, he seems lost, cut off from his relationship with the broader world. It is only once a viable role is secured for him that things begin to improve…

Meanwhile, Harriet finds herself with another persistent admirer – in this instance, a handsome young British Officer named Charles Warden. While Harriet is drawn to Charles, valuing his attention and companionship, she remains stubbornly faithful to Guy, despite the latter’s many faults and failings. There are two or three instances when Harriet could cross a line with Charles, particularly when he declares his love for her, but each time she mages to pull herself back, possibly out of a sense of duty and loyalty. Having married Harriet, Guy simply ceases to see her as a separate person with individual needs and feelings. She is, in effect, an extension of Guy himself; and yet she remains bound to him, for better or for worse.

Back in bed, she [Harriet] thought of the early days of their marriage when she had believed she knew him completely. She still believed she knew him completely, but the person she knew now was not the person she had married. She saw that in the beginning she had engaged herself to someone she did not know. There were times when he seemed to her so changed, she could not suppose he had any hold on her. Imagining all the threads broken between them, she thought she had only to walk away. Now she was not sure. At the idea of flight, she felt the tug of loyalties, emotions and dependencies. For each thread broken, another had been thrown out to claim her. If she tried to escape, she might find herself held by a complex, an imprisoning web, she did not even know was there. (pp. 881-882)

As ever, Manning is brilliant at capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. More specifically, the disorder and chaos; the exhaustion that hampers productivity; and the anxiety that taints any hope. With no clear end to the war in sight, there is a sense of lives being put on hold while time continues to slip by.

As the trilogy draws to a close, we reach another critical point in the Pringles’ story. Germany has invaded Greece, seizing the city of Salonika in the North. It is time for the British to leave while it is still possible to do so.

Some Greeks had been cut off in Albania; some British were cut off in Thessaly. For the British now passing through Athens the important thing was to cross the Corinth canal before the bridge was blown up or taken by enemy parachutists. The English residents, beginning to lose faith in authority, told one another that if next morning there was no sign of an evacuation ship, then they had better jump the lorries and go south with the soldiers who hoped to be taken off by the British navy at ports like Neapolis or Monemvasia. This was a rake-hell season that called for enterprise. If authority could not save them, then they must save themselves. (pp. 909-910)

With the Pringles boarding one of the last two boats to leave Athens, the stage is set for a new life in Egypt, and ultimately beyond.

In this post, I’ve only scratched the surface of Friends and Heroes, a book that also encompasses so much more than the aspects covered here. There are petty jealousies within the world of academia, the lure of café society amongst the ex-pat community, and some marvellous set-pieces – one of two of them involving ‘poor old Yaki’. I can’t resist finishing with a final quote, one which is so typical of the diminished prince. Here he is, waiting to get his fill from the buffet at a prestigious function.

Yakimov, crushed against Harriet, whispered: ‘Most of them were here on the dot. Usually it’s a case of first come, first served, but last time they’d wolfed the lot in the first fifteen minutes. S’pose there’ve been complaints. I recommend standing here beside the plates. Soon as we get the nod, grab one and lay about you.’

‘Where does it all come from?’ Harriet asked in wonder.

‘Mustn’t ask that, dear girl. Eat and be thankful. My God, look at that! Cream.’ (pp. 722-723)

Several others have written about Friends are Heroes, including Ali, Karen and Max.  

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1951-55

This is my first experience of the Canadian writer, Mavis Gallant, but hopefully not my last. Dorian and Buried in Print have been urging me to read her for ages, and not without good cause. In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection.

The Cost of Living comprises twenty stories from 1951 to 1971 – rather helpfully, the pieces are dated and arranged in chronological order. I’m planning to read this collection in two or three chunks with the aim of spreading the stories over a few months; otherwise there’s a danger that everything will begin to merge, making it harder to reflect on each individual vignette before moving on to the next. So, this post covers the highlights from the first six stories in the set – hopefully another post on the rest will follow in due course.

Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves.

The collection opens with Madeleine’s Birthday, Gallant’s first story, published in The New Yorker in 1951. Seventeen-year-old Madeleine is self-sufficient and strong-minded, traits she has had to develop in response to her rather thoughtless mother – now living in Europe following her divorce from Madeleine’s father.

At her mother’s request, Madeleine is spending the summer at a country house in Connecticut, a property owned by Anna Tracy, a longstanding friend of the family. However, Anna simply cannot understand why Madeleine doesn’t seem particularly pleased to be there, especially as Anna views her Connecticut summers ‘as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world’. In truth, Madeline would much rather be on her own in her mother’s vacant New York apartment, amusing herself with trips to the movies and the like. To complicate matters further, the Tracys are also housing another guest for the summer – a German boy named Paul, whom Anna hopes will be a friend for Madeleine. Madeleine, however, resents having to share a bathroom with Paul, viewing him as yet another imposition on her freedom…

“I cannot cope with it here,” Madeleine had written to her father shortly after she arrived. “One at a time would be all right but not all the Tracys and this German.” “Cope” was a word Madeline had learned from her mother, who had divorced Madeleine‘s father because she could not cope with him, and then had fled to Europe because she could not cope with the idea of his remarriage. “Can you take Madeleine for the summer? she had written to Anna Tracy, who was a girlhood friend. “You are so much better able to cope.” (p. 7)

Things come to a head on the morning of Madeleine’s birthday, particularly when Anna tries to chivvy her along with patronising cheer and gaiety. In effect, Anna is treating Madeleine like a child – no different to her daughter Allie, who is six.  

This is an excellent, nuanced story, one that taps into the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment.

The failings of motherhood also feature in Going Ashore, one of the standouts from Gallant’s early pieces. Following the break-up of the latest in string of doomed relationships, Mrs Ellenger has taken her twelve-year-old-daughter, Emma, on a cross-continental cruise in the hope of finding some male companionship. As a consequence, young Emma must amuse herself with the other passengers on the ship – individuals like the Munns, a dowdy mother-and-daughter pairing, complete with old-fashioned tweeds and pearls.

Mrs E is the sort of neglectful mother one finds in a Richard Yates novel, like Pookie from The Easter Parade or Alice from A Special Providence. There’s an air of tragedy here, characterised by an attraction to unsuitable men, typically fuelled by a fondness for drink.

The story ends with Mrs Ellenger returning the cabin she is sharing with Emma, tearful and emotional following another disappointing dalliance. As such, she makes a desperate appeal to her daughter, urging her never to get married – clearly no good will ever come of it.

Her mother had stopped crying. Her voice changed. She said, loud and matter-of-fact, “He’s got a wife someplace. He only told me now, a minute ago. Why? Why not right at the beginning, in the bar? I’m not like that. I want something different, a friend.” […] “Don’t ever get married, Emma,” she said. “Don’t have anything to do with men. Your father was no good. Jimmy Salter was no good. This one’s no better. He’s got a wife and look at how–Promise me you’ll never get married. We should always stick together, you and I. Promise me we’ll always stay together.” (p. 95)

In Going Ashore, Gallant has created a story in which the child is far more responsible than the adult, reversing the natural roles to great effect.

The disruption and dislocation caused by WW2 can be detected in a number of the stories here, perhaps most notably in An Autumn Day, another highlight from Gallant’s early pieces. This story revolves around nineteen-year-old Cissy Rowe, who has just travelled to Salzburg to be with her relatively new husband, Walt, a member of the US Army of Occupation. Cissy is still very much a child, with her girlish clothes and lack of life experience. Having spent most of their brief married life apart, Walt and Cissy barely know one another, a point that is plainly obvious right from the start.

With Walt fully occupied all day, Cissy is lonely and desperately in need of a like-minded friend. Walt wants Cissy to buddy up with Laura, the wife of his closest friend, Marv, also stationed at Salzburg. Laura, however, is forever complaining about Marv, something that Cissy finds awkward to discuss, especially as her own marriage seems far from ideal.

The truth was that he [Walt] and I never talked much about anything. I didn’t know him well enough, and I kept feeling that our real married life hadn’t started, that there was nothing to say and wouldn’t be for years. (p. 101)

A ray of hope for Cissy arrives in the shape of Dorothy West, an American singer who comes to stay at the farm where the Rowes are stationed, albeit temporarily. Cissy hopes she can befriend this woman whose voice and lyrics resonate with her deeply; unfortunately for our protagonist, the best laid plans never quite come to fruition…

The story ends with a missed opportunity, a development that prompts an outpouring of emotion, leaving Cissy distressed and Walt bewildered. It marks a transition for Cissy, signalling the need to move on, a longing for her marriage to finally ‘start’.    

Your girlhood doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again. The frontier is invisible; sometimes you’re over without knowing it. I do know that some change began then, at that moment, and I felt an almost unbearable nostalgia for the figure I was leaving behind, the shell of the girl who had got down from the train in September, the pretty girl with all the blue plaid luggage. I could never be that girl again, not entirely. Too much had happened in between. (p. 114)

The spectre of war is also present in The Picnic, an excellent story of class prejudices and cultural differences set in the French countryside during WW2. The action revolves around a picnic, a symbol of unity between the local community and the American troops stationed nearby. This story features the most wonderful character, Madame Pégurin, who keeps all manner of treats by her bedside – sugared almonds, pistachio creams and sponge cakes soaked in rum, which she secretly feeds to the American children lodging at her house. In short, she is an utter delight!

Alongside her acute insights into the sadness of loneliness and alienation, Gallant also has a sharp eye for humour – something that comes to the fore in A Day Like Any Other, another tale of clashing cultures and social classes. I love this description of Mr Kennedy and his medical problems, a condition that has caused his family to trail endlessly around Europe from one ‘excellent liver man’ to another.

He cherished an obscure stomach complaint and a touchy liver that had withstood, triumphantly, the best attention of twenty doctors. (p. 53)

A weaker man might have given up, thinks Mrs Kennedy; but no, her husband appears to have an inexhaustible supply of patience, although not where his children are concerned.

Mr. Kennedy seldom saw his daughters. The rules of the private clinics he frequented were all in his favor. In any case, he seldom asked to see the girls, for he felt that they were not at an interesting age. Wistfully, his wife sometimes wondered when their interesting age would begin–when they were old enough to be sent away to school, perhaps, or, better still, safely disposed of in the handsome marriages that gave her so much concern. (p. 53)

These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

The Cost of Living is published by NYRB Classics and Bloomsbury; personal copy.  

The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

The British-born novelist and screenwriter Alfred Hayes – a man who spent much of his working life in the US and Italy – is fast becoming one of those ‘experience everything’ writers for me. His slim, expertly-crafted novellas, with their piecing portrayals of the pain of ill-fated relationships, remain some of my favourites in recent years. (I read the superb My Face for the World to See (1958) before setting up this blog, but my thoughts on In Love (1953) and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949) – a book that made my 2018 highlights – can be found by clicking on the links.)

The End of Me (1968) is a later novella, and the passing of time is somewhat reflected in the book’s narrator, Asher, a fifty-one-year-old screenwriter whose career is on the rocks. Having observed his socially-ambitious second wife in flagrante with her tennis partner, Asher flees his home in L.A. for the relative anonymity of New York, a bruised and anguished man. It is a city that has healed Asher in the past — ‘her crowds, like enormous blotters’ possess the ability to absorb his life.

Once ready to reconnect with the world, Asher pays a visit to his elderly Aunt Dora, who views him as the successful one in the family – the one with a good job, a fine wife, and comfortable home in the eternal sunshine. Unwilling or unable to dispel this idyllic vision, Asher submits to the falsehood, assuring Aunt Dora that everything is relatively well in his world. In reality, he lacks a sense of purpose and is pondering what to do. 

As a consequence of the visit, Asher agrees to meet Dora’s grandson, Michael, a young man with ambitions to be a poet; but when Michael comes to see Asher in his hotel suite, their meeting is a disaster. Asher is riled by Michael’s somewhat surly, disdainful manner, and his subsequent silence prompts Michael to leave.

The following day, Asher is ashamed of his behaviour; contrition sets in, and he calls Michael to invite him for cocktails at the hotel. When Michael arrives, he is accompanied by Aurora, a striking girl of southern European descent. The attraction for Asher is immediate and intense; Aurora intrigues him, and yet he knows she is part of Michael’s world.

She had immense dark eyes. The lids were whitened; the lips had been administered to with a pale lipstick. She wore her hair caught up in a rich, somewhat loose, coil that threatened if she laughed too hard (and she did, she always laughed too hard, she laughed, if I may amend Michael’s more graphic description of her laughter, vaginally) to come down in a disorderly mass. I wondered, then, how far it would reach: her hair. Down to where. Down to what. The skin was marvelous. And she was Michael’s girl. (p. 31)

In his keenness to reconnect with the past, Asher asks Michael to accompany him around NYC to revisit various places from his youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the city has now changed, neatly echoing the feelings of damage and loss that are central to the book. In return, Asher will read Michael’s poems – pieces that turn out to be rather crude and derivative, reflecting a poisonous, destructive form of love. However, Asher holds back from telling Michael what he really thinks of his poems, choosing instead to describe them as ‘interesting’ – a carefully-chosen word with an ambiguous meaning.

Despite all this, Asher finds himself drawn to Michael, seeing him as someone who might be able to learn something from Asher’s own experiences of life. There is an element of self-delusion on the part of Asher here – a sort of self-flattery, hinging on the belief that he can to pass into the world of the young, albeit temporarily.

Perhaps what I wished, not admitting it entirely to myself, was to attach the boy somehow to me. To establish between us (where the non sequitur existed) a connection of a kind. It wasn’t that I felt fatherly to Michael; I couldn’t even honestly say I liked him: it was simply that I felt he had a certain irritating importance for me. I might have been flattering myself, but I felt that, after all, something could be learned, that if I were rich in nothing else I was rich in experience, though perhaps not too rich in it. The generations touched somewhere. (p. 52)

In tandem to this, Asher begins to see Aurora – something he does with Michael’s permission. They meet in the park, chat together and go to the cinema. During these scenes, we learn more about Asher’s former loves, the relationships that have spoiled and soured. In contrast to these women, Asher finds Aurora intriguing and desirable. It is perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight that he appreciates quite how sly and calculating Aurora can be.

Oh, she acted. She played complicated games. As at the French film. Perhaps she even lied a little. Or teased me a little. Amused herself with me. But why not? I was the damaged one. Damaged by age, damaged by the profession I had chosen, damaged by marriage. She was whole, and young, and there wasn’t anything of value I could really offer her. I wasn’t going to fall in love with her; it would be absurd to expect her to fall in love with me. Besides, there was Michael: she was, in some way they accepted among themselves, by their definitions, his girl. Whatever being one’s girl at the moment meant. I wasn’t really too anxious to find out. I was being, by some consent, allowed to share her. (p. 95.)

With Michael pulling the strings, Aurora flirts wildly with Asher, twisting him round her little finger and manipulating him for the fun of it – lies, deceit and calculation are all part of the game. There is a form of ritual humiliation going on here, something designed to expose Asher for his past failings, reducing him to the status of washed-up hack with his productive, successful years far behind him. Michael, in particular, shows great contempt for Asher’s generation, the men who believe they were born into one of the great eras of historical truth, the time of America’s Depression. (The damaging impact of WW2 is part of the backdrop to much of Hayes’s work, and it remains in evidence here.)

There is a ruthless, fatalistic tone running through The End of Me, something that feels detectable from the outset. The impending sense of doom in the narrative is crystal clear; and yet there is something hugely compelling in the telling of it. Asher knows he is being played, but by quite how much only becomes apparent towards the end.

There is a brutal honesty to Hayes’s portrayal of various facets of human nature – perhaps most notably, desire, egotism, ruthlessness, vulnerability and cruelty. Once again, I find myself marvelling at this author’s ability to distil this degree of psychological insight into such an economical yet beautifully-written book.

In short, this is a bitter espresso-shot of a novel – a dark, concentrated gem of destruction and despair. Naturally, I adored it… (Annabel has also written about it here.)

The End of Me is published by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

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

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

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 2

A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of pieces on The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed them, you can catch up via the links here and here.) It’s a tremendous series, well worth reading.

Essentially, the books provide a detailed a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the looming threat of war – the setting for book 1 is Bucharest from the autumn to 1939 to the summer of 1940, a time of heightened uncertainty. Newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest – a point that gives the novels their strong sense of authenticity.

In this post, I’m focusing on the second volume in the trilogy, The Spoilt City, which follows straight on from Fortune. But rather than delving too far into the plot (which would be annoying of those of you who might want to read the series), I’m going to discuss some of the other elements instead – particularly the cultural ‘feel’/sense of place and the Pringles’ relationship.

As the leaders advanced, lifting their boots and swinging their arms, Harriet saw they were the same young men she had observed in the spring, exiles returned from training in the German concentration camps. Then, shabby and ostracised, they had hung unoccupied about the street corners. Now they were marching on the crown of the road, forcing the traffic into the kerb, filling the air with their anthem, giving an impression of aggressive confidence. (p.335)

With the Germans inching closer to Romania, Bucharest is becoming an increasingly tense environment for the Pringles and other members of the British establishment. As in The Great Fortune, Manning does a brilliant job in contrasting the shimmering beauty of summer in the city with the stark reality of the threats on the streets. Romania’s fascist movement, the Iron Guard (or Guardists as they were commonly known) are now a visible presence, much strengthened by their recent training at the German camps.

Once again, this book conveys a vivid impression of life in Romania during the period in question. At one point in the narrative, Yaki travels from Bucharest to Cluj, on a fact-finding mission in return for a sizeable payment. The scene that greets him at the city’s railway station is busy and chaotic, building to a crescendo as the express train is due to pull in.

When he at last reached the platform, he could scarcely get on to it. It was piled with furniture, among which the peasants were making themselves at home. Several had set up spirit-stoves on tables and commodes, and were cooking maize or beans. Others had gone to sleep among rolls of carpet. Most of them looked as though they had been there for hours. There was a constant traffic over gilt chairs and sofas, the valued possessions of displaced officials. Now that the train was due, dramatic scenes were taking place. Hungarian girls had married Rumanians and, as the couples waited to depart, parents were lamenting as though as a death. (p.440)

It seems reasonable to assume that Manning is drawing on much of her own personal experience here, having lived in Bucharest at the time. This particular scene culminates in Yaki boarding the Orient Express, virtually by the skin of his teeth. It’s a terrifying experience, one that leaves the Prince trembling with fear and anxiety.

Alongside the various political developments and their impact on the ex-pat community, the novel continues to follow the Pringles’ marriage as it ebbs and flows over time, the uncertainties over personal safety adding to the tension.

At several points in the narrative, Harriet reflects on her feelings for Guy, whom she now sees as an idealist, someone whose generosity extends far and wide. At heart, Guy is too charitable for his own good, to the extent where others believe they can call on him for anything. Moreover, he has a habit of throwing himself into his work, complete with all-consuming passion projects, almost as a way of avoiding having to face the immediate reality of war. Concerns for the couple’s safety do not seem to feature very highly on Guy’s agenda.    

With uncomplaining enthusiasm, Guy did much more than was expected of him; but he was not imposed upon. He did what he wanted to do and did it, Harriet believed, to keep reality at bay. During the days of the fall of France, he had thrown himself into a production of Troilus and Cressida. Now, when their Rumanian friends were beginning to avoid them, he was giving himself up to this summer school. He would not only be too busy to notice their isolation, but too busy to care about it. She wanted to accuse him of running away – but how accuse someone who was, to all appearances, steadfast on the site of danger, a candidate for martyrdom? It was she, it seemed, who wanted to run away. (p.302)

Nevertheless, despite these frustrations, we get the sense that Harriet loves Guy; there are feelings of loyalty and affection alongside the grievances, a commitment to remain by her husband’s side for as long as possible.

Character development is another of Manning’s key strength. As the novel unfolds, the motivations of several individuals become increasingly transparent – particularly those closest to the Pringles, both professionally and socially. We see new sides to Yaki’s character, not always attractive or admirable. Professor Inchcape – the man in charge of Guy’s department – is revealed to be a more vulnerable individual than one might have assumed at first sight. Others too reveal hidden sides, from Harriet’s admirer, Clarence, to various diplomats and people of influence. 

As the novel ends, Harriet is persuaded to swap Bucharest for the relative safety of Athens. Having also urged Guy to flee for his own safety, Harriet is forced to leave her husband behind, partially reassured by the promise that he will follow relatively shortly. With Inchcape a much-diminished figure, Guy remains the only real presence at the University’s English Department; however, with few students remaining on the books, there seems very little for him to do. Consequently, the novel closes at another turning point in the Pringles’ lives as Harriet is tasked with finding Guy a role in Athens, thereby giving him something definite to move on to.

What a richly rewarding sequence of novels this is turning out to be. You can find links to other reviews of this novel here by Ali and Karen.  

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed it, you can catch up with it via the link above.)

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. The two central characters, newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest.

In my first post, I focused on the characterisation – mostly covering the nature of Guy and Harriet’s marriage together with an insight into the other leading player in the story, the White Russian émigré, Prince Yakimov (or Yaki as he terms himself). As a consequence, I’m going to cover some other aspects here, most notably, the novel’s atmosphere, mood and evocation of place, including some of the political developments that give rise to various tensions in the city. 

As ever with Manning, the sense of place is excellent – clear, vivid and beautifully conveyed. She has a wonderful knack for capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of a city through a combination of ambience, tone, and some well-chosen local details. It’s something I noticed in Manning’s earlier novel School for Love (1951); but if anything, these elements seem even more impressive here.

The church door was opening and a light falling on to the snow feathered cobbles. A closed trăsură drew up. Two women, like little sturdy bears in their fur coats and fur-trimmed snow boots, descended. As they entered the church, they drew veils over their heads. (p.115)

There is some beautiful descriptive writing to be found, typically reflecting Manning’s painterly eye. (She was a talented artist, having attended classes at the Portsmouth School of Art in her youth.)

Le Jardin, recently opened in a Biedermeier mansion, was the most fashionable of Bucharest restaurants and would remain so until the first gloss passed from its decorations. Situated in a little snow-packed square at the end of the Boulevard Brăteanu, its blue neon sign shone out cold upon the cold and glittering world. The sky was a delicate grey-blue, clear except for a few tufts of cirrus cloud. The moon was rising behind the restaurant roof, on which the snow, a foot thick, gleamed like powdered glass. (p. 188)

The sense of uncertainty amongst the Pringles’ social circle also comes through very strongly, particularly as the shadow of war inches ever closer.

‘Wherever one is,’ she said, ‘the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.’ (p. 82)

The novel’s midpoint is marked by a wonderful set-piece, a Christmas dinner hosted by the Pringles for assorted friends. It is the first real opportunity that Harriet has had for entertaining guests since her arrival in Bucharest, and she wants it to go swimmingly. Unfortunately for our host, the tensions between individuals are evident from the start, especially amongst those of different nationalities and political outlooks.

On another occasion, Harriet becomes convinced that Guy has been roped into participating in an underground resistance unit headed up by Commander Sheppy, one of many minor characters threaded through the book. Rumours of Germany’s invasion of Hungary have unsettled Harriet quite deeply, so much so that she fears for the safety of her husband when he fails to return home on time.

She was suddenly convinced that Guy’s disappearance had something to do with the scare about Hungary. Perhaps Sheppy had already taken him off on some sabotaging expedition. Perhaps he had already injured himself – or been arrested – or seized by the fifth columnists. Perhaps she would never see him again. She blamed herself that she had not gone immediately to Inchcape and asked him to interfere: now she went to the telephone and dialled his number. When he answered, she asked if Guy were with him. He had seen or heard nothing of Guy that evening. (p. 195)

During the course of the novel, several significant political developments take place. Poland is invaded and falls; the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated by the Iron Guard; Germany invades Denmark and Norway, then Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; all too soon France becomes the primary target. Like many other ex-pats in Bucharest, the Pringles learn of various political developments via a combination of newspaper reports, radio broadcasts, rumours and German propaganda. (A map illustrating the Nazis’ advance across Europe is clearly visible at the German bureau, a building occupying a prominent position in the city.)

As this first instalment in the trilogy draws to a close, news of the fall of Paris comes through, sharply increasing the sense of anxiety. For the people of Bucharest, France’s defeat is akin to the demise of civilisation, with the country representing liberty, freedom, culture and democracy. It is a tantalising point for this excellent novel to end on, ultimately setting up a keen sense of anticipation for the second book in the series, The Spoilt City.

(Several other bloggers have written about this series of novels. So here are some links to the posts I recall seeing – pieces by Ali, Karen, Max and Radhika – all well worth reading.)

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 1

Last spring, while recovering from a major fracture, I took the opportunity to read three sets of novels: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, all of which ended up on my best-of-year highlights. When the current lockdown kicked it, it seemed timely to crack on with another literary doorstop – in this instance, Olivia Manning’s much-admired Balkan Trilogy, starting with the first in the series, The Great Fortune.

First published in 1960, this novel is considered to be largely autobiographical, based as it is on Manning’s experiences in WW2. In 1939, Manning married British Council lecturer R. D. Smith, who was in the midst of a posting to Bucharest. As a consequence, she accompanied Smith to Romania, and subsequently to Greece, Egypt and Palestine as the Nazis continued their advance through Eastern Europe. The couple were the inspiration for the two central characters in the trilogy, Guy and Harriet Pringle (both in their early twenties) who, as the first book opens, arrive in Bucharest just days after their wedding. While Harriet is new to Bucharest, Guy has been working as a lecturer at the city’s University for the past twelve months, his relationship with Harriet having come about when the pair met in England during the summer holidays.

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. Moreover, the novel gives an insight into the impact of the impending war on a group of ex-pats and émigrés, predominantly the British.

The move to Bucharest presents significant challenges for Harriet, requiring her to adjust to a new city with an unfamiliar culture alongside marriage to Guy. With his strong Communist ideals, Guy believes passionately in supporting needy individuals, virtually irrespective of their character and motivations. He frequently champions lost causes, generously giving his time and limited resources to the down-and-outs of the city.

As a consequence, Harriet initially feels shut out of the marriage, somewhat resentful of having to share Guy with those in the faculty and beyond. She is naturally suspicious of some of Guy’s friends, particularly the curvy Romanian student, Sophie, who calls on Guy’s sympathies at the most frustrating of times. Sophie – who clearly has designs on Guy – bitterly resents Harriet’s presence in Bucharest, a situation that causes Harriet to question the wisdom of her decision.

Harriet had failed to consider the possibility of a Sophie. Foolishly. There was always someone. There was also the fact that, whether Sophie had received encouragement or not, Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She had herself taken it for granted that it was for her alone. […] They had slipped into marriage as though there could be no other possible resolution of such an encounter. Yet – supposing she had known him better? Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty the accompaniment of marriage. (pp. 45–46)

In time, Harriet begins to settle in Bucharest, forming an unlikely friendship with Bella, an English woman married to Nikko Niculescu, a Romanian of note. While Bella is not the sort of woman Harriet would necessarily spend time with elsewhere, in Romania Bella’s company is relaxed and genial, a welcome relief in an unfamiliar world. Then there is Guy’s friend and associate, Clarence, who works at the British propaganda bureau and is often present at social gatherings. Clarence – who is half-heartedly engaged to a woman back in England – finds Harriet very attractive, admiring her resilience, intolerance and natural strength of character. Harriet, for her part, recognises an air of melancholy in Clarence’s cynical demeanour, ‘something poignant and unfulfilled’; and yet she remains faithful to Guy, ultimately recognising the value of his vitality and creative spirit.

Alongside the Pringles, the other main character here is Prince Yakimov (or ‘poor old Yaki’ as he tends to call himself), a half-Irish, half-Russian prince whom Harriet first glimpses on her arrival at Bucharest railway station. While Yaki cuts a rather striking figure with his crocodile dressing case and long coat, he has virtually no money to speak of. Nevertheless, he is a wonderful creation, complete with his distinctive manner and clipped speech.

A seasoned raconteur/bon viveur by nature, Yaki largely exists on the generosity of others, cadging luxurious meals here and there by virtue of his wit. On his arrival in Bucharest, Yaki runs into a journalist friend, McCann, who asks him to deputise as a foreign correspondent in return for credit at the Athénée Palace Hotel. Naturally, Yaki is only too happy to oblige; but when McCann’s backing comes to an end, the prince must resort to his usual tactic to stave off the creditors – that of a soon-to-be-delivered remittance somewhat delayed by the threat of war. The trouble is, Yaki always spends any money he receives in an instant, typically on luxurious dinners in the finest of restaurants, delicious food and wine being his main weaknesses.

At the end of the week he [Yaki] was presented with a bill. He looked at it in pained astonishment and required the manager to come to him. The manager explained that, as Yakimov was no longer backed by McCann’s agency, he must settle a weekly account in the usual way.

‘Dear boy,’ he said, ‘m’remittance should be here in a week or two. Difficult time. Posts uncertain. War on, y’know.’

His quarterly remittance had, in fact, come and gone. Bored by the menu of the hotel, he had spent it on some excellent meals at Capşa’s, Cina’s and Le Jardin. (p. 126)

In the end, a much-diminished Yaki becomes another of Guy’s causes, a consequence of having been turfed out of his lodgings by a belligerent landlady (Yaki’s days at the plush Athénée Palace are long gone by now). Much to Harriet’s annoyance, Guy offers Yaki their spare room as a place to stay, seeing only an impoverished man in need of help, not a serial squanderer of money. 

Interestingly, it seems that Manning based the character of Yaki on Julian Maclaren-Ross, author of the marvellous novel Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore – you can read my post on it here. In a related aside, there is something about The Great Fortune that reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series that also contains a character modelled on Maclaren-Ross – in this instance, the idiosyncratic author, X Trapnel. In both series of books, there is a sense that we are observing a group of characters over time, sharing their lives and experiences as world-changing events unfold alongside. Like Powell, Manning has an ability to convey a lucid picture of an individual – their appearance, their manner, even their way of carrying themselves – in just a paragraph or two. She might not be quite as brilliant as Powell at differentiating some of the minor characters from one another, but she comes pretty close – quite a feat considering the large cast of individuals we meet in this book.

If it’s not clear by now, I should say that I loved this richly rewarding novel – it’s thoroughly absorbing and compelling with a strong sense of authenticity throughout. As such, I’ve split my review into two posts, the second of which will cover some of the aspects I haven’t had time to go into here, particularly the novel’s mood, atmosphere and vivid sense of place. All being well, that’ll be up later this week, together with link to other bloggers’ reviews.

So, I hope to see you again for part 2 – thankfully much shorter than this!

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

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

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

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

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

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

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

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

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

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

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

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

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

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

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

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

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

Love and Summer by William Trevor

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

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

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

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

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

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

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

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

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

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

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

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

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

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

What can I say about this classic novella that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than it to reiterate just how wonderful it is. A masterpiece in miniature – I loved it.

Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. A Southerner by nature, Birkin has come to Oxgodby to restore a Medieval wall painting in the local church – much to the annoyance of the vicar, Reverend Keach, who resents the restorer’s presence in his domain. In reality, there is another purpose to Birkin’s visit: to find an escape or haven of sorts, an immersive distraction from the emotional scars of the past.

Naturally, the project brings Birkin into contact with other residents in the village, many of whom are intrigued by his work. There is Moon, an archaeologist and fellow veteran of the war, a point that gives him some understanding of Birkin’s mental condition; Alice Keach, the vicar’s beautiful young wife who seems somewhat out of place beside her husband at the vicarage; and the Ellerbecks, a kindly local family who befriend Birkin, providing him with homemade food to supplement his meagre supplies.

I don’t want to reveal much more about what happens in the novel, other than to give a flavour of some of the keynotes. There’s a touch of romance in the air, an element of mystery in the story behind the painting, and a gradual renewal of sorts for Birkin – a sense of restoration, both creatively and emotionally.

Standing up there on the platform before a great work of art, feeling kinship with its creator, cozily knowing that I was a sort of impresario conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness. But that wasn’t all of it. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers. And to south and north of the Vale, low hills, frontiers of a mysterious country. (p.83)

Above all, this is a beautifully written novel imbued with a strong sense of longing, a nostalgia for an idyllic world. (Birkin is narrating his story from a point of distance, looking back nearly 60 years to the summer in question.) It also perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of time – the idea that our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments, the most fleeting of chances to be grasped before they are lost forever.

People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies. (p.104)

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art – one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you haven’t read it already. (For more detailed insights, do take a look at these excellent posts by Max and Caroline. The wonderful Backlisted team also covered the book on one of their podcasts, which you can find here.)

My copy of A Month in the Country is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.