Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo

The British-born writer, and biographer Iris Origo is perhaps best known for War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944 – a remarkable account of the impact of WW2 on a small rural community in Tuscany, published in 1947 to great success. Prior to this, Origo kept another diary, a private record of developments leading up to Italy’s entry into the war in 1940. This earlier journal — A Chill in the Air — covers the period from March 1939 to July 1940, ending with the birth of Origo’s second child, Benedetta.

First published in 2017, long after the author’s death, A Chill in the Air is a truly fascinating text, an intelligent, clear-eyed account of Origo’s reading of political and diplomatic events across Europe from her viewpoint in Italy. While her overriding aim was to document events as simply and truthfully as possible, Origo also captures the prevailing moods of the various circles she moves in, giving the text a richness and vitality that really brings it to life.

Origo herself was supremely well-connected. Born to a British mother from the aristocracy and a wealthy American father, Origo spent much of her childhood living a life of privilege in the Italian town of Fiesole. In her early twenties she marries the Italian, Antonio Origo, also from aristocratic stock, and together they buy a dilapidated Tuscan estate, La Foce, which they restore over the next ten years. Following periods of foreign travel and separation from Antonio, partly prompted by the tragic death of the couple’s young son in 1933, Iris returns to Italy in 1938, ready to re-engage with her marriage and the continued development of La Foce. And it is here on the estate that she writes most of her diary, with occasional entries from trips to Florence and Rome.

With her godfather, William Phillips, working as the American Ambassador in Rome, Origo has connections to the innermost political and diplomatic circles – a position that offers an insight into Mussolini’s strategy and intentions. Nevertheless, Origo does not restrict her interests to the privileged classes; she is also in touch with plenty of ordinary Italians, people from all walks of everyday life, from farm workers and peasants to governesses and typists. In short, this multifaceted network of connections gives Origo’s diary a fascinating range of perspectives – it is, in effect, a combination of hypotheses, rumours and news reports (sometimes fake, sometimes genuine), all filtered and analysed by Origo in her characteristically perceptive style. Moreover, she casts her net as widely as possible, encompassing newspaper reports and radio broadcasts from a range of sources including the Italian, British and French press, with occasional bulletins from Germany, too.

A consummate observer with a sharp eye for detail, Origo is especially alert to the authorities’ widespread use of damaging propaganda at various points in the campaign. From an early stage, the possibility of war is ‘positioned’ to the people as a means of redistributing colonies and wealth, a battle between the rich and the poor in the name of Fascist revolution.

It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e., the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion. Germany and Italy must fight or submit to suffocation. (p. 31)

Furthermore, the propaganda extends to trying to convince the general public that the Fascist countries are interested in ‘peace and justice’ rather than war. ‘The real warmongers and alarmists are on the other side.’ Therefore, if war does break out, people will be led to believe it is the democracies who are responsible for the conflict – the Fascist countries will have been forced to act in self-defence, ostensibly as a means of ‘safeguarding’ the peace in Europe.

At first, there is little appetite amongst the Italians for war. The majority seem to believe that Mussolini, whom they have trusted for years, will not lead the country into battle. He will find a way of keeping Italy out of it, irrespective of developments elsewhere. Nevertheless, by August 1939, the picture feels a little different. While educated Italians remain anxious about the possibility of war, the general impression among the broader population is that a lull in the proceedings has descended, prompted by a blinkered faith in Mussolini’s abilities.

But it isn’t exactly calm. It is a mixture of passive fatalism, and of a genuine faith in their leader: the fruits of fifteen years of being taught not to think. It is certainly not a readiness for war, but merely a blind belief that, “somehow”, it won’t happen. (p. 72)

Origo is particularly adept at capturing the mood of the people she encounters at various points from March 1939 to July 1940. By October 1939, the atmosphere in Florence is menacing and unsettling. Fear and suspicion are rife, to the point where even the newspaper one is seen reading can lead to warnings, animosity or suspicious looks from others. As the months slip by, the fear and uncertainty mounts as the Duce moves closer to the Germans, and the prospect of Italy’s entry into the war looms large on the horizon. In effect, it appears as if Italy is moving ‘from one absurdity to another’, a falsification of its position by furthering a ‘forced alliance with Germany’ – with the possibility of Italians being called upon to fight on the side of a regime they despise.

Alongside the major political and diplomatic developments of the day, the diaries are peppered with illustrations of the impact of events on people from various walks of life.

One young woman, who is just expecting her first baby, prays daily that it will be a girl. “What’s the use of having boys if they’ll take them away from me and kill them? (p. 29)

We learn of a governess, a native of Alsace-Lorraine, who finds herself deemed ‘an enemy alien’ for the second time in her life, simply because of her nationality. Now she has been told by the authorities to leave Italy, with little money and no family to turn to. Just one of many innocent casualties, caught up in the turmoil of the approaching war.

The announcement of Italy’s entry into war is brilliantly captured by Origo – a strained, hoarse Mussolini, speaking from Rome’s Piazza Venezia, prompts little emotion from the farm workers at La Foce – a defence mechanism, perhaps, as is the stoic labourers’ way.

I look again at the listening faces. They wear the blank, closed look that is the peasant’s defence. Impossible to tell how much they have taken in or what they feel – except that it is not enthusiasm. (pp. 151-152)

In summary, then, A Chill in the Air is a truly fascinating book, a remarkably insightful account of a country’s inexorable slide into war. With her links to a wide network of individuals in various key positions, Origo has few illusions about the wisdom (or otherwise) of events unfolding around her – a sharpness that really comes through in the text. My NYRB Classics edition comes with an excellent introduction by the historian and writer Lucy Hughes-Hallett and an equally illuminating afterword by Origo’s granddaughter, the journalist and translator Katia Lysy – both of which position the book in the broader context of Origo’s life. Very highly recommended indeed.

My favourites from a year in reading, 2022 – the books that almost made it

This December, I found it harder than usual to settle on a manageable number of titles for my ‘Books of the Year’ lists. In truth, there were very few disappointments amongst the 100+ books I read in 2022, partly because I tend to gravitate towards the mid-20th century for my reading. These modern classics have stood the test of time for a reason; in other words, they’re VERY GOOD!

As I looked back at this year’s reading, I found myself earmarking another eight books that didn’t quite make it into my final selections. All these books are brilliant in their own individual ways, and any of them could have easily found their way onto my ‘best of’ lists had I been compiling them on a different day. So, just in case you need yet another list of suggestions for your toppling TBR piles, here are books that almost made it. Enjoy!

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1969)

Back in October 2021, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise on their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings. However, Andrew Male and Laura Varnam’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…The less said about the plot the better; just cut to the book itself.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (1931, (tr. Geoff Wilkes, 2013)

Irmgard Keun’s novellas always have something interesting to offer, and this striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne did not disappoint. Right from the very start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi (and the competing demands on her future direction) as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for the free-spirited Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book by one of my favourite women writers in translation.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels – stories that combine darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. The setting for this one is a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s, a time of great social change. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing room. The story follows the progress of two of these women, Berti and Evelyn, as they try to survive. Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. An underrated Comyns that deserves to be better known.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia was Barker’s only novel. It’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions, from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text. Andy Miller (of Backlisted fame) described it as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that rings true. There’s also a dash of Barbara Comyns here – Barker’s prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with the macabre and the surreal. A kaleidoscopic, jewel-like novel with a noticable poignant touch.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, painting an evocative portrait of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. Over the course of the novella (which is written as a series of short vignettes), we follow Maud Martha through childhood in Chicago’s South Side, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable here, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovered gem courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint that always delivers the goods.

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (1970, tr. Howard Curtis, 2021)

Another wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair. Set in Rome in the late 1960s, the novel follows Leo, a footloose writer, as he drifts around the city from one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. One evening, he meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye; their meeting marks the beginning of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. Calligarich has given us a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair here. These flawed, damaged individuals seem unable to connect with one another, ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

The Cost of Living; Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant (1951-1971)

A precise, perceptive collection of short stories by the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant. The very best of these pieces 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. Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. Several of her 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, isolated wives and bewildered husbands, smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. A top-notch collection of stories, beautifully expressed. 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2007, tr. Frances Riddle, 2021)

Shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, Elena Knows is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various aspects of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability. While that description might make it sound rather heavy, Piñeiro’s novel is anything but; it’s a hugely compelling read, full of depth and complexity. When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs, so she embarks on an investigation of her own with shocking results…

So, that’s it from me until 2023. Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, with very best wishes for the reading year ahead!

Books of the Year, 2022 – my favourite ‘older’ books from a year of reading

This year, I’m spreading my 2022 reading highlights across two posts. The first piece, on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, is here, while this second piece puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books I read this year, including reissues of titles first published in the 20th century.

These are the backlist books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym! The story follows four work colleagues in their sixties as they deal with retirement from their roles as clerical workers in a London office. While that might not sound terribly exciting as a premise, Pym brings some lovely touches of gentle humour to this bittersweet gem, showing us that life can still offer new possibilities in the autumn of our years.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice. As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of being a teen, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

A quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow we follow over the course of ten years – while also touching on her forthright mother-in-law, Ana, and her progressive daughter, Lisa. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them, with betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all playing their respective parts.

Other People’s Worlds by William Trevor

As a writer, William Trevor has an innate ability to convey the tragedies of our lives, how individuals can be worn down by their fates and circumstances. It’s a quality that’s very much in evidence here in this tale of deception, collateral damage and a questioning of faith. The novel revolves around Francis Tyte, a thirty-something bit-part actor who sweeps into other people’s lives, leaving wreckage in his wake. As the story opens, Francis is preparing to marry Julia, a forty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her widowed mother, Mrs Anstey, in their Gloucestershire home. Mrs Anstey has some nagging doubts about Francis, which she tries to voice to her grown-up grandchildren to little avail. But with preparations for the wedding well underway, Francis’s past begins to close in on him, and the story soon unravels from there. Fans of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye might well enjoy this one!

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

I loved this exquisitely written novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s a masterclass in precision and understatement, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman at haert, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits. By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor for Evelyn’s heart. Another quietly devastating book with the power to endure.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

There are hints of Comyns’ own troubled childhood in The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an imaginative girl at heart, a quality that comes through in her childlike tone of voice. All the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel are here: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. A magical novel by a highly imaginative writer.

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

These short stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we see petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelties and the sudden realisation of deceit – all brilliantly conveyed with insight and sensitivity. What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the sadness and pain many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for striking one-liners with a melancholy note.

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent novel – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

This rich, multilayered narrative follows two very different neighbouring Italian families during the Second World War, charting the various challenges this uncertainty presents. Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

There is something deeply unnerving about a crime novel featuring an ordinary domestic setting – the type of story where sinister activities take place behind the veil of net curtains in the privacy of the protagonist’s home. The English writer Celia Dale was clearly a master of this genre, especially if her 1966 novel A Helping Hand is anything to go by. It’s an icily compelling tale of greed and deception, stealthily executed amidst carefully orchestrated conversations and endless cups of tea. In essence, the plot revolves around an outwardly respectable middle-aged couple, Maisie and Josh Evans, who take under their wing an elderly lady named Mrs Fingal. At first sight, the Evanses seem ideally placed to take care of Mrs Fingal – Maisie is a former nurse, and Josh seems equally attentive – but as the story gets going, the reader soon realises that something very underhand is afoot…

Latecomers by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner is well known for her exquisitely-crafted novels of loneliness and isolation, typically featuring unmarried women living quiet, unfulfilling lives while waiting for their married lovers to make fleeting appearances. Latecomers – Brookner’s eighth – is somewhat different from the norm as it features two male protagonists, Hartmann and Fibich, who came to England as Jewish refugees via the Kindertransport evacuation in WW2. While the adult Hartman is optimistic, content, and at ease with his life, Fibich is anxious, melancholy and self-effacing – constantly burdened by the weight of history. Essentially, the novel follows these two men over their adult lives, tracing this unwavering friendship through their business partnership, respective marriages and the growth of their children, all set against the backdrop of the spectre of war. It’s a remarkably moving book, right up there with Brooker’s best.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

Set in Hungary in the early 1960s, Iza’s Ballad is a heartbreaking portrayal of the emotional gulf between a mother and her daughter, two women with radically different outlooks on life. When her father dies, Iza decides to bring her elderly mother, Ettie, to live with her in Budapest. While Ettie is grateful to her daughter for this gesture, she struggles to adapt to modern life in the city, especially without her familiar possessions and the memories they represent. It’s a novel of many contrasts; the chasm between the different generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred. Szabó digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless.

So, that’s it for my favourite books from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts on my choices – I’d love to hear your views.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with lots of excellent books, old and new!

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza’s Ballad is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Vintage (UK); personal copy.

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1956-71 

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the first batch of stories from The Cost of Living, a collection of early and uncollected pieces by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. (If you missed my posts, you can read them by clicking on the links here and here.) In short, Gallant’s stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the scenarios to expand in the mind as the reader reflects.

Since then, I’ve read the rest of the collection and would recommend it to anyone interested in character-driven stories, especially those that delve into the inner lives of mid-20th-century women. In this post, I’m going to pick out a few highlights from the second half of the book, focusing on two stories that resonated particularly strongly with me. 

Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. In Bernadette (1957), we are introduced to Nora and Robbie Knight, whose transition from freewheeling liberal arts types to hypocritical middle-class suburbanites has taken place over several years.

The Knights had been married nearly sixteen years. They considered themselves solidly united. Like many people no longer in love, they cemented their relationship with opinions, pet prejudices, secret meetings, a private vocabulary that enabled them to exchange amused glances over a dinner table and made them feel a shade superior to the world outside the house. Their home held them, and their two daughters, now in boarding school. Private schools were out of line with the Knights’ social beliefs, but in the case of their own children they had judged a private school essential. (pp. 130–131)

The Knights live in a large house near Montreal, Robbie’s salary being sufficient to support a live-in maid, Bernadette, and a private education for their two daughters. (In essence, the girls are in boarding school because Nora doesn’t ‘trust herself to bring them up’.) While Nora likes to view herself as the host of successful, intellectually-stimulating dinner parties, Robbie amuses himself with various extra-marital affairs, much to his wife’s disdain. And yet, like many unfaithful husbands from this era, Robbie is forgiven, with Nora claiming the moral high ground in light of her husband’s indefensible position. 

When Bernadette falls pregnant as the result of a casual encounter, it proves to be the driver for the story. Once Nora becomes aware of the situation, she tackles the young woman about her condition; Bernadette, however, is fearful of admitting it, inadvertently implicating Robbie out of worry over his likely reaction. As Nora prepares to confront Robbie over this potential infidelity, the hollow nature of the couple’s marriage becomes increasingly apparent.

He [Robbie] went on reading. He looked so innocent, so unaware that his life was shattered. Nora remembered how he had been when she had first known him, so pleasant and dependent and good-looking and stupid. She remembered how he had been going to write a play, and how she had wanted to change the world, or at least Quebec. Tears of fatigue and strain came into her eyes. She felt that the failure of last night’s party had been a symbol of the end. Robbie had done something cheap and dishonourable, but he reflected their world. The world was ugly, Montreal was ugly, the street outside the window contained houses of surpassing ugliness. There was nothing left to discuss but television and the fluctuating dollar; that was what the world had become. (p. 151)

As the story draws to a close, there is a reversal of sorts in the marital power dynamics as Nora realises that Robbie is innocent – in this instance, at least. For once, it is Robbie who is in a position to seize the moral high ground, leaving Nora scrambling to re-establish their natural equilibrium. This is an excellent story, one that exposes the fault lines in a bourgeois marriage to striking effect.

One of the most interesting things about this collection is that it offers an opportunity to track Gallant’s development as a writer over time as the stories are presented chronologically. Some of the later stories are particularly nuanced and fluid, pieces like The Cost of Living (1962), which captures the bohemian lifestyle of a group of lodgers in France. The setting is a down-at-heel hotel in Paris, a dark and dusty environment in the midst of the city.

The story is narrated by Puss (short for Patricia), an unmarried Australian woman in her early thirties, resident in Paris for some five years. Puss has recently been joined in Paris by her elder sister, Louise, who, having inherited the family’s money, is the wealthier of the two women. Even though Louise can afford better, she chooses to remain frugal by lodging at the same shabby hotel as Puss. Occupying rooms nearby are the other two central characters in the story, both of whom are French: Patrick, an aspiring actor with a desire to travel, and Sylvie, another creative type, a ‘blurred impression of mangled hair and shining eyes’.

In this piece, Gallant perfectly captures the up-close-and-personal nature of life in a relatively confined space. The characters flit in and out of one another’s rooms, borrowing clothes and money, jostling for the use of the communal bathroom and other shared resources. The loose-living Sylvie is brilliantly portrayed.

Her scarf, her gloves flew from her like birds. His shoes could never keep up with her feet. One of my memories of Sylvie–long before I knew anything about her, before I knew even her name–is of her halting, cursing loudly with a shamed smile, scrambling up or down a few steps, and shoving a foot back into a lost ballerina shoe. She wore those thin slippers out on the streets, under the winter rain. And she wore a checked shirt, a blue sweater, and a scuffed plastic jacket that might have belonged to a boy. Passing her, as she hung over the banister calling to someone below, you saw the tensed muscle of an arm or leg, the young neck, the impertinent head. Someone ought to have drawn her–but somebody has: Sylvie was the core and grubby Degas dancer, the girl with the shoulder thrown back and the insolent chin. (pp. 206–207)

Money is a significant factor in the story, particularly the passing of it from one person to another. Rather tellingly, Louise keeps a detailed record of all her expenditure in a notebook, classifying each entry as either ‘Necessary’ or ‘Unnecessary’, reflecting the apparent value she places on various relationships.

So, in summary, The Cost of Living is a terrific collection. Across the volume as a whole, there are stories of uncaring mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Many of Gallant’s protagonists seem to lack a degree of self-awareness, the ability to turn a mirror on themselves and see their faults and failings for what they really are. These are thoughtful, perceptive vignettes, beautifully sketched.

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

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

First published in 1956, The Fountain Overflows is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a long time – a wonderfully immersive depiction of childhood, inspired by West’s own family and early life. As Andrea Barrett explains in the introduction to the NYRB edition, West’s father, Charles Fairfield, was a brilliant political journalist, a compulsive gambler who conducted numerous affairs, culminating in his abandonment of the family in 1901. Fairfield’s wife, Isabella, assumed sole responsibility for raising the couple’s three daughters, one of whom was Rebecca or Cicily as she was known back then – her pen name of Rebecca West came later, in honour of a character from one of Ibsen’s plays.

Charles and Isabella are clearly the inspiration for two of the central characters in The Fountain Overflows: Piers Aubrey, the charming but irresponsible political pamphleteer, and his wife, Clare, a gifted pianist whose primary focus is to nurture the musical talents of her daughters – the twins, Rose and Mary, and their elder sister, Cordelia. Just like their mother, Rose and Mary are promising pianists, while Cordelia seems oblivious to the fact that she has no aptitude for the violin whatsoever, unable to distinguish good music from bad.

As the novel opens, Piers has just been appointed as the editor of a suburban newspaper based in London, prompting the family to relocate from Edinburgh, where they have been sub-letting their flat. The new job appears to be the latest in a sequence of false dawns for Piers – an earlier stint in South Africa did not quite work out – and his tendency to gamble away any earnings on foolish investments is widely known. While Rose, the novel’s narrator, is still quite young, she seems fully aware of her father’s shortcomings, having learned to anticipate misfortune and to support her mother accordingly.

Papa was always happy when he was engaged in certain activities. Of these the one which gave him greatest pleasure was his lifelong wrestling match with money. He was infatuated with it though he could not get on good terms with it. He felt towards it as a man of his type might have felt towards a gipsy mistress, he loved it and hated it, he wanted hugely to possess it and then drove it away, so that he nearly perished of his need for it. (p. 61)

Despite the family’s lack of financial resources, Rose enjoys a relatively happy and loving childhood, surrounded as she is by her sisters, her delightful younger brother, Richard Quin, and her cousin / close confidante, Rosamond. Rosamond’s mother, Constance, is married to Clare’s cousin, Jock, another unreliable father with scant regard for his familial duties. Constance and Clare are great friends, their relationship stretching back to childhood, broadly akin to the bond that begins to develop between their daughters, Rosamond and Rose.

While this is not a plot-driven novel as such, we are treated to a glorious sequence of incidents, all of which come together to form a vivid picture of life in the Aubrey household, complete with its various ups and downs. There’s a little bit of everything here: family Christmases brightened by homemade dresses and toys; debt collectors knocking at the front door while Piers slips out the back; and Cordelia hopelessly scraping away at the violin, misguidedly encouraged by one of her teachers, the eccentric Miss Beevor. Unfortunately, Miss Beevor is convinced that Cordelia is a musical genius, a belief that strengthens Cordelia’s determination to perform in public, much to her family’s dismay.

Murder, poltergeists and political lobbying also play their parts in the story, lending the narrative a wonderfully immersive yet unpredictable air. And yet, despite the lack of structure in the girls’ life, there is an overriding sense of optimism that everything will turn out okay in the end, irrespective of the Aubreys’ shortcomings.

I felt sure, of course, that in the end we would be all right. Mary and I never doubted that we would we would be all right. But we would have to have a framework in which to be all right, and about that I was no longer certain. (pp. 166–167)

This is an absorbing, richly rewarding novel, full of jewel-like detail, from the sharply defined portraits of minor characters to the beautifully descriptive images on family life. In this passage, Rose is recounting the children’s efforts in procuring Christmas presents for their parents despite a lack of regular pocket money.

Mary had practised considerable deception over the money given her for milk and buns at eleven, and had gone to a junk shop we passed on our way to school and bought Papa a little eighteenth-century book about the sights of Paris with pretty coloured pictures and Mamma a water-colour of Capri, where she had spent a wonderful holiday when she was young. I had a painted a wooden box to hold big matches for Papa to keep in his study and had made a shopping bag for Mamma out of plaited straw. Richard Quin had given the matches to put in my match-box and to Mamma a bright pink cake of scented soap which he had chosen himself. (p. 82)

What’s also impressive here is the lightness of touch West brings to some of the broader themes in the novel – for example, her views on Europe and the various political developments that occurred during the 20th century. Rather than labouring the point on the foolishness of war, West introduces the topic in a very interesting way. When Piers is asked to write a pamphlet on Britain’s foreign policy and the future of Europe, the parliamentary group who commissioned the piece are extremely reluctant to publish it, viewing it as the ramblings of a madman who has taken leave of his senses. If only the politicians had more foresight and intelligence in these matters…perhaps those warnings on the dangers of a state-controlled society might not seem so crazy after all.

And he goes on to say the most extraordinary things about the wars we are going to have after the criminals have taken over. He says there will have to be wars, because when these criminals have wiped out all the resistance in their own countries they will need some other excuse for killing, and they will get it in war; and they will be pressed by economic need because once they had stolen all the wealth honest men had stored up in their countries, there would be nothing more being accumulated, honest men would be reluctant to go on working just to lay up loot for a criminal government, and they will be forced to make war to get at the wealth of other countries. Really, Mrs Aubrey, did you ever hear anything so extraordinary in your life? (pp. 327–328)

In summary, The Fountain Overflows is a beautifully written novel by one of Britain’s leading critics and writers, a wonderful evocation of family life that captures its inherent tensions with insight and elegance. There is genuine warmth, intelligence and compassion in this book, typified by the characters of Rose and Clare – the latter doing her best to protect the Aubreys from rack and ruin.

While West had originally intended the book to be the opening part of a trilogy, she remained somewhat unsatisfied with the two sequels, The Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and chose not to publish them in her lifetime. Luckily both are now in print, published posthumously in the mid-1980s, and available for us to read.

Women Writers in Translation – some of my recent favourites from the shelves

As many of you will know, August sees the return of WIT Month, a month-long celebration of books by Women in Translation. It’s an annual event hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, aiming to raise the profile of translated literature by women writers worldwide.

This year, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on this area by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation each month, rather than just thinking about them for August. So, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here’s a round-up of my recent faves.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story unfolds, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully-constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This quirky, sharply-observed novella is both darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which might sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations. Alongside its central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the novella also touches on various related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A very thought-provoking read.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. Here we have a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Two separate but related late ‘70s novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in a lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be and how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment. Several characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through life, trying to navigate the things that cause pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg maintains a lightness of touch in these books, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the various relationships with insight and depth.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

First published in French in 2000 and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was studying literature at Rouen University while also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy at the age of twenty-three. In essence, the book is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of a backstreet abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. A powerful, vital, uncompromising book that deserves to be widely read.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952, this is the first of two collections of short stories brought together in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories. (I’m planning to post my review of the second collection during WIT Month itself.) These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity. In short, it’s one of the very best collections I’ve read in recent years. Very highly recommended indeed.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. Sam Bett and Davis Boyd)

This excellent novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in. Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is known to us only by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions, and what (if anything) do victims gain from enduring it? A beautifully-written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject – shortlisted for the International Booker earlier this year.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? If so, please feel free to mention it below.

You can also find some of my other favourites in my WIT Month recommendations posts from July 2020 and 2021, including books by Olga Tokarczuk, Françoise Sagan, Yūko Tsushima, Ana Maria Matute and many more. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone here!

Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some of my favourite novels set in hotels, featuring much-loved modern classics such as Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The post proved quite a hit, with many of you adding your own recommendations in the comments. Many thanks for those suggestions – I now have several excellent possibilities to check out!

As promised in the ‘hotels’ post, here’s my follow-up piece on boarding-house novels, an interesting variant on the theme. While boarding houses have been around since the 19th century, they were particularly common in the first half of the 20th century, offering each ‘boarder’ the opportunity to rent a room cost-effectively, particularly in towns or cities.

Just like hotel guests, every boarder comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact, especially in the communal areas of the house. There’s also a seedy ‘feel’ to many boarding houses, a sleazy, down-at-heel atmosphere that adds to their appeal – certainly as settings for fiction if not places to live!

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite boarding house novels from the shelves. 

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)

Voyage is narrated by Anna Morgan, an eighteen-year-old girl brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna after her father’s death. What follows is a gradual unravelling as Anna drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort. This is a brilliant, devastating book, played out against a background of loneliness and despair – all the more powerful for its connection to Rhys’ own life.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947)

Perhaps the quintessential boarding house novel, this darkly comic tragicomedy revolves around Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties whose drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the suffocating atmosphere in her lodgings, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. Located in the fictional riverside town of Thames Lockdon, The Rosamond is home to a peculiar mix of misfits – lonely individuals on the fringes of life. Holding court over the residents is fellow boarder, the ghastly Mr Thwaites, a consummate bully who delights in passing judgements on others, much to Miss Roach’s discomfort. Hamilton excels at capturing the stifling atmosphere of the boarding house and the stealthy nature of war, stealing people’s pleasures and even their most basic necessities. A brilliant introduction to the boarding-house milieu. 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (1947)

Set in the 1940s, this marvellous novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money…Running alongside this storyline is a touch of romance as Fanshawe falls for a colleague’s wife, Sukie, while her husband is away – a relationship played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods. This terrific novel is highly recommended, especially for Patrick Hamilton fans.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)

The setting for this one is The May of Teck, a large boarding house/hostel ‘for Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty’, situated in London’s Kensington. Despite the novel’s wartime setting, there’s a wonderful boarding-school-style atmosphere in The May of Teck, with a glamorous Schiaparelli gown passing from one girl to another for various important dates. Spark is particularly good on the social hierarchy that has developed within the hostel, with the youngest girls occupying dormitory-style rooms on the first floor, those with a little more money sharing smaller rooms on the second, while the most attractive, sophisticated girls occupy the top floor, a status that reflects their interesting jobs and active social lives. By turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant, this evocative novel touches on some dark and surprising themes with a dramatic conclusion to boot.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor (1965)

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each lodger possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, a little flawed or inadequate in some way, hovering on the fringes of mainstream society. Residents include Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity in such a way that gently elicits the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, their existences are marked by a deep sadness or loneliness, an air of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life has passed them by. In short, this is a brilliantly observed novel, a wickedly funny tragicomedy of the highest order.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

We’re back in Kensington for this one, set in a London boarding house in the midst of the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s drawing-room. Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. This is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances – loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. A lesser-known Comyns, but well worth your time.

Also worthy of an honourable mention or two:

  • R. C. Sherriff’s charming 1931 novel The Fortnight in September, in which the Stevens family take their annual holiday at Bognor’s Seaview boarding house, a traditional establishment that has seen better days;
  • Olivia Manning’s excellent 1951 novel School for Love, a wonderfully compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem towards the end of WW2. Notable for the monstrous Miss Bohun, who presides over the central setting – a boarding house of sorts;
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Sweet Sickness (1960) – an immersive story of obsession, desire and fantasy. David, the novel’s central protagonist, spends much of his time fending off unwanted attention from the other residents at Mrs McCartney’s boarding house, his shabby residence in New York;
  • Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – a most enjoyable novel set in the theatrical world of 1950s Liverpool, with a down-at-heel boarding house to boot;

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite boarding-house novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

Hotel novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

This is a post I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, a celebration of my favourite novels set in hotels. There’s something particularly fascinating about this type of location as a vehicle for fiction – a setting that brings together a range of different individuals who wouldn’t normally encounter one another away from the hotel. Naturally, there’s some potential for drama as various guests and members of staff mingle with one another, especially in the communal areas – opportunities the sharp-eyed writer can duly exploit to good effect.

While some guests will be holidaying at the hotels, others may be there for different reasons – travellers on business trips, for instance, or people recovering from illness or some other kind of trauma. Then we have the hotel staff and long-term residents, more permanent fixtures in the hotel’s fabric, so to speak. All have interesting stories to tell, irrespective of their positions. So here are a few of my favourites from the shelves.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929 – tr. Basil Creighton)

Perhaps the quintessential hotel novel, this engaging story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another in this glamorous Berlin setting. There are moments of significant darkness amid the lightness as Baum skilfully weaves her narrative together, moving from one player to another with ease (her sense of characterisation is particularly strong). At the centre of the novel is the idea that sometimes our lives can change direction in surprising ways as we interact with others. We see fragments of these people’s lives as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better, while others are less fortunate and emerge diminished. A thoroughly captivating gem with an evocative Weimar-era setting.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy (1950)

Part morality tale, part mystery, part family saga/social comedy, Kennedy’s delightful novel was reissued last year by Faber in a fabulous new edition. This very cleverly constructed story – which takes place at The Pendizack cliffside hotel, Cornwall, in the summer of 1947 – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in a dramatic picnic ‘feast’, Kennedy draws on an inverted structure, revealing part of her denouement upfront, while omitting crucial details about a fatal disaster. Consequently, the reader is in the dark as to who dies and who survives the tragedy until the novel’s end. What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, into which she skilfully incorporates the loathsome behaviours of her characters – both guests and members of staff alike. A wonderfully engaging book with some serious messages at its heart.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)

Another big hitter here, and one of my favourites in the list. As this perceptive novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere establishment of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it’s clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to ‘become herself again’ following some undisclosed scandal. (The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book.) Central to the novel is the question of what kind of life Edith can carve out for herself, a dilemma that throws up various points for debate. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures and its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for social acceptability if not love? You’ll have to read the book itself to find out…

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor (1969)

We’re in much darker territory here with William Trevor, a writer whose work I’ve been reading steadily over the past four or five years. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with Trevor’s other novels from the 1970s – sad, somewhat sinister and beautifully observed. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. With her nose for tragedy and a potentially lucrative story, Trevor’s protagonist inveigles her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for a landmark birthday celebration for the hotel’s owner, the elderly Mrs Sinnott. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among various privileged guests holidaying at a high-class hotel on the Italian Riviera. The narrative revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets on her trip. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play. It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour – there are some particularly wonderful details on hotel etiquette here. If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel may well appeal.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

One of my all-time favourite novels, Mrs Palfrey is a something of a masterpiece, marrying bittersweet humour with a deeply poignant thread. In essence Taylor’s story follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into London’s Claremont Hotel. Here she joins a group of long-term residents in similar positions to herself, each one likely to remain there until illness intervenes and a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, thought-provoking novel, prompting the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of ageing – more specifically, our need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness and the desire to feel valued, irrespective of our age. Taylor’s observations of social situations and the foibles of human nature are spot-on – there are some wonderfully funny moments here amid the poignancy and sadness. An undisputed gem that reveals more on subsequent readings, especially as we grow older ourselves.  

Other honourable mentions include the following books:

  • Rosamond Lehmann’s marvellous The Weather in the Streets (1936), in which the devastation of Olivia and Rollo’s doomed love affair plays out against the backdrop of dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotels;
  • Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949), a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. As Port and Kit Moresby (Bowles’ troubled protagonists) travel across the stiflingly hot desert, the hotels grow more sordid with each successive move, putting further strain on the couple’s fractured marriage;
  • Finally, there’s Strange Hotel (2020), Eimear McBride’s immersive, enigmatic novel, where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books (you can buy most of them here via Bookshop.Org, together with a few other suggestions). Or maybe you have some favourite hotel novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

PS I’m also planning to do a ‘boarding house’ version of this post at some point, something that will come as no surprise to those who know me well!

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Family and Borghesia are two separate but related novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in this lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be, how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment.

She remembered saying that there were three things in life you should always refuse: hypocrisy, resignation and unhappiness. But it was impossible to shield yourself from those three things. Life was full of them and there was no holding them back. (p. 110)

Central to Family are Carmine, a forty-year-old architect (financially stable but somewhat disaffected by life), and Ivana, a thirty-seven-year-old translator searching for a full-time job. Their stories unfold as a revisitation of the past – a key theme in Ginzburg’s work – taking us back to the time when these two were lovers, despite their differences in background and class. (Carmine’s parents are poor, his mother barely literate, while Ivana’s family are from the educated middle-classes, her father a successful mathematician.)

We follow Carmine and Ivana through the ups and downs of their relationship. They have a child, who subsequently dies at a very young age; their relationship falls apart, and Carmine marries Ninetta, who likes Ivana at first but later turns against her (to a certain extent). Meanwhile, Ivana has a number of lovers, one of whom provides her with a child (Angelica), which Ivana raises on her own. She also falls into a long-term relationship with a doctor who suffers from depression – a condition that culminates in him taking his own life after losing the will to survive.

By now, Carmine spends most of his evenings with Ivana and her daughter, Angelica, neglecting his wife Ninetta and their seven-year-old son, Dadò. In effect, Carmine and Ninetta’s marriage has fallen apart, leaving Carmine to ruminate on times past – not only the chances squandered but the more mundane day-to-day activities too. Central to the novella is our inability to recapture these moments – how we don’t quite appreciate the value of what we’ve got until it’s gone. 

Borghesia focuses on a different family, equally complex and troubled as the group featured above. Ilaria is a widow who acquires a sequence of cats in an attempt to stave off the loneliness she experiences day-to-day. Like the characters in Family, Ilaria is part of a complicated family network. She receives financial support from her brother-in-law, Pietro, who lives in the flat above, while her eighteen-year-old daughter, Aurora, shares the flat next door with her boyfriend, Aldo. Aurora, a student, and Aldo, who has dropped out of college to drift along aimlessly, are also being supported by Pietro – possibly as a kind of debt to his deceased brother. (The brothers owned a valuable piece of land together, which Pietro refused to sell when Ilaria’s husband was still alive.)

Once again, this is a story of couples coming together and falling apart as we follow Pietro, Aldo and Aurora – and their respective affairs – over time.  Caught in the middle of all this is Ilaria, who is broken by the death of her first cat.

To have lost him was a slight thing. It was a poor sort of pain. But, all of a sudden, she was discovering that even poor sorts of pain are acute and merciless, and quickly take their place in that immense, vague area of general unhappiness. (p. 76)

Both novellas were written and published in 1977. As such, they share a sense of fluidity around the nature of family, a relaxation of the strict views towards marriage that were prevalent in Italian society in the 1940s and ‘50s. Nevertheless, these more liberal domestic arrangements bring their own sources of tension, often leading to sadness and restlessness as relationships evolve.

One of the things Ginzburg does so well here is to create richly imagined characters through simple, beautifully-crafted prose. Her descriptions and clear and vivid, frequently drawing on details to bring these individuals to life. (Evelina is Ninetta’s mother from the first novella, Family.)

The whole room was dominated by Evelina’s large head and gauzy blue hair, her tall, commanding, flourishing figure and her smile, which, like Ninetta, she offered as if it were a precious jewel. But behind it, there was also a sort of satisfaction at being so tall and straight and exuberant in her old age. Her presence was like a monument to elegant old age, healthy, shrewdly wealthy and wise. Carmine suddenly felt he detested her. He detested the two people with her as well. It seemed horrible to him that mixed up in all this hate was Dadò. (pp. 29-30)

Ginzburg can be funny too, even when dealing with dark subjects like depression, death and infidelity. Her descriptions often start in a neutral tone, then veer into humour, darkness or both, highlighting some of the absurdities we have to deal with as we amble along.

Winter passed once again and spring came, and Pietro was still planning to get married but kept putting it off because Domitilla had to study, or practise for a horse-show or play in a folk-group. (p. 91)

Nevertheless, at heart, these novellas highlight the painful nature of family life – what binds us together as individuals often forces us apart. Several of these characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through their lives, navigating the things that cause us pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg manages to maintain a lightness of touch in these stories, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the relationships with insight and depth.

In short, Family and Borghesia would make an excellent introduction to Ginzburg’s work, like a pair of Italian neorealist films in the style of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica.

(I read this book for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event, now extended to mid-March.)