Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

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.)

Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz

Two terrific books for you today – by prose stylists of the highest order. Enjoy!

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (1943)

This is a book for anyone who enjoys food – not the fancy, pretentious kind of food the word ‘gastronomical’ might suggest, but honest, simple, good quality fare, typically fashioned from flavoursome ingredients.  It is, in essence, a blend of memoir, food writing and travel journal, all woven together in Fisher’s wonderfully engaging style.

Backlisted listeners among you may have encountered Fisher through How to Cook a Wolf (1942), her wartime guide to keeping appetites sated when decent ingredients are in short supply. In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher looks back on some of the most symbolic meals and food-related experiences of her first three decades – the quality of the dishes consumed, the people who shared them and the memories they evoked. She writes lovingly of her early life, the most notable culinary occasions, irrespective of their simplicity, and the way our feelings towards certain foods are often entwined with memories of people, places and key moments in time. There is a sense of meals being part of the fabric of a person’s life here, inextricably linked to love, friendship and family – encompassing both happy times and sad.

Throughout the book, Fisher relates her most memorable food-related experiences, from her first taste of the frothy ‘skin’ on her grandmother’s homemade jam to the trepidation of swallowing a live oyster at the high-school dance. We learn of her travels from California to France, following her marriage to Al Fisher, an academic studying for his doctorate at Dijon. On their arrival in France, the Fishers were eager to experience the European lifestyle, delighting in simple yet flavoursome food, courtesy of their boarding house and the city’s modest restaurants.

The memoir gives us snapshots of Fisher’s life, mostly from the late 1920s (when Fisher would have been around twenty) to the late ‘30s, when Europe was in the grip of a tumultuous war. Various sea crossings are dotted throughout the memoir – as are various friends, family members and other eccentric acquaintances the Fishers meet on their travels. Naturally, there are affairs of the heart too, particularly when M. F. K. falls for the American writer and artist Dillwyn Parrish (or Chexbres as he is affectionately known) in the mid-1930s. In time, he becomes the love of her life; although sadly, their time together is very short, cruelly curtailed by Chexbres’ suicide, prompted by the debilitating impact of Buerger’s Disease.   

Where the book really excels is in Fisher’s ability to convey a genuine love of food. Not in a way that reeks of privilege or pretentiousness; just warmth, passion and enjoyment, laced with an admiration for the people who prepare it. In this scene, Fisher recalls a meal of freshly caught trout, potatoes and hot buttered peas from the garden of a Swiss guesthouse near Lucerne.

It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good…but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.

We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us of it willingly, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it; but I know that I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive, probably. (p. 217)

It’s a glorious vignette, beautifully conveyed in Fisher’s elegant, eminently readable style.

I Used to be CharmingThe Rest of Eve Babitz (2019)

I’ve written before about Eve Babitz, the American writer, journalist and album cover designer who died last December. Her 1974 collection, Eve’s Hollywood, could be described as autofiction or maybe a semi-fictionalised memoir. Either way, it’s a luminous book – like a series of shimmering vignettes on bohemian life in LA.

Slow Days, Fast Company followed in 1977, cementing Babitz’s reputation as a leading documenter of the Californian lifestyle/counterculture. Both books are currently in print with NRYB Classics, along with a third volume of Babitz’s work, I Used to be Charming – The Rest of Eve Babitz, compiled in 2019.

Charming comprises some fifty articles/essays, mostly published in magazines between 1975 and 1997. Far from being a collection of odds and ends, Charming contains some of the very best of Babitz’s writing – the titular essay, recounting her recovery from life-threatening third-degree burns, is worth the cover price alone. It’s a searingly honest yet funny piece, conveyed in Babitz’s thoroughly engaging style. Also of particular note is a sixty-page essay on the ethos of Fiorucci, the pioneering Italian fashion brand based. Much to my surprise, I found this absolutely fascinating and immersive!

As in the earlier books, Babitz turns her eye to various topics here – mostly related to California with the occasional sojourn to New York. She writes beautifully about men, relationships, actors, musicians, locations, fashion, body image and various personal experiences. Her style is naturally breezy – conversational, almost – both easy-going and whip-smart. It’s a tricky blend to pull off, but to Babitz it seems intuitive, as in this 1979 piece titled Gotta Dance.  

Once you feel what it’s like to dance with someone who knows how to dance, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You may even come to realize, as I have, that dancing is better than sex. I mean that, I really do. It’s better because it’s a flirtation that can go on forever and ever without being consummated; because you can do it with strangers and not feel guilty or ashamed; because you can do it outside your marriage and not get in any trouble; and because you can do it in public, with people watching and applauding. And when you’re doing it right, you can’t think about anything else, such as what you forgot at work or that the ceiling needs painting.

Which is why women love to dance. (p. 203)

Babitz can be funny too, as in Tiffany’s Before Breakfast, an article about coping with an impending crisis. Here, she has arranged to meet her friend Tina to make plans to avert a collapse.

So we met at Nickodell’s, a thirties Hollywood restaurant which has stuff like “turkey croquettes” on the menu, it’s so Mildred Pierce. Nickodell’s – it’s sort of the only place in L.A. you can go without accidentally bumping into an alfalfa sprout. It makes you feel grounded. It’s a good place to discuss your nervous breakdown. (p. 136)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Babitz writes evocatively about cities, neighbourhoods and locations – not just her beloved L.A. but also the more friendly San Francisco.

Here, it seemed to me, was the essential San Francisco: a city of lights, a city of radiant beings, a city of taxis and tourists and back alleys, a city of crazily shaped enterprises, of too-high hills and too much romance from long ago, where the past and the present blur into each other… (pp. 315-316)

I’ve merely scratched the surface of this beguiling collection of pieces, which I read over several weeks during the dark days of January. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in California, especially during this era.   

Both of these books qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event in support of Independent Publishers. The Gastronomical Me is published by Daunt Books, I Used to be Charming by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing review copies.

Recent Reads – That Old County Music by Kevin Barry and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household   

In an effort to catch up with my review backlog, here are some brief notes on two fairly recent reads – both very highly recommended!

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (2020)

A vivid collection of eleven short stories, many of which feature loners, outsiders or those who find themselves on the fringes of mainstream society. As with most collections, some pieces will inevitably resonate more strongly than others, but there are five standout stories here, worthy of the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with The Coast of Leitrim (previously published in The New Yorker), in which Seamus, a lonely, sensitive, thirty-five-year-old man, falls for Katherine, a young Polish woman who works in a local café. This is a gentle, meditative story, shot through with a yearning for love and the fear of its loss in the future.

What kind of a maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered. The question was unanswerable and terrifying. When she lay in his arms after they had made love, his breath caught jaggedly in his throat and he felt as if he might choke. To experience a feeling as deep as this raised only the spectre of losing it. (pp. 19–20)

In Roma Kid, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a nine-year-old girl runs away from the asylum park where her family is being housed. When she sprains her ankle in the woods, the girl is taken in by another outsider – a single man living off-the-grid in a trailer, fending for himself in the wilds of the countrywide. As the weeks and months go by, a tender friendship develops between these two individuals, highlighting the kindness of human nature. This is a beautiful, compassionate story that doesn’t play out as the reader might fear.

There is a wonderful seam of dark humour to be found in some of the best stories here, pieces such as Toronto and the State of Grace, which combines striking social comedy with an element of poignancy. In Toronto, a jaded publican is forced to listen to the tales of an eccentric elderly woman and her extrovert son as they drink their way through the nine spirits on display in the bar. If truth be told, the owner is dying to lock up, but his attempts to curtail their drinking are repeatedly ignored!

Who’s-Dead McCarthy is another darkly comic gem in which the death-obsessed Con McCarthy likes nothing more than a bit of gossip about a passing in the family.

Con McCarthy was our connoisseur of death. He was its most knowing expert, its deftest elaborator. There was no death too insignificant for his delectation. A 96-year-old poor dear in Thormondgate with the lungs papery as moths’ wings and the maplines of the years cracking her lips as she whispered her feeble last in the night – Con would have word of it by the breakfast, and he would be up and down the street, his sad recital perfecting as he went. (pp. 109-110)

This is a brilliantly observed story with a very fitting end, another piece that demonstrates the author’s skills with character and dialogue.

Finally, the title story is also worthy of a mention, not least for its memorable central character – Hannah, a pregnant seventeen-year-old waiting in a Transit van while her thirty-two-year-old boyfriend robs the nearby petrol station. Like many individuals we see here, Hannah’s life is in flux, caught between uncertainty and a gradual dawning of reality. Once again, it’s an excellent story, beautifully conveyed in Barry’s uncomplicated yet poetic prose. Definitely recommended!

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

I’m going to keep this relatively brief, mostly because the less you know about the second half of this book before reading it the better. It’s a man-on-the-run thriller of the highest order – taut, gripping and pacy with an existential dimension to boot.

The unnamed ‘rogue male’ of the novel’s title is a trained killer who decides to launch an assassination attempt on a highly dangerous dictator. (While the leader and his country remain anonymous, the time period and European setting clearly point towards Hitler.) Just as the narrator is about to pull the trigger on the dictator, he is captured by the leader’s security team, tortured and then dispatched down a cliff to make his death seem accidental. Somehow the job is bungled and our narrator manages to survive, escaping with his life in the most challenging of circumstances.  

Drawing on his wits and extensive survival skills, the narrator makes it back to England where he finds himself being pursued by the dictator’s henchmen – clearly the matter of international borders poses little barrier to the tyrant’s intentions! Unfortunately, the narrator is unable to call on the British Government for protection as this would be tantamount to requesting an endorsement of his actions – something he knows the authorities will never do. (Interestingly, the true reasons behind our protagonist’s assassination attempt only become fully apparent as the story unfolds.) Moreover, the situation is further complicated when the man kills one of his pursuers to evade being captured, thereby involving the British police in the hunt.

The rest of the novel details the rogue male’s attempts to hide out in the midst of Dorset, a cat-and-mouse game between our protagonist and his main tracker, the brilliantly named Major Quive-Smith.

Household’s novel – which is rightly considered a classic of the genre – is presented as a first-person account, and the following passage, taken from the narrator’s initial escape, provides a good indication of the style.

I got out the map and checked my position. I was looking at a tributary which, after a course of thirty miles, ran into one of the main rivers of Europe. From this town, a provincial capital, the search for me would be directed, and to it the police, my would-be rescuers, presumably belonged. Nevertheless I had to go there. It was the centre of communications: road, river and railway. And since I could not walk I had to find some transport to carry me to the frontier. (pp. 16–17)

Other readers have compared this book to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, both of which are very valid comparisons. However, the writer I am most reminded of is Jean-Patrick Manchette – particularly his excellent man-on-the-run noir, Three to Kill (1976), which Max has written about here. Either way, Rogue Male is a terrific book, fully deserving of its status as a classic. It’s also quite philosophical at times – more so perhaps than I’ve been able to convey in these brief notes.

That Old Country Music is published by Canongate, Rogue Male by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance for a copy of the Barry.

August is #WITMonth – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may well know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my recent favourites.

The Island by Ana Maria Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, this one included. Matute’s story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, fourteen-year-old Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother, Aunt Emilia and duplicitous cousin, Borja – not a situation she relishes. This dark, visceral novel charts Matia’s awakening to the adult world, beautifully executed in the author’s lucid prose. Matute excels at heightening the sense of danger on the island through her vivid descriptions of the elements, e.g., the intense heat of the sun and the turbulent depths of the sea.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr Antonia Lloyd Jones)

This 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I loved it.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

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

First published in 1946, Three Summers is something of a classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel featuring three sisters, set over three consecutive summer seasons. At first sight, it might appear as though the book is presenting a simple story, one of three very different young women 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. Ultimately though it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities open to them and the limitations society may wish to dictate. This a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the world; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. (I read this book in the NYRB Classics livery, but Penguin have recently published a beautiful new edition as part of their European Writers series.)

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, this is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the book conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

This novella, which revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, shares many similarities with Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a book I really adored. Like Territory, Child of Fortune explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations – the setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here. This is a haunting, beautifully written book – by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(You can find some of my other faves in last year’s WIT Month recommendations post from July 2020, including books by Françoise Sagan, Irmgard Keun, Yuko Tsushima and Tove Ditlevsen. There’s also my list of recommendations for foreign language films directed by women – a Twitter thread I may well repeat next month, with new suggestions of movies to seek out.)

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 one or two of them next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

Spanish Lit Month – some reading recommendations for July

As some of you may know, July is Spanish Lit Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at the Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here. In recent years, Stu and his sometimes co-host, Richard, have also included Portuguese literature in the mix, and that’s very much the case for 2021 too.

I’ve reviewed quite a few books that fall into the category of Spanish lit over the lifespan of this blog (although not so many of the Portuguese front). If you’re thinking of joining in and are looking for some ideas on what to read, here are a few of my favourites.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow Spanish Lit Month veteran, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This intriguing, elusive novella by the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, uses various different forms to examine a timeless story of love and misunderstandings. We hear accounts from three different individuals embroiled in a love triangle. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail – and we are never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists. Who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others? This is a thoughtful, mercurial novella to capture the soul.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina McSweeney)

A beautiful collection of illuminating essays, several of which focus on locations, spaces and cities, and how these have evolved over time. Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle) as we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts. A gorgeous selection of pieces, shot through with a melancholy, philosophical tone.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another wonderful collection of short pieces – fiction this time – many of which focus on the everyday. Minor occurrences take on a greater level of significance; fleeting moments have the power to resonate and live long in the memory. These pieces are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed, highlighting situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. While Fraile’s focus is on the minutiae of everyday life, the stories themselves are far from ordinary – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play, one of my favourite pieces from this selection.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

My first Marías, and it remains a firm favourite. A man is stabbed to death in a shocking incident in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes an immersive meditation, touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. Those long, looping sentences are beguiling, pulling the reader into a shadowy world, where things are not quite what they seem on at first sight.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing – the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Best approached as a volume to dip into whenever you’re in the mood for something different and beguiling.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he previously spent in this city, trying to live the life of an aspiring writer – just like the one Ernest Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable FeastVila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’; and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during the month, possibly more if the event is extended into August, as in recent years.

Maybe you have plans of your own for Spanish Lit Month – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book, first published in Spanish or Portuguese? Feel free to mention it alongside any other comments below.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.

Central to the first novella is Valentino, the much-fêted son of an impoverished family who have collectively sacrificed everything to invest in this young man’s education. The father, a retired school teacher, is convinced that Valentino is destined for great things, a belief borne out of a combination of pride and delusion. While the father dreams of a time when his son will be a famous doctor, Valentino himself is lazy, vain and self-absorbed, content to neglect his studies in favour of idle pursuits. It’s a situation typified by the following passage relayed by Caterina, the mild-mannered younger daughter of the family.

My father spent his days in the kitchen, dreaming and muttering to himself, fantasizing about the future when Valentino would be a famous doctor and attend medical congresses in the great capitals and discover new drugs and new diseases. Valentino himself seemed devoid of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust… (p. 9)

One day, entirely out of the blue, Valentino announces his engagement to Maddalena, an older woman whose age and appearance cause consternation within the family. Gone are the teenage girlfriends of Valentino’s youth, only to be replaced by this unattractive yet wealthy woman whose looks are marred by her ‘hard, round eyes’ and noticeable facial hair. Catarina wonders how on earth she will explain the situation to her elder sister, Clara, who, despite being married with three children, still relies on her family for financial support.

It was not easy to explain to my sister Clara the turn that events had taken. That a woman had appeared with lashings of money and a moustache who was willing to pay for the privilege of marrying Valentino and that he had agreed; that he had left all the teenagers in berets behind him and was now shopping in town for sitting-room furniture with a woman who wore a sable coat. (p. 12)

Even though relations between Valentino’s mother and Maddalena are strained, the marriage goes ahead, prompting the family to get into debt over the wedding preparations – new clothes must be purchased to avoid losing face in front of Maddalena’s relatives, an expense Valentino’s father can ill afford. Unsurprisingly, Valentino remains largely blind to the impact of his actions on the rest of the family, preferring instead to squander Maddalena’s money on unnecessary luxuries.

When both her parents die in relatively quick succession, Caterina takes up residence with Valentino and Maddalena, promoting the story to take a couple of interesting turns – unexpected developments that would be unfair of me to reveal here. Ultimately though, we are left with a striking picture of Caterina, a young woman who has been taken for granted all her life, sacrificing her own happiness for her selfish, feckless brother; and yet, she manages to retain an underlying sense of loyalty to Valentino in spite of his many failings.

Interestingly, Sagittarius is also narrated by a daughter in a dysfunctional family; however, in this instance, it is the mother whose actions prove toxic and disruptive, rather than those of her children.

The narrator’s mother, whose name we never learn, is a bossy, self-absorbed widow who moves to the city in the hope of opening an art gallery frequented by cultured intellectuals. To help finance the move, the mother bullies her two sisters into a loan and then swiftly makes a nuisance of herself by interfering in the running of their china shop, much to the sisters’ dismay.

Her sisters dejectedly sought refuge in the stock-room, sighing as they listened to the imperious clatter of her high heels. Long familiarity had made words almost superfluous: a sigh told all. The two of them had been living together for more than twenty years in the dark, old shop frequented by a handful of regular customers, elderly ladies whom they regarded almost as friends and whom they would engage from time to time in little whispered conversations between the glove trays and the tea services. They were genteel and timid and dared not tell my mother that her presence disturbed and irritated them and that they were even a little ashamed of her, of her brusque manner and vulgar moth-eaten fur coat. (pp. 54–55)

Joining the mother in her new home in the suburbs are the narrator’s sister Giulia, who remains poorly following an earlier bout of scarlet fever, Giulia’s husband, Chaim Wesser, whom the mother dislikes intensely, a maid, Carmela, and a young relative, Constanza. While Chaim is a qualified doctor, he earns little in the city, lacking the resources to establish his own practice. The fact that Chaim is well-liked and caring counts for nothing in the eyes of his mother-in-law, a woman who has never considered him good enough for her daughter due to his lack of wealth and good looks.

With the possibility of acquiring a gallery seemingly out of reach, the mother considers herself to be the victim of some big injustice, choosing to blame others for the unfairness of the situation. Once again, Ginzburg captures the measure of this woman so effectively in her characteristically perceptive prose.

And when she compared her lively fantasies of the past with her monotonous existence, she felt herself to be the victim of some great injustice. She was unclear as to whom to blame for this injustice, but vaguely attributed it to her own lack of money, to Dr Wesser’s earning so little and to Giulia for having married him; and she became irritated with Carmela who was stupid and dirty and left her filthy aprons draped over the armchairs, and with Constanza who was extravagant with the jam, and with cousin Teresa who didn’t pay enough for her daughter’s keep. (p. 76)

Out of sheer desperation, the narrator’s mother latches onto a somewhat shabby woman named Scilla whom she meets at the hairdresser’s, viewing her as someone who might prove useful in the future. As luck would have it, Scilla appears willing to go into business with the mother, meaning those dreams of an art gallery or shop might finally come to fruition. However, there is something odd about Scilla, a nagging doubt that the narrator finds hard to figure out…

As with Ginzburg’s other novels, Voices in the Evening and Happiness, As Such, these stories rely heavily on family tensions, highlighting the chaos and destruction such relationships can provoke. Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward on the surface, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running through the text. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. There’s a wonderful darkly comic note to many of Ginzburg’s observations too; it’s there in the passage about Maddalena, the second quote in this piece. In summary, then, Valentino and Sagittarius form an excellent introduction to Natalia Ginzburg, a writer whose insights into the minor tragedies in everyday life are remarkably astute. For the interested, there is an excellent article about this writer here, published in The Guardian in 2019.