Tag Archives: Penguin Classics

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. P O’Prey & L Graves)

Born in Galicia in 1851, Emilia Pardo Bazán was a leading exponent of Spanish Naturalism and a key figure in 19th-century Spanish literature per se. Her 1886 novel, The House of Ulloa is generally considered to be her masterpiece. My old Penguin Classics copy had been sitting on the shelves for a couple of years, but Grant’s enthusiastic reaction to the book on Twitter (following its recent inclusion in the Pocket Penguins range) prompted me to dust it off for Spanish Lit Month (now extended to August). I’m so glad I did. It’s a marvellous novel, 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.

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The chaplain in question is Julián, a gentle, innocent and rather sensitive young man who is sent to the House of Ulloa in the Galician countryside in the hope that he will be able to act as a positive influence on the marquis of the manor, a libertine by the name Don Pedro. From the opening pages of the novel, one can detect a palpable sense of foreboding: Julián’s journey to the House hints at trouble ahead; the manor itself is an old ruin; and as for the marquis and the company he keeps, the chaplain appears to have his work cut out. Here are Julián’s impressions at the end of his first evening, a night featuring a bawdy supper where a young toddler is virtually forced into drinking copious quantities of wine by the various men of the house.

All the events of the day began to swim around in his mind. The nag that had almost thrown him flat on his face; the black crucifix that had sent a shiver down his spine; but above all the hubbub over supper and the drunken child. His first impressions of the people here were that Sabel was provocative, Primitivo insolent, the abbot a heavy drinker, over-fond of his hunting, and the dogs far too spilt. As for the marquis, Julian remembered what Señor de la Lage had said:

‘You’ll find my nephew rather rough around the edges. When you’re brought up in the country and never leave it, you can’t help being dull and churlish.’ (pgs. 16 -17)

As the previous overseer of the marquis’ business papers, the abbot has left everything in an unholy mess. With this in mind, Julián’s first task is to try to introduce some much-needed order into the affairs of the manor, a task that is easier said than done, especially when he comes up against Primitivo, the commanding majordomo of the marquis’ estate. While the marquis may be lord of the manor in terms of his title and position in the family, it is Primitivo who holds all the power over the local traders and tenants.

Every improvement Julián wanted to introduce, Primitivo would shrug his shoulders at and deem impossible. Every superfluous thing Julián tried to do away with, the hunter would declare indispensable for the smooth running of the estate. Innumerable small difficulties would rise up at the approach of the earnest Julián, preventing him from making any useful change. And the most alarming thing was to observe Primitivo’s disguised but nevertheless real omnipotence. Servants, tenants, labourers, even the cattle in the sheds, seemed to be under his thumb and well-disposed towards him. The flattering respect with which they addressed the master, and the half scornful, half indifferent way in which they greeted the chaplain, turned into utter submission when it came to Primitivo. Submission that was not expressed so much in words, but in the instant observance of Primitivo’s every wish, often expressed simply by a fixed cold stare of his small, lashless eyes. (pgs. 34-35)

Primitivo is a marvellous character, a rather sly fox who has been stealthily abusing his position within the marquis’ inner circle to line his own pockets, bleeding his employer dry in the process. On the other hand, the empty-headed marquis is under Primitivo’s thumb, totally dependent on his gamekeeper’s knowledge and influence to manage everything. And besides, there’s Primitivo’s daughter, a shapely servant girl named Sabel, who also happens to be the mother of the marquis’ illegitimate son, Perucho. (Young Perucho is the aforementioned wine-drinking toddler.) The marquis knows that any attempts to replace Primitivo will almost certainly come to a sticky end.

Horrified by the marquis’ fast and loose lifestyle, Julián finds himself in a quandary once he learns of the master’s liaison with Sabel and the details of Perucho’s parentage. As a man of the cloth, he cannot be seen to condone the marquis’ unholy actions by remaining at the manor. Then again, if he leaves, who knows what manner of bedevilment may ensue at the House of Ulloa, a place so desperately in need of an upstanding influence it hurts. As a potential solution to his dilemma, Julián convinces the master to move to the local town for a while, and a visit to the marquis’ uncle is arranged.

While staying with his uncle, the marquis is persuaded of the benefits of taking a virtuous wife, so he marries his young cousin, the kind and tender-hearted Nucha. Naturally Julián is delighted – at long last the marquis seems to be on a path to a brighter future. That said, the chaplain’s next challenge is to find a way of getting Sabel and the marquis’ illegitimate child away from the House of Ulloa, another task that proves much easier said than done.

When the marquis returns to the manor with his new bride, all is sweetness and light for a while, especially once the couple discover they are expecting a baby. A new, softer, more attentive side to the marquis emerges as he tends to the needs of his wife.

It seemed as though the marquis was slowly coming out of his rough shell, and his heart, so indomitable and selfish, was changing, letting the tender feelings proper to a husband and father show through, like little weeds peeping out of the cracks in a wall. If this was not exactly the Christian matrimony envisaged by the excellent chaplain, then it was certainly very close to it. (pg 131)

This doesn’t last for long though, especially once the baby arrives. Julián soon becomes Nucha’s closest ally in the house, acting as her confidante and protector whenever it is acceptable to do so. Moreover, he lives in constant fear of Nucha’s discovery of the true identity of Sabel’s son. The marquis’ wife has taken quite a fancy to the boy, allowing him to play with her own baby as the two children get along so well. Before long, Julián’s faith coupled with the particular nature of his character cause him to face another theological dilemma. I could say a little more about this, but will leave it there to avoid revealing too much about the plot.

The House of Ulloa is a terrific book, a hugely enjoyable story packed with marvellous characters and an abundance of juicy developments to sustain the reader’s interest throughout. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments too. Some of the novel’s most touching scenes feature the rather sheltered Julián as he tries his best to take care of Nucha and the youngsters in the household.

Set as it is against the backdrop of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, the novel also touches on the local politics of the day, a diversion which offers Pardo Bazán plenty of scope to explore the various underhand machinations of the district’s leading movers and shakers. After all, as she notes at one point, ‘politics is a cloak for self-interest, hypocrisy and lack of principle.’ In this next passage, she describes what happens when the marquis is persuaded by Primitivo to stand for election.

Ballot-papers were tampered with, and voting times were altered without notification. Forgery, intimidation and violence are not unusual during an election, but in this one they were combined with certain strokes of ingenuity that were entirely unprecedented. In one of the polling-stations, the cloaks of those voting for the marquis were secretly splashed with turpentine and set on fire with a match, so that the unfortunate men ran out shouting, never to return. (pg 216)

All in all, this book would make an excellent choice for the current Women in Translation Month, especially for readers interested in the classics. Alternatively, anyone looking for a damn good read should check it out. Highly recommended.

You can read Grant’s review here. Tom has also written about this novel here and here.

Plans for #ReadingRhys, a week devoted to the work of Jean Rhys

As some of you may recall, back in May I posted an announcement about the Jean Rhys Reading Week that will be taking place from Monday 12th to Sunday 18th September. In essence, it’s a week centred on reading and discussing the work of this remarkable writer.

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

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

Eric Karl Anderson, who writes so eloquently about books at the Lonesome Reader blog, will be joining me in co-hosting the reading week. Eric is a long-standing fan of Jean Rhys, so it will be fantastic to have his input. Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens) and Margaret Reardon (another long-standing Rhys fan) will also be helping us with a couple of activities during the week. Between the four of us, we’re planning to cover pretty much all of Rhys’ work to give a broad view of her oeuvre. We’d love as many readers as possible to get involved by reading one of more of Rhys’ books (or even a relevant biography).

With a few weeks to go before the start of the week, we just wanted to give you an overview of what will be happening during the week and to let you know how you can get involved. Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

  • If you have a blog, you could write a review or article about the book and post it there.
  • Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a ‘Jean Rhys Reading Week’ group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book, plus one on Rhys’ life – do join if you use GR.
  • Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys.
  • Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week.

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you.

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week.

#ReadingRhys Schedule:

Monday 12th September

  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie* – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Tuesday 13th

  • Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Wednesday 14th

  • Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Thursday 15th

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
  • Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)

Friday 16th

  • An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Saturday 17th

  • Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
  • Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Sunday 18th

  • Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
  • The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

(*I’ve already written a piece about After Leaving Mr Mackenzie here, but I’ll be revisiting the novel with my book group in early September.)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

***** Good Morning, Midnight Giveaway! *****

As a little incentive, we have 5 copies of the brand new Pocket Penguins edition of Good Morning, Midnight to giveaway. For a chance to win one of these prizes, please tell us what you’re planning to read for #ReadingRhys week in the comments below.

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The giveaway will run until midnight on Thursday 25th August (UK time) after which time we will select five winners at random. It’s open to everyone worldwide, so please feel free to enter wherever you live. Do include a note of your contact details in your comments, either an email address or Twitter/GoodReads handle. Good luck!

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the Jean Rhys Reading Week (#ReadingRhys), please leave a comment here or get in touch with one of us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

I seem to have developed a bit of a thing for novels featuring life in the great British boarding houses of the 1930s and ‘40s. First came Patrick Hamilton’s brilliant Slaves of Solitude, one of my favourites from last year, and now the equally marvellous Of Love and Hunger from Hamilton’s contemporary, Julian Maclaren-Ross. It will make my 2015 highlights, for sure.

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First published in 1947, Of Love and Hunger is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man in his late twenties who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to sell vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. Life as a door-to-door salesman is soemwhat miserable; the pay is lousy and with sales being so hard to come by, the prospects of commission are pretty poor. It’s all a desperate racket of course, and Fanshawe has enough nous to see through the flannel being peddled his employers. On a good day, canvassing door-to-door might yield four or five ‘dems’ (in-home demonstrations, carpets cleaned for free), and once you’re inside, there’s the question of convincing the customer to sign. Not as easy as it might appear. Here’s an excerpt from one of Fanshawe’s calls.

This one was called Miss Tuke. 49, The Crescent. Small house, two storeys, villa-type; small dark drawing-room full of knick-knacks, thick old-fashioned hangings full of dust. No maid, no cleaner, woman in once a week. A cert, if I played it right.

Miss Tuke didn’t seem a bad old girl either. Bit jumpy: kept looking up at the ceiling as if expecting it might fall on her at any moment. Couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw what I got out of her carpet.

‘But I don’t understand. I had the carpet cleaned. Two days ago. I had a woman in.’

‘This dirt didn’t accumulate in two days, Miss Tuke.’ I told her. ‘It’s been in your carpet for years. The ordinary methods of cleaning won’t remove it.’

‘Then what can I do?’

‘There’s only one thing,’ I said, pointing to the cleaner. Miss Tuke looked at it and swallowed. I waited to let the idea sink in. It was too soon to start on her yet, but I felt in my pocket to make sure I’d an order-form ready when the time came. It was there all right. (pgs. 6-7)

I won’t reveal how this one turned out, but let’s just say things don’t go quite to plan.

The novel is set in a colourless seaside town near Brighton in the late 1930s, and with the country on the brink of WWII, a sense of uncertainty is simmering away in the background. Fanshawe’s current abode is a tawdry boarding house, a place where he remains under the gaze of the ever-watchful landlady, Mrs Fellows. 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.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.

‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.

‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’

‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ (pg. 14)

Maclaren-Ross is excellent at portraying the dismal and somewhat futile nature of life as a door-to-door salesman. Everyone is on the fiddle: some salesmen are pulling names and addresses from the telephone directory, noting them down as ‘dems’ to meet their targets; others are hiring out cleaners instead of selling them; sales managers are flogging second-hand models to make a bit of extra cash on the sly. You name it, they’re doing it. Every now and again a sales manager swoops in for a pep talk with the troops and then disappears as quickly as possible. It’s all a load of bluster, and Maclaren-Ross captures it perfectly.

Another thing I love about this novel is the character descriptions. Maclaren-Ross can convey the sense of a person in just a few clipped sentences. Here’s a quick sketch of a couple of Fanshawe’s colleagues in the vacuum business, Barrington and Hall:

Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman. Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his shoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see his biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with. (pg. 5)

You get the picture. All this might be starting to sound a little bleak, but it isn’t. The novel 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.

After only a few weeks with the firm, Fanshawe gets the sack. It’s not entirely unexpected, and he ends up signing on with the one of the competitors, a bigger outfit by the name of Sucko. Cue a string of hilarious scenes as Fanshawe pitches up at the Sucko School for training, a place where he learns everything there is to know about Sucko except how to sell the bloody thing!

Friday was the last day of the course. Graduation Day. The afternoon was given up to showing us the Sucko Floor Polisher, which we could sell as a sideline if all else failed. Commission on it was big, but so was the Floor Polisher. In fact it was enormous. I hoped to Christ we hadn’t to cart that about with us as well. The dem-case with the cleaner in it was heavy enough on its own. 28 lb, to be exact. Smith, who was a small chap, could hardly get it up off the floor. (pg. 104)

At first, transferring to Sucko appears to be a good move. There’s talk of a team of lady-interviews to book the dems, thereby enabling the salesmen to focus on the job of selling. But support is a bit thin on the ground in Fanshawe’s area, and his Group Leader, Smiler Barnes, is a slippery character. All in all it’s the same old fiddle, just on a bigger scale.

Running alongside Fanshawe’s quest to eke out a living, there is another strand in the novel. When Fanshawe’s colleague, Roper, gets the sack from the first firm, he goes away to sea for three months leaving his wife, Sukie, on her own. He asks Fanshawe to look after her, to call round or take her out every now and again. Fanshawe agrees albeit reluctantly. At first he isn’t sure about Sukie but soon warms to her as he gets to know her a little better. With her wide knowledge of books, Sukie encourages Fanshawe to put his talent for storytelling to use by writing a few stories on his time in India. (Brief flashbacks threaded through the novel reveal certain aspects of his former life as a journalist out in the East.) Of course, the inevitable happens, and Fanshawe falls in love with Sukie, a romance played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods.

Sukie lay back in her white blouse with her arms behind her head. ‘I love it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you love the sun? She closed her eyes. Her eyelids had little blue veins in them. Under her eyes was a blue shadow and the lids were shaded blue as well. Her arms were bare to the elbow. Strong and white. A little black hair showing under the armpit where I could see up the sleeve of her blouse. She was there within reach of my hand and there was nothing I could do except look at her. (pg. 132-133)

That’s about as much as I want to say about this strand – you’ll have to read the book to discover the outcome for yourself. 

All in all, Of Love and Hunger is a wonderful novel, one of my favourite reads of the year so far. The two lead characters, Fanshawe and Sukie, are beautifully realised and more complex than appears at first sight. As the novel progresses, we see a more sensitive, vulnerable side to Fanshawe as he falls for his friend’s wife. Sukie, on the other hand, is rather fickle, her moods change like the weather. At times, she is supportive and encouraging but she can also be a bit of a tease. There are hints of a fiery temper, too.

Maclaren-Ross’ clipped prose and use of slang gives the story an authentic feel. As you might expect, he captures the mood of the period perfectly. Many of the young men in the novel are scraping a living, just like Fanshawe. As the story draws to a close we are on the brink of change; war is coming, and there is a sense that many see military service as a new start in life. It saddens me to think of these men with so little ahead of them other than the prospect of war.

In wrapping up, I must thank a few people for bringing this terrific novel to my attention. Firstly, Kaggsy, via her review here, and secondly, Max, who recommended it in his comments on my Hamilton piece. Guy is another fan – his review is here.

Of Love and Hunger is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.

A Heart So White by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I often reread a favourite book during the dark days of winter. It’s usually something like The Great Gatsby, but this year I chose A Heart So White by Javier Marías (first published in Spanish in 1992) with a view to writing about it here.

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A Heart So White is narrated by Juan, a translator and interpreter living in Madrid with his new wife, Luisa, also a translator/interpreter. The novel has one of the most intriguing openings I can recall from my recent reading. Here’s how it begins:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. (pg. 3)

Juan is talking about the death of his father’s wife, Teresa, shortly after the couple’s honeymoon some forty years ago. Juan’s father, Ranz, was not present at the moment of Teresa’s death, and at the time, no one appeared to know why she took her own life. Following his wife’s suicide, Ranz married Teresa’s sister, Juana (Juan’s mother).

At this point in the novel, we don’t know exactly when or how Juan learned of the circumstances surrounding Teresa’s death, and this hints at one of the book’s main themes: our desire to keep secrets from those closest to us.

This theme is developed as Juan reflects on his own wedding day. (The timeline moves backwards and forwards over the course of the novel but many of the scenes are set within the first year of Juan and Luisa’s marriage.) Juan has never had a particularly close relationship with his father, and when Ranz calls him to one side after the ceremony to offer a little advice, the conversation turns to secrets:

“…The world is full of surprises and of secrets. We think we know the people close to us, but time brings with it more things that we don’t know than things we do, comparatively speaking we know less all the time, there’s always a greater area of shadow. Even if the illuminated area grows larger too, the shadows still win…” (pg. 84)

At first Juan wonders if his father has discovered something terrible about Luisa only to reveal it after the wedding, but this does not appear to be the case. If anything Ranz appears helpless and a little fearful. Once Ranz recovers his composure, he leaves his son with the following advice but fails to offer any explanation for this enigmatic statement:

“I’ll just say one thing,” he said. “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.” And smiling again, he added: “Good luck.” (pg. 89)

When Juan and Luisa return from their honeymoon, a family ‘friend’ lets slip that Teresa took her own life all those years ago. This revelation raises questions about Ranz’s relationship with Teresa, but when Juan asks his father about his past, he chooses to remain silent. Ultimately, it falls to Luisa to encourage Juan’s father to talk.

By the end of the novel the uncertainties surrounding Teresa’s suicide are resolved, but as with The Infatuations (Marías’s most recent book), A Heart So White offers so much more than a conventional mystery. It seems (at least in part) to be a meditation on some of Marias’s favourite themes: truth, secrets, relationships, communication and death.

During the course of Heart, Marías touches on the nature of marriage, whether it signals the end of an abstract future and a curtailment of choice. Despite his love for Luisa, Juan is troubled by feelings of doubt both during and after the honeymoon. There is a sense that Juan initially sees marriage to Luisa as an ending as opposed to the beginning of a new phase. It is entirely possible that he is experiencing some kind of existential crisis, a deep feeling of unease precipitated by his conversation with Ranz at the wedding ceremony:

I realized that I found it very difficult to think about her and utterly impossible to think about the future, which is one of the greatest conceivable pleasures known to anyone, if not the daily salvation of us all; to allow oneself to think vague thoughts, to let one’s thoughts drift over what will or might happen, to wonder without too much exactitude or intensity what will become of us tomorrow or in five years’ time, to wonder about things we cannot foresee. On my honeymoon it was if the future had disappeared and there was no abstract future at all, which is the only future that matters because the present can neither taint nor assimilate it. (pgs. 11-12)

Another of Marías’s themes concerns itself with how relationships lead to obligations and coercions, how these feelings may influence our actions. These ideas prove central to the mysteries surrounding Teresa’s death (as do the novel’s title and epigraph which come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth):

“Everyone obliges everyone else, not so much to do something they don’t want to do, but rather to do something they’re not sure they want to do, because hardly anyone knows what they don’t want, still less what they do want, there’s no way of knowing that .” (pg. 175)

All this might sound rather deep (and it is), but there is humour in this novel too. In particular, Marías has great fun with the world of translators and interpreters, an arena that Juan and Luisa know very well. During the course of his work Juan must travel to New York, Geneva and other cities where he spends eight weeks at a time in the company of organizations ‘gripped by a veritable translational fever.’  Here’s Juan on his role as an interpreter at a typical international congress or meeting:

Some idiot has only to fire off some idiotic remark to one of these organizations for it to be instantly translated into all six official languages, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Everything gets turned into French and into Arabic, into Chinese and Russian, be it the foolish thoughts of some enthusiast on the sidelines or some other idiot’s bright idea. Even if nothing is ever done about them, they get translated. (pg. 49)

The novel also includes a very funny scene where Juan deliberately mistranslates and twists the words of a high-ranking Spanish politician during a private meeting with his British counterpart. (The British politician is almost certainly Margaret Thatcher.)

At first this topic might seem unconnected to the novel’s other themes, but I think Marías is drawing a link between the process of translation and the communication of information – how secrets are never revealed or translated, and the real truth remains concealed:

…the only truth is that which is known to no one and which remains un-transmitted, that which is not translated into words or images, that which remains concealed and unverified, which is perhaps why we do recount so much or even everything, to make sure that nothing has ever really happened, not once it’s been told. (pg. 186)

Heart is a novel to sink into and savour. Marías’s themes are deep, and there’s a philosophical, meditative quality to his writing. His long, looping sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, sometimes followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. I love the writing in Heart and The Infatuations: the style is reflective and the tone quite seductive at times.

I feel this review is somewhat disjointed, and it might be a reflection of the episodic nature of Heart’s plot. The experience of reading Heart feels a little like observing a sequence of scenes from a play – each one conveying a very vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is not straightforward.

Particular images and ideas recur and reverberate throughout the novel: the image of man observing a woman from a distance; a man watching an apartment window; murmurs and whispers overheard in part; a hand on a shoulder; a head on a pillow…there are more, including the repetition of certain phrases or passages of prose. Each time an image or passage recurs, the context is different, but we know the scenes are connected in some way. For instance, there are parallels between an adulterous couple Juan and Luisa encounter on their honeymoon and other relationships in the narrative. It’s a novel brimming with reflections.

The plot is very cleverly constructed; it feels layered, and I noticed additional connections on this second reading. In the closing chapters, Marías goes for a resolution, and Juan discovers the reason for Teresa’s suicide. It’s a great ending and a very satisfying one.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I absolutely love this book, and Marías is fast becoming one of my favourite writers.

Other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Richard (at Caravana de Recuerdos) and Tony Malone.

A Heart So White (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20 in my #TBR20.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata (review)

A few years ago I read Kawabata’s Snow Country, a delicate and restrained story of a relationship between a Japanese man and a geisha living in the snowy mountains. It’s a beautiful novella, and with Tony’s January in Japan event well underway, the time was right for me to try another by this author.

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First published in 1975, Beauty and Sadness opens with a journey: a trip by train and a journey into the past. Oki, an author in his mid-fifties, is travelling by train from to Kyoto to hear the New Year’s Eve bells. For some time he has been tempted by the prospect of being in Kyoto to hear the ‘living sound’ of the old temple bells, an event he usually listens to on the radio. But Oki has another reason for journeying to Kyoto: he longs to reconnect with his former lover, Otoko, a woman he has not seen for more than twenty years, a woman he still loves.

What were memories? What was the past that he remembered so clearly? When Otoko moved to Kyoto with her mother, Oki was sure they had parted. Yet had they, really? He could not escape the pain of having spoiled her life, possibly of having robbed her of every chance for happiness. But what had she thought of him as she spent all those lonely years? The Otoko of his memories was the most passionate woman he had ever known. And did not the vividness even now of those memories mean that she was not separated from him? (pg. 11)

At the age of fifteen Otoko fell in love with Oki, who was married with a young son at the time of the affair. Otoko fell pregnant, but her baby was born prematurely only to die shortly after the birth. As a result, Otoko experienced a breakdown attempting to take her own life in the process. Once the girl had recovered, her mother moved the family to Kyoto in an effort to put some distance between the two former lovers. These events were very painful for Otoko and to this day she remains haunted by the loss of Oki and their baby.

Oki, on the other hand, turned their story into a novel, A Girl of Sixteen, causing tension and pain to his own family as a result. The novel, which featured an idealised vision of Otoko, remains Oki’s most successful work. Praised by critics and loved by readers, the book could be considered a double-edged sword. While the novel’s proceeds helped fund an education for Oki’s children, the story itself has left its mark on his wife.

Returning to the present, Otoko (now aged thirty-nine) is a successful artist living in Kyoto with her young protégé, fellow artist and lover, Keiko. During Oki’s visit to Kyoto, he meets with Otoko and Keiko. When we are first introduced to Keiko, there are hints of darkness in her personality: Oki considers her to be ‘disturbingly beautiful’, a description which reappears during the story. Alongside this, Otoko’s portrayal of Keiko’s artistic style reinforces an unsettling sense of imbalance:

‘She does abstract paintings in a style all her own. They’re so passionate they often seem a little mad. But I’m quite taken with them; I envy her. You can see her tremble as she paints.’ (pg. 13)

Despite her relationship with Keiko, Otoko still harbours deep feelings for Oki. Aware of Otoko’s history with Oki, Keiko sets out to gain revenge on Oki and his family for the pain and hurt he has caused Otoko. Consequently, Keiko attempts to insert herself between the two former lovers, and when Otoko realises what is happening this only serves to rekindle her old love for Oki:

Their love was like a dreamlike flower that not even Keiko could stain. (pg. 85)

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Keiko’s destructive actions will have ramifications for all. She sets out to seduce Oki; his son, Taichiro, is drawn into her web. Even Otoko may succumb.

The Keiko who seemed to be under her control had turned into some strange creature attacking her. Keiko had said she would take revenge on Oki for her sake, but to Otoko it seemed Keiko was taking revenge on her. (pg. 76)

Beauty and Sadness is another subtle and poignant novella from Kawabata. On the surface, the author appears to use the lightest of brushstrokes in his writing, but the emotions in this story run deep. The intense pain of loss is echoed by the melancholy sound of the temple bells. Rarely has a book’s title captured the tone of its story so perfectly.

The writing is exquisite. One of the things I love about this novella is the way Kawabata draws on Otoko’s and Keiko’s art as means of illustrating their feelings. At one point in the story, Otoko expresses a desire to paint a tea plantation – this harks back to her memories of the period following her separation from Oki, a time when she travelled by rail between Tokyo and Kyoto. As she looked at tea fields from the train window, the sadness of parting from Oki suddenly weighed heavily on her:

She could not say why these rather inconspicuous green slopes had so touched her heart, when along the railway line there were mountains, lakes, the sea –at time even clouds dyed in sentimental colours. But perhaps their melancholy green, and the melancholy evening shadows of the ridges across them, had brought on the pain. (pg. 36)

As I touched on earlier, Keiko’s art also captures a sense of her personality. Here’s a description of Plum Tree, one of two paintings she leaves with Oki’s family as an ominous gift for Otoko’s former lover. It features a single plum blossom with both red and white petals, each of the red petals painted in ‘an odd combination of dark and light shades of red’:

The shape of this large plum blossom was not especially distorted, but it gave no impression of being a static decorative design. A strange apparition seemed to be swaying back and forth. It looked as if it were really swaying. Perhaps that was because of the background, which at first Oki had taken for thick, overlapping sheets of ice and then on closer inspection had seen as a range of snowy mountains. […] The background might be an image of Keiko’s own feeling. Even if you took it as cascading snowy mountains it was not a cold snow-white. The cold of the snow and its warm color made a kind of music. The snow was not a uniform white, many colors seemed to be harmonised in it. It had the same tonality as the variations of red and white in the blossom’s petals. Whether you thought of the picture as cold or warm, the plum blossom throbbed with the youthful emotions of the painter. (pg. 29)

That’s a long quote, but I hope it gives a flavour of Kawabata’s style and the way he uses imagery and colour within the story. By so doing, he leaves some scope for the reader to draw their own interpretation from the picture.

This powerful story touches on the dark side of desire, repressed passions and the complex nature of our relationship with love. As the narrative builds, there is a sense of foreboding; the ending is devastating and poignant leaving the reader to imagine the reverberations to come. Like Snow Country, this is a nuanced novella, one I’d like to reread.

I’ll finish with a final passage I liked; Kawabata captures the landscape and light so beautifully and once again his prose has the feel of a painting. As the colours mingle, the images emerge as if painted in a watercolour:

The glow spread high in the western sky. The richness of the purple made him wonder if there might be a thin bank of clouds. A purple sunset was most unusual. There were subtle graduations of color from dark to light, as if blended by trailing a wide brush across wet rice paper. The softness of the purple implied the coming of spring. At one place the haze was pink. That seems to be where the sun was setting. (pg. 16)

Beauty and Sadness (tr. by Howard S. Hibbert) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20 in my #TBR20.

The Complete Stories by Truman Capote

Back in July, a couple of bloggers I follow (Ali at Heaven Ali and Lizzi at These Little Words) were reading Truman Capote’s A Capote Reader. I didn’t want to commit to reading such a big volume, but their posts did pique my interest in Capote’s short stories, hence my purchase of The Complete Stories.

This collection consists of twenty stories written between 1943 and 1982, presented in chronological order. I’m not going to try to review each story in turn, but to give a sense of the themes and a little of what I thought of the collection as a whole.

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The settings for Capote’s stories seem to fall into two main camps. Firstly, we have the stories set in the Deep South. A few of these tales feature mysterious, almost fable-like characters – in some instances a strange individual who seems to possess some unfathomable insight or supernatural power over others. In Jug of Silver, for example, a drug-store owner looks to revive interest in his flagging business with a competition to guess the total value of all the nickels and dimes stuffed into a large glass jug. The more money customers spend in the shop, the more opportunities they gain to guess the amount. When a curious boy named Appleseed arrives out of the blue exclaiming that he will count the money by sight, no one believes he can do it…

New York provides the setting for the remaining stories, and these city-based tales mostly feature lonely individuals or couples trapped in failing relationships. The situations are not straightforward, and Capote’s characters tend to be vulnerable, isolated or unhappy with the cards that life has dealt them. In Master Misery, one of my favourites from the collection, we meet Sylvia, a young woman who is clearly irritated to be living with her childhood friend Estelle and her husband:

It occurred to her then that she might walk home through the park: an act of defiance almost, for Henry and Estelle, always insistent upon their city wisdom, had said over and again, Sylvia, you have no idea how dangerous it is, walking in the park after dark; look what happened to Myrtle Calisher. This isn’t Easton, honey. That was the other thing they said. And said. God, she was sick of it. Still, and aside from a few other typists at SnugFare, an underwear company for which she worked, who else in New York did she know? Oh, it would be all right if only she did not have to live with them, if she could afford somewhere a small room of her own; but there in that chintz-cramped apartment she sometimes felt she would choke them both. (pgs 155-156, Penguin Classics)

I love that quote: Sylvia’s anger at her situation, Estelle’s patronising tone. It conveys so much about the characters and their position.

The Master Misery of the title is Mr. Revercomb, a man who buys dreams for money, stealing a tiny piece of an individual’s identity with every story. Sylvia starts selling her dreams, but as the story progresses she becomes increasingly unsettled, ultimately realising that she must reclaim what’s rightfully hers.

In Miriam, another disquieting story, a lonely woman in her sixties befriends a young girl, Miriam, on a trip to the cinema. But when Miriam arrives at the woman’s apartment expecting to move in, events take a more sinister turn.

Capote certainly knew how to structure a short story. The openings are strong and for the most part I found myself immediately pulled into the initial scene and the story itself. Here’s the opening of The Bargain in which Mrs. Chase is talking on the phone to her husband. A simple scene but effective nonetheless:

Several things about her husband irritated Mrs. Chase. For instance, his voice: he sounded always as though he were bidding in a poker game. To hear his unresponsive drawl was exasperating, especially now when, talking to him on the telephone, she herself was strident with excitement. “Of course I already have one, I know that. But you don’t understand, dear – it’s a bargain,” she said, stressing the last word, then pausing to let its magic develop. Simply silence happened. (pg.177)

Mrs. Chase is waiting to receive a visit from a woman named Alice Severn, a friend she hasn’t seen in over a year. This woman has fallen on hard times, and the ‘bargain’ in question is a mink coat she needs to sell. I won’t say any more about what happens when the two women meet, but I’ll share the final lines to illustrate how Capote ends his stories. They often finish with a shiver: a note of sadness, a melancholy tone:

Alice Severn did not thank her, and at the door she did not say goodbye. Instead, she took one of Mrs. Chase’s hands in her own and patted it, as though she were gently rewarding an animal, a dog. Closing the door, Mrs. Chase stared at her hand, brought it near her lips. The feel of the other hand was still upon it, and she stood there, waiting while it drained away: presently her hand was again quite cold. (pg 183)

Capote’s stories are very atmospheric. His prose is clean and yet he seems equally adept at capturing the tone of the Deep South and the feel of the city streets. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of the NYC-based stories showing the streets in summer:

He turned into a side street leading toward the East River; it was quite here, hushed like Sunday: a sailor-stroller munching an Eskimo Pie, energetic twins skipping rope, an old velvet lady with gardenia-white hair lifting aside lace curtains and peering listlessly into rain-dark space – a city landscape in July. (pg. 94)

Three or four of the stories towards the end of the collection seem to reflect aspects of Capote’s own childhood in Alabama. Born in New Orleans in 1924, Capote was ‘deserted by a too-young and sexually adventurous mother and a bounder of a father’ only to be raised by a collection of cousins and neighbours. (That quote comes from Reynolds Price’s introduction.) This experience appears to have left its mark on Capote as a sense of loneliness and difference, of not quite fitting in, inhabits these stories. Two of these – A Christmas Memory and Thanksgiving Visitor – are among my favourites from the collection, and both feature the relationship between a young boy, Buddy (possibly Capote) and his best friend and distant cousin, Miss Sook. Buddy’s cousin is ‘sixty-something,’ but as a result of a long illness in her youth, Miss Sook remains a child.

A Christmas Memory tells of preparations for Christmas. Miss Sook and Buddy bake fruitcakes for all those who have shown them kindness during the year; they craft homemade decorations for the tree and presents for each other from materials squirreled away during the year. In Thanksgiving Visitor, Miss Sook attempts to heal the rift between Buddy and a boy who bullies him at school. Both stories are evocative, beautifully told and poignant, A Christmas Memory especially so.

I really enjoyed Capote’s Complete Stories, and they made a welcome change between a run of deeper novels. Most of the stories were very good to excellent, although three or four in the collection drifted a little and didn’t quite manage to hold my attention. Still, that’s pretty good going for a complete set of shorts – I wouldn’t expect to click with each and every one.

The Complete Stories is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20 in my #TBR20.

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

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

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

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

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.