Tag Archives: Pushkin Press

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Bellos)

With more than 280 books to his credit, Frédéric Dard was one of France’s most popular and productive post-war novelists. He was also a close friend of Georges Simenon, a fact which makes a great deal of sense given the similarities in style – you can read about Dard here in this interesting piece from The Observer. First published in French in 1961, Bird in a Cage is one of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, a dark and unsettling mystery with a psychological edge. It’s an utterly brilliant noir, probably my favourite of the six Pushkin Vertigo titles I’ve read to date.

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As the novel opens, Albert (the narrator) has just returned to his former home in Levallois in the suburbs of Paris following a period of six years. (At first the reason for Albert’s absence is unclear, but all is revealed a little later as his backstory comes to light.) His loneliness and sense of unease are palpable from the outset – a lost soul entering a damp and empty flat on Christmas Eve, the place where his mother died some four years earlier.

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity. (p.7)

In an attempt to reconnect with life and his memories of happier times, Albert heads out into the streets of Levallois which are bustling with activity. Stopping at a shop, he decides to buy a Christmas trinket, ‘a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter-dust’, complete with an exotic bird fashioned out of blue and yellow velvet. For some inexplicable reason, Albert feels better after purchasing the bird; it’s as if it reminds him of his childhood.

I was glad there were people inside the shop. It meant I could linger, inspect its inexpensive treats and rediscover images of my childhood that I felt in special need of that day. (p. 11)

In time, Albert goes into a restaurant, an upmarket establishment he always wanted to visit as a child but was never able to. Inside the restaurant, Albert catches sight of an attractive woman, someone who reminds him very strongly of a girl he used to know, someone from his dark and mysterious past. The woman is with her young daughter, but there is no man on the scene; in some ways, their shared loneliness strikes Albert as being even more tragic than his own. After exchanging glances a few times during their meals, Albert and the woman end up leaving the restaurant at the same time. It could be a coincidence, but maybe it isn’t…

We came together again at the exit. I held the door open. She thanked me and her heart-rending gaze hit me point blank. She had eyes I couldn’t describe but could have looked at for hours without stirring, without speaking, and maybe even without thinking. (p. 17)

Before long, Albert finds himself accompanying the woman and her daughter back to their home, an apartment attached to a book binder’s premises, a dark and creepy place served by a steel cage lift. Once inside the woman’s flat, Albert is drawn into a disorientating situation; a number of baffling events take place, the true significance of which only become clear to Albert as the night unfolds.

Right from the start there is a sense of unreality to this story, almost as though Albert is in a dream – or maybe nightmare would be a better way of describing it. As Albert enters the woman’s flat, it is as if he is stepping into an ‘unexpected labyrinth’. At certain points during the night, our protagonist wonders whether he is hallucinating, calling into question his own senses in the process.

At the centre of this story is a crime, one that is fiendishly clever in its execution. I don’t want to say too much about this, but suffice it to say that poor Albert finds himself caught in the middle of it. As this fateful night unravels, there is at least one occasion when Albert could walk away from the situation, removing himself from any imminent danger in the process. Instead, he chooses to remain close at hand, almost as though he is fascinated by this woman and everything she appears to represent.

Threaded through the novella are Dard’s wonderful descriptions of Albert’s surroundings, little touches that add to the unsettling, melancholy mood of the story. Here’s a typical example.

This Christmas morning was sinister—overcast, with a cold breeze sure to bring snow. The area felt dead and the few passers-by who hurried along close to the walls to keep out of the wind had faces even more grey than the sky. (p. 112)

All in all, this very gripping noir is a fine addition to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this strange and unnerving night. As Albert reflects the next morning:

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do… (pg. 123)

Guy and Max enjoyed this novella too – just click on the links to read their excellent reviews.

Bird in a Cage is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last summer I read Stefan Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity. It was a book group choice, one that gave rise to a really interesting debate about the moral dilemma at the centre of the story: should we tell the truth and risk crushing a vulnerable person’s spirit, or is it better to go with the flow in the hope of keeping their dreams alive? (There’s no easy answer to this question, btw – hence the power of the book.) While I loved the author’s prose style, I couldn’t help but wonder if Pity was a little too drawn out, a touch overwrought and melodramatic at times. It left me with the feeling that Zweig might be better suited to the short form, more specifically novellas and stories. First published in German in 1913, Burning Secret is one of his novellas and a terrific one at that. Let me tell you a little about it.

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As the book opens, the Baron – one of three key players in the story – is approaching the town of Semmering in Austria where he will be spending a week’s holiday. On his arrival at his hotel, the Baron is disappointed to discover that none of the other guests are known to him. He was hoping for some congenial company, an amusing distraction of some description to help pass the time. It is quite clear from the off that the Baron is something of a lady-killer, the type of dashing young man who enjoys the thrill of the chase. In an extended passage, Zweig presents a portrait of a man always on the alert for the next ‘erotic opportunity’, a seasoned huntsman who takes great pleasure in stalking his prey before going in for the kill.

Luckily for the Baron, he doesn’t have to wait too long before the rustle of a silk gown is audible in the background. Into the hotel dining room comes a tall, voluptuous woman, a type the Baron likes very much. While the lady in question is past her prime, there is a touch of the faded beauty about her, a sort of ‘elegant melancholy’ for want of a better phrase. In spite of the fact that the lady is accompanied by her young son, twelve-year-old Edgar, the Baron’s interest is immediately aroused. In the very subtle scene that follows, the interplay between the Baron and Edgar’s mama starts to unfold. It is abundantly clear that the lady has noticed her admirer even though she pretends otherwise.

The huntsman in him scented prey. Challengingly, his eyes now sought to meet hers, which sometimes briefly returned his gaze with sparkling indecision as she looked past him, but never gave a clear, outright answer. He thought he also detected the trace of a smile beginning to play around her mouth now and then, but none of that was certain, and its very uncertainty aroused him. The one thing that did strike him a promising was her constant refusal to look him in the eye, betraying both resistance and self-consciousness, and then there was the curiously painstaking way she talked to her child, which was clearly meant for an onlooker, Her persistent façade of calm, he felt, meant in itself that she was beginning to feel troubled. He too was excited; the game had begun. (pp. 13-14)

Having set his sights on the mama, the Baron sees young Edgar as a potential route of access to his prey. By making friends with the boy, the Baron hopes to facilitate an introduction to the mama, thereby making it easier to move things along a little more quickly. Zweig has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just two or three sentences (he does this with all three of the main players in this story). Here is his description of Edgar, a passage that perfectly captures the awkwardness of a young boy in his own skin.

He was a shy, awkward, nervous boy of about twelve with fidgety movements and dark, darting eyes. Like many children of that age, he gave the impression of being alarmed, as if he had just been abruptly woken from sleep and suddenly put down in strange surroundings. (p. 17)

At twelve years of age, young Edgar is on the threshold of adolescence, longing to be viewed as a grown-up, someone who is independent of his mother. At this age, every little thing means the world to a boy like Edgar; his emotions are big and deeply felt, with a tendency towards either wild enthusiasm and affection or outright hostility and hatred.

He did not seem to adopt a moderate stance to anything, and spoke of everyone or everything either with enthusiasm or a dislike so violent that it distorted his face, making him look almost vicious and ugly. (p. 23)

When the Baron takes a shine to Edgar, the boy is flattered and entranced. Edgar has been brought to the resort to recover from an illness, and with no other children of his age in sight he is clearly very lonely. Before long, he is following the Baron everywhere, desperate to spend time with his new friend. The Baron for his part finds it ridiculously easy to win the boy’s confidence. He knows full well he is using Edgar as a pawn in the game to seduce his target, but he shows precious little concern for any collateral damage that might occur along the way.

Sure enough the desired introduction takes place, and before long all three visitors are spending quite a bit of time together at the resort. All too quickly though, Edgar notices the blossoming of a different type of relationship between his mama and the Baron, a development he finds both puzzling and frustrating. Why has his mama stolen his new friend away from him? Why are the two grown-ups always trying to sneak off by themselves, sending Edgar off on errands on his own? And what is the burning secret they appear to be concealing from him? In some ways, this secret seems to represent the key to adulthood, something mysterious and forbidden and potentially dangerous.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot as it might spoil the story. What’s so impressive about this novella is the insight Zweig gives us into the psychological motives behind the actions of each of the main characters. While the book is written in the third person, the point of view moves around at various points in the story to focus on the Baron, young Edgar and the boy’s mama. The dynamics between the three players are constantly shifting, and they are a delight to observe.

In some ways, Burning Secret is the story of the loss of a young boy’s innocence. In that respect in shares something in common with L. P. Hartley’s excellent novel The Go-Between (in fact at one point in the book, the Baron actually refers to Edgar as his go-between, if only in his thoughts). Young Edgar is desperate to understand the seemingly exciting world of adulthood and everything it represents. Only this world comes with significant dangers and uncertainties, the threat of pain alongside the promise of pleasure. By the end of Burning Secret, Edgar is happy to retreat back into the sanctity of childhood for a while, a place where he feels safe and secure.

In another sense, Zweig’s novella has something to say about the dangers of succumbing to the lure of desire. While not unaccustomed to the occasional flirtation, Edgar’s mama finds herself dangerously close to being pulled into an emotional whirlpool, a vertiginous and violent force seems all set to sweep her away. At one point, she realises that Edgar may have picked up a sense of what is happening, a thought that causes her to pause. For Edgar’s mama, time is running out. This might be her last chance of a dalliance before resigning herself to life without passion. (There are clear hints that all is not entirely rosy between Edgar’s mama and her husband.)

Burning Secret is an excellent novella, full of little shifts in the power base and interplay between the three central characters. In that sense, it has something in common with Beware of Pity, but Secret feels like a subtler, more nuanced piece of work.

To finish, a few words about Zweig’s prose. He has a wonderful turn of phrase, a real ability to capture a moment or an emotion in just one line. Here are a few of my favourites.

In his happy dreams, childhood was left behind, like a garment he had outgrown and thrown away. (Edgar, p. 30)

On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box. (The Baron, p. 11)

Everything in the air and on the earth was in movement, seething with impatience. (The mood and setting, p. 10) 

I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month – here are some links to previous reviews by Guy and Max.

Burning Secret is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.

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The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.

So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)

As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.

So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)

At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC.  What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)

Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.

This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.

While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.

Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.

My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (tr. Sophie Hughes)

First published in Spanish in 2015, Affections is the second novel by the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún (his first to be translated into English). Hasbún is something of a rising star in Latin American literature circles. In 2007 he was named as one of the Bogotá 39, the 39 most important Latin American writers under the age of 39; moreover, in 2010 he was included in Granta’s list of the twenty-two best young writers in Spanish. (Hasbún was born in 1981.) In light of this pedigree, I was keen to read Affections, especially given the timing as July is Spanish literature month.

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The focus of Affections is an unusual one. Hasbún’s novella is work of fiction inspired by real figures and historical events from the 1950s and ‘60s. The story revolves around the work and family life of Hans Ertl, the renowned cinematographer who is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with the German film-maker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. (Triumph des Willens and Olympia, both filmed in the 19030s, were two of Riefenstahl’s best-known works.) Affections, however, concerns itself with a later period in Ertl’s life, the time directly following his move to Bolivia in the mid-1950s.

The novella opens in 1955, just over a year after Ertl, his wife (Aurelia), and their three daughters (Monika, Heidi and Trixi) travelled to Bolivia to settle in the city of La Paz. I say ‘settle’, however nothing about the family’s new life feels very stable; right from the start they consider themselves outsiders, interlopers from a very different part of the world. Here’s Heidi’s perspective on their situation.

La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world. (pg. 13)

Keen to embark on a new mission in Bolivia, Hans Ertl sets off in search of Paitití, an old Inca city hidden deep in the midst of the Amazon rainforests. Accompanying him on the visit are his two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, plus a fellow adventurer, Rudi, and an entomologist by the name of Miss Burgl.

What starts out as the story of the early stages of the group’s expedition soon morphs into something very different indeed. As the chapters slip by, it becomes increasingly clear that Affections is primarily concerned with the falling apart of Ertl’s family as their lives start to unravel on the page.

Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best. Leave, but also come back, like a soldier returns home from the war to gather his strength before going again. – Heidi (pg. 12)

Out of all of us Mama had suffered the most. – Trixi (pg. 32)

In some ways, Affections feels like the literary equivalent of a collage, a series of snapshots and scrapbook entries conveyed by way of a sequence of loosely connected chapters. The role of narrator passes backwards and forwards from Heidi to Trixi to Monika; other sections are reflected through the eyes of some of the other main players in the girls’ lives, most notably Monika’s brother-in-law and brief lover, Reinhard.

While various things happen to the family over the course of some 20 years, Hasbún seems more concerned with feelings and experiences than conventional aspects of plot and character development. In some respects, Affections is a novel about the different phases of our lives, the various endings and new beginnings we all experience as we move from one stage in our transitory existence to the next.

I knew I couldn’t leave without finding Monika first, without convincing her to forget all that, to start a new life with me where nobody knew us. Our parents had done it, and Heidi too, in her own way.

They were the worst years of my life and my only consolation was to convince myself that it was possible to start again far away. They were devastating years and my answer, time and time again, wherever I happened to be, was to make myself think like this. – Trixi (pg. 135)

As a novel, it also has much to say about the various facets of our character, how different people tend to views us, and the challenges of reconciling these different identities into a complete whole. Never is this more relevant than when the focus falls on Monika, a woman who seems to represent so many disparate things to those around her.

Yes, there are people for whom one life is not enough. I often think this, in the darkness of my living room, glass of whiskey in my hand, at the epicentre of my new circumstances. How hard it is to assemble all the different people some people were, to reconcile, for example, the intriguing Monika from the early days with the impossible Monika later on. – Reinhard (pg. 38)

There is a strong sense of dislocation and isolation running through this intriguing collection of snapshots, especially when we hear from Monika herself – the use of a second-person narrative gives her vignettes a very distinctive feel.

You are the fine young thing the businessmen try to seduce, the self-assured sibling who sees one of her sisters every once in a while and has lost all contact with the other, the one she never really got along with. You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally. You are the woman who speaks to the people who turn up at the shelter, who is interested in what they have to say, who is weighed down by their stories, even though they tend to be quiet types, men and women who vanish as silently as they appear. You are the woman who remains a stranger to herself. – Monika (pg 64)

Ultimately, Affections is a mercurial, shapeshifting work, a disorientating novella that raises as many questions as it answers. As a piece of art, it leaves much to the reader’s curiosity and imagination, and that’s no bad thing in my book.

Grant and Stu have also reviewed this one for SLM.

Affections is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi

One of my favourite reads from last year was Subtly Worded, a fascinating collection of short stories and reminiscences by the esteemed Russian writer, Teffi. Having enjoyed this book so much, I was delighted to hear that Pushkin Press would be publishing two more works by Teffi in 2016: Rasputin and Other Ironies, which brings together the best of Teffi’s non-fiction pieces, and a memoir, Memories – from Moscow to the Black Sea. (Both books are now available and are also published in the US by NYRB Classics.)

In this post, I’ll be discussing Rasputin and Other Ironies, but before I tell you more about this most intriguing collection, a few words on Teffi herself. Teffi – her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – was born in 1872 into a prominent and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty, she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

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The pieces in Rasputin and Other Ironies have been grouped into four sections, the first of which, How I Live and Work, gives us a view of Teffi’s life as a writer. We see Teffi living and working in a little pension in Paris, her writing table doubling as a dining table, a dressing table and a home for her various possessions. In My Pseudonym, we hear the story behind her adoption of Teffi as a pen name, while the final piece in this section offers an insight into Teffi’s first visit to an editorial office (you can read it for yourselves in The Paris Review).

The six pieces in the second section, Staging Posts, focus on Teffi’s personal life, ranging from reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence through to her days as a young mother with a toddler to care for. Liza, a story featuring one of Teffi’s childhood friends, fizzes with the tales children tell to amaze their pals. In the appropriately titled Love, Teffi recalls her first love, an experience saturated with the mix of excitement and pain that is so characteristic of this time in any young girl’s life.

And it was during this spring, the ninth of my life, that my first love came, revealed itself and left—in all its fullness, with rapture and pain and disenchantment, with all that is to be expected of any true love. (pg. 40-41)

In The Green Devil and Staging Posts, both of which focus on Teffi’s adolescence, one can sense her longing to be an adult, a grown-up lady attending dinners and dances and other such affairs. While some of the pieces in this section seem at first rather amusing or ironic, they are in fact underscored with a deep sense of melancholy and sadness, often ending on a poignant note. I found these works some of the most affecting in the collection. Running through this book are hints of Teffi’s longing for her homeland, a world virtually erased by the events of history.

Next comes one of the most interesting sections of this collection, Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War. Rasputin, Teffi’s fascinating account of her two encounters with this legendary figure, turned out to be one of the highlights in Subtly Worded, and it’s wonderful to see it reproduced here in this new volume. As I’ve already written about Rasputin, I won’t cover it again here, but please do take a look at my previous post for Teffi’s wonderful observations on this mercurial figure.

In New Life, one of the longest pieces in the collection, Teffi presents her recollections of Lenin taken from the time she spent working on the literary section of a newly established newspaper, also titled ‘New Life’. (The paper was established to take its political direction from the Social Democrats under the stewardship of Lenin himself.) This is Teffi at her most observant as she offers us a terrifying insight into the psychology of this controversial revolutionary. As far as Teffi could see, Lenin ‘considered everyone to be capable of treachery for the sake of personal gain. A man was good only insofar as he was necessary to the cause. And if he wasn’t necessary—to hell with him.’ All in all, his opinion of human nature was pretty low.

As an orator, Lenin did not carry the crowd with him; he did not set a crowd on fire, or whip it up into a frenzy. He was not like Kerensky, who could make a crowd fall in love with him and shed tears of ecstasy; I myself witnessed such tears in the eyes of soldiers and workers as they showered Kerensky’s car with flowers on Marinsky Square Lenin simply battered away with a blunt instrument at the darkest corners of people’s souls, where greed, spite and cruelty lay hidden. He would batter away to get the answer he wanted. (pg. 106)

Teffi is very adept at presenting stories with stories, little vignettes of life in a time of suspicion and uncertainty. I love the image of this reporter hiding under the table during a private meeting, not to mention the questions it raises the following day:

Klyachko was an extraordinary reporter. His exploits were legendary. Once, apparently, he had sat under the table in the office of the Home Secretary during a closed meeting. The next day, an account of the meeting appeared in Klyachko’s paper in the section called “Rumours”. It caused panic among those at the top. How could the reporter have founds all this out? Who had let the information slip? Or had a bribe of several thousand changed hands? But then, that was a monstrous suggestion! For some time, people tried to identify the guilty party—and they, of course, got nowhere. The guilty party was the footman, who had received a hefty tip from Klyachko for hiding him under the green baize. (pg. 97)

Also worthy of a mention here is The Gadarene Swine, a sharp and powerful piece that highlights the differing perspectives of the various factions who are fleeing from the Bolsheviks, in other words, the ‘refugees from Sovietdom’.

They are indeed all running away from the Bolsheviks. But the crazed swine are escaping from Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice, while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence. (pg 157)

In this story, Teffi highlights the plight of everyday folk, the ordinary people who find themselves cast adrift in an unfamiliar world with little in the way of food, shelter or social structure to support them. It’s brave piece of writing, all the more impactful for the artful style Teffi employs to send a message to the powers that be.

The final section of the collection features Teffi’s reminiscences of some of the writers and artists she met during her life. Authors such as Tolstoy whom she visited in her youth and the artist, Ilya Repin, who painted a very tender portrait of Teffi after being touched by one of her stories, a tale called The Top.

In The Merezhkovskys, one of my favourite pieces from the collection, we meet the writers Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius (a Symbolist poet) whom Teffi spent time with during her refugee days in in Biarritz. Both unique individuals in their different ways, they ‘each could have been the central character in a long psychological novel’. So out of touch with reality were the Merezhkovskys that they lived in a world of ideas, unable to understand other people or the fundamentals of life itself. Money in particular was a source of frustration for this couple. They were reluctant to pay for anything, often considering as unjust even the most understandable requests for payment (as illustrated in this next passage).

They were always irritated, astonished, even sincerely outraged by the need to pay bills. Zinaida Nikolaevna told me indignantly about how they just had a visit from the man who hired out bed linen.

“The scoundrel just won’t leave us alone. Yesterday he was told that we were out, so he sat in the garden and waited for us. Thanks to that scoundrel, we couldn’t even go for a walk.” (pg. 182)

This is another marvellous collection from Teffi, all the more fascinating for its diversity and glimpses of a vanished world. Her pieces are by turns ironic, insightful and poignant. This book comes highly recommended both for fans of Teffi and for readers who are new to her work.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates another of Teffi’s many talents, her skill for painting vivid pen-portraits in just a few sentences. Here she describes Izmailov, an editor on the Stock Exchange Gazette, a thin rather sinister man, dressed all in black, ‘he looked as if he had been sketched in black ink’.

Izmailov truly was weird. He lived in the grounds of the Smolensk cemetery, where his father had once been a priest. He practised black magic, loved telling stories about sorcery, and he knew charms and spells. Thin, pale and black, with a thin strip of bright red mouth, he looked like a vampire. (pg 112)

My thanks to Pushkin Press for a review copy of this book. For other perspectives, here are links to posts from Karen, Melissa and Shoshi.

Rasputin and Other Ironies was translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson.

Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb (tr. Len Rix)

Born in Budapest in 1901, Antal Szerb was one of the leading figures in 20th-century Hungarian literature. Although his family was Jewish, he was baptised at a young age and remained a Catholic for life. A prolific essayist, reviewer and writer of fiction, Szerb is perhaps best known for his wonderful novel, Journey by Moonlight, published in 1937. (I read it pre-blog, but there are links here to recent reviews by Emma and Max.) During the 1940s, Szerb faced increasing hostility and persecution due to his Jewish descent, culminating in his incarceration and murder in a concentration camp in 1945. He was 43 years old when he died.

Alongside the essays and novels, Szerb also wrote a number of short stories and novellas. Love in a Bottle brings together a selection of these short pieces which span the breadth of this author’s career, from his student years in the early 1920s to the time shortly before his death in the mid-1940s.

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The book is divided into two parts, the first of which contains three early stories written between 1922 and 1923. These pieces draw heavily on the traditions of myths and fairy tales. In Ajándok’s Betrothal, a young girl (Ajándok) longs for a suitor of her own, especially once her sister becomes engaged to a man from their village. When a mysterious wanderer named Máté arrives during the festivities on St John’s Night, young Ajándok is convinced he is destined to be her future husband. Like the other pieces in this section, this story is shot through with a noticeable sense of loneliness and isolation; its heroine is young, beautiful and ‘as solitary as a river by night.’

Next we have The White Magus, a tragic story set in the time of Byzantine Empire. All across Byzantium, children are dying from a strange, unfathomable illness. The only ray of hope comes from the beautiful Princess Zoë whose kindness, compassion and magical touch provide a brief respite from the suffering. As a consequence, she spends her time visiting the sick children of the land, comforting them and helping out wherever possible.

Zoë was indefatigable, loyally accompanying every grieving mother on these last journeys. But not one of those distraught parents knew the depth of pain that she did. With every child that went to the grave, part of her own life was being buried. It was not just the mothers’ tears that burnt into her heart. It was also the nameless, mysterious grief that had claimed the children, and her earnest desire to understand the fatal secret in their eyes, as they slowly faded into death. (pg. 51)

When Zoë succumbs to the same illness, the elders of the land set off for the Carpathian Mountains to consult the great oracle, the White Magus. Rumour has it that the Magus knows all the deepest secrets of life itself, so it is hoped that he will be able to cure the princess. Without wishing to give too much away, the Magus can see a possible course of action, but it is one that will come at a price.

The third of the early stories, The Tyrant, features the powerful Duke Galeazzo of Milan, a ruler who confines himself to his tower of solitude, never setting foot in the city he presides over with such shrewdness. Despite taking an interest in his protégé — a young boy named Lytto — the Duke has tried to banish all feelings of love from his heart. This is a story which explores the theme of isolation and the struggle to control one’s inner feelings when that state is disrupted.

The second section of the collection contains eight stories, all written between 1932 and 1943. The first two, Cynthia and A Garden Party in St Cloud, are free-flowing pieces which feel quite personal in style, almost as though they might have been inspired by experiences in Szerb’s own life. The stories begin to explore the somewhat idealised view of romance that often characterises a man’s youth. They are by turns playful, witty and ironic. Cynthia tells of a brief love affair, a relationship in which the narrator is drawn to the titular character for her superior social class and her eighteenth-century wit. In St Cloud, the protagonist finds himself attracted to two women, one of whom, Marcelle, is the girlfriend of his friend, Gábor. This is a wonderful story which reminded me a little of Journey by Moonlight.

I drank and marvelled at her chameleon-like nature. To tell the truth, she had always deeply attracted me: I loved both her wonderful two-sidedness and its very transparency, in the same way that I had always been secretly attracted to walking sticks that could turn into umbrellas, slide rules that could be used as laryngoscopes, and the symbols in Ibsen. I was also drawn to her for the reason that men are generally attracted to women: that is to say, I have no idea why. But this particular attraction I had dismissed as just another of the hopeless loves with which I serially embellished my young life. (pg. 120)

Romance features once again in A Dog Called Madelon, in which the protagonist, János Bátky is convinced that he will only find true passion by dating a woman with an aristocratic pedigree – in other words, a Lady Rothesay as opposed to one of the less alluring ‘Jennys’ he tends to meet.

Yet again, Jenny managed to forget some item of her clothing, and when she called back she found Bátky in a terminally bitter mood. He had been reflecting on the way his whole life had been frittered away on a procession of frightful little Jennys, when ever since boyhood he had yearned for a Lady Rothesay. History held the sort of erotic charge for him that others found in actresses’ dressing rooms—a truly great passion required three or four centuries’ historical background at the very least. (pg. 172) 

This is a story with an ironic twist in its tail, one of my favourites in the collection.

In another highlight, Musings in the Library, a young man finds himself falling for a girl he meets in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This story has an interesting ending, one that highlights the paradoxical nature of life, that sense of tension between happiness and disillusionment.

The titular story, Love in a Bottle, harks back to the mythical legends of Szerb’s early stories as the magician, Klingsor, tries to free Sir Lancelot from his love of Queen Guinevere. In this playful piece, the spirit of Love takes the form of a kind of sprite to be found sitting inside the young knight’s body.

The Incurable features a writer who cannot prevent himself from putting pen to paper, even when he is paid to give up his craft. This is a comical story, a short sketch but no less satisfying for its brevity.

The book ends with a slightly different work: a historical piece titled The Duke, an imaginary portrait of the owner of the Palazzo Sant’Agnese near Rome at the time of the late 16th century. It feels very different to the other pieces in the book, possibly closer in style to Szerb’s novel, The Queen’s Necklace.

Love in a Bottle is a really interesting collection, especially for lovers of Szerb’s novels (or for readers with an interest in European literature per se). Those with some knowledge of the author’s other works will be able to spot connections to some of these pieces – for example, János Bátky, the lead character in A Dog Called Madelon, shares a name with the protagonist of Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend (both were published in 1934). The geneses of his themes are here in these stories: the idealised romanticism of youth; a preoccupation with the self; the tensions between opposing emotions; the contradictory nature of life itself. All in all, this is another intriguing collection of stories from Pushkin Press, a welcome addition to their translations of Szerb’s work.

Divertimento 1889 by Guido Morselli (tr. Hugh Shankland)

When Guido Morselli took his own life at the age of sixty, Italy may well have lost one of its finest writers. Up until the time of his death in 1973, not one of Morselli’s novels had been accepted for publication; all seven were subsequently published in Italy, where Morselli now seems to have gained the recognition he so richly deserved at the time. Sadly for us, only one of his books appears to be available in English: Divertimento 1889, an utterly charming story of an escape from royal life during the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century.

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Morselli uses Umberto I, King of Italy from 1878 to 1900, as a model for his fictional protagonist. As the novel opens, we find the King in his office in Monza (the Royal Place in the North of Italy), weighed down by a mountain of paperwork and official duties. His mood is somewhat dispirited as he reflects on the tedium of life as a royal, a role that offers him very little satisfaction or sense of achievement.

This futile slavish job of his, condemned to trail the length and breadth of his ungrateful land – dusty, disjointed Italy – with no power and no responsibilities and yet pursued everywhere by papers and couriers, as though it all depended on him, as though he could alter a thing. Still, nothing but trials and tribulations. One headache after another. And his Household to think of, his family. Two households, two families. And himself caught between the two of them, bored stiff with both, and with his need for freedom, for seclusion. (pg. 5)

It soon becomes clear that the King is living beyond his means. He is married, there is his lover to think of, plus the estates to maintain, all of which means that his outgoings have been exceeding his incomings in recent years. Luckily for the King, a solution may be close to hand. When one of his advisers, the rather dashing Vigliotti, informs him that a lady has expressed interest in purchasing one of his properties – a rustic castle in Monferatto – the King sees an opportunity to solve all his financial problems. With this in mind, he dispatches Vigliotti to Switzerland to sound out the lady in question, a certain Frederika von Goltz. As Frau von Goltz is currently convalescing at home in Wassen, the King wonders whether this development might not present another lucky break. Why not accompany Vigliotti to Switzerland so as to be on hand if required during the negotiation of the sale? Furthermore, as The King is keen to keep any potential deal under wraps, a plan begins to hatch in his mind – why not travel incognito? It would be a chance to experience life as an ordinary human being, even if only for a week or two. All at once his mood lightens considerably.

Adventure? Why yes, in so far as it was a complete novelty. In his line of business the most appropriate description for time off, even a vacation, would be hard labour. On holiday at Racconigi or San Rossore he would be lucky to get three hours a day to call his own. The Royal Palace at Monza was no better than a branch office of headquarters in Rome. Journeys by land or sea, visits to friends, hunting or fishing parties, all came down to strict timetables and fixed itineraries, more or less official engagements. But this was right out of the ordinary. An incognito which was not a joke. Turning himself into Signor X or Y or Z would be like being born again, or living in a different world. And outside Italy as well, where it need not be a delusion, it might even last. (pg. 20)

Once the requisite preparations have been made, the King and a small group of his most trusted advisers set out by train, the ‘official’ reason for their visit being a hunting trip to the Swiss Alps. The King, who is travailing under the alias of Count Moriana, is delighted to arrive at his destination in Goeschenen; the Hotel Adler is simple yet comfortable.

The next afternoon, the King discovers one of the small pleasures in life as he takes a leisurely walk by himself. Unlike all the other foreign visitors who stop to gaze at the landscape surrounding Goeschenen, the King is lost in his own thoughts; nothing else exists outside the private happiness of his world.

Girls up from the valley of the Reuss with baskets of bilberries and cyclamen still had things left to sell, laid out beside them in the backs of carts where they sat, in their black flower-embroidered skirts and white stockings, their legs dangling. He was alone, praise God, in the midst of these people who knew nothing of him. No escort, no bodyguard, no police commissars clumsily got up as civilians for a man who normally could go nowhere without outriders and a whole ‘train’ of swallow tailcoats and kepis festooned with gold braid – guarded, insulted, assaulted, or acclaimed and showered with flowers. He felt no temptation to take the mountain road, happy to promenade up and down between the hotel and the post-station, passing the occasional tourist armed with guidebook and binoculars or country folk making their way home from market or returning with full panniers from their mountain-pastures. (pg 42-43)

Other pleasures await the King while he remains undercover: a spot of shopping in the town; a quiet game of cards now and again; there is even time for a dalliance or two. The King is rather taken with Clara Mansolin, Vigliotti’s beautiful young fiancée who is also staying in the hotel. The attraction is mutual. In this scene, one which illustrates the wonderfully comic tone of this novella, the King is running through his moves in preparation for a secret rendezvous with Clara.

And as he undressed in his room preparatory to taking a bit of a nap he mentally reviewed the ritual objections, and the time-honoured replies. ‘But sir, you propose to rob me of the most precious thing I have.’ Reply: ‘You will be rewarded.’ ‘But sir, you will get me into trouble.’ ‘Never fear, I’ll defend you.’ There was a third possible line of resistance, and here the appropriate peremptory reply was suggested to him by a distant Savoy forebear, Prince Eugene. ‘But sir, I am the wife of one of your officers.’ ‘Madam, I do not detract from my officers’ honour by bedding their wives. I enhance it.’ (pg. 110)

Perhaps inevitably, certain developments threaten to disturb the King’s escapade. An inquisitive journalist happens to recognise Clara, an old flame from his past. Closer inspection of the party reveals the true identity of the Count, leaving the journalist with a potential scoop on his hands – what is the King of Italy doing on an undercover mission in Switzerland? Secret talks of a political nature, perhaps? Furthermore, the King’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, appears to be threatening to pay him a visit, a development that causes no end of confusion among the royal advisors. The King has absolutely no time whatsoever for his zealous young cousin, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the following passage.

To come charging up into these mountains to turn the whole place upside down for one day, for two days, affronting Swiss neutrality with his performing troupe of bodyguards in silver breastplates and gilt helmets, his generals and his ministers, preceded by an advance party of swallow-tailed flunkeys and aides, secretaries and sundry other hangers-on – the notion would have crossed his mind, without a doubt. And he had to thank all the saints in heaven that some graver task, some bolder project, had driven it out of his head. (pgs. 105-106)

Divertimento 1889 is a captivating story, a celebration of the joys of freedom and the need to escape from one’s duties every now and again. Morselli’s sprightly prose, with its lively humour and somewhat farcical tone, mirrors the delights of upping sticks and going off on a lark to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. On the surface, it may seem a touch frothy, an entertaining tale with no real wisdom to impart. Dig a little deeper, however, and there are other insights to uncover. Morselli’s story touches on the development of technology, echoing a theme that remains all too relevant today – can we ever truly escape from all forms of communication – in the King’s case the telegraph – when in need of a little solitude? Perhaps the novella’s most poignant message relates to the passing of time. I loved the following quote, a passage that encourages us to savour every moment of life before it slips away.

For a long time the Chief had not picked up a newspaper or looked at a calendar, and yet with every nerve in his body he felt time passing. In a way he had never felt it before, so remorselessly fast and elusive, and for the simple reason that it would have been wonderful to be able to slow it down, and hold it. (pg. 136)

I’m delighted to have discovered this little gem via Scott’s excellent review over at the seraillon blog. The book is currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online. It would be wonderful to see it back in circulation with a publisher such as Pushkin Press or NYRB – I’d like to think that it’s just their type of thing.

Divertimento 1889 was published by EP Dutton (Obelisk). Source: Personal copy.