Tag Archives: #ReadWomen2014

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.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past. (pg. 16, Jonathan Cape)

H is for Hawk is one of those rare books that come along every so often that have the potential to resonate with many readers, perhaps even changing their outlook on life in some small way. An ingenious blend of memoir and nature writing, an intelligent, multi-layered and humane work, H is for Hawk is one of my favourite books of the year.

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When Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge historian, writer and illustrator, loses her father to a heart attack, she is devastated. Throughout her life, she has looked up to her dad with the two Macdonalds sharing several qualities and personality traits. Helen, a watcher by nature, is fascinated by birds of prey and an experienced trainer of falcons. Her father, a press photographer by profession, grew up watching birds of a different kind. By spending his childhood spotting and recording details of planes, he honed the observational skills and patience that would serve him well in his future career as a photojournalist.

Broken by grief and a deep sense of emptiness, Helen Macdonald latches on to the one passion she believes may help her fill the void left by the loss of her father: a quest to raise and train a young goshawk. Despite her vast experience with falcons, this endeavour represents quite a challenge for Macdonald as goshawks come with a reputation for being notoriously difficult to tame. Nevertheless, she presses ahead and takes delivery of the bird on a Scottish quayside for £800 in twenty-pound notes in a scene that she readily admits feels ‘like a drugs deal.’

When she arrives back in Cambridge, Macdonald fills the freezer with hawk food, unplugs the phone and begins the process of bonding with the hawk whom she names Mabel. (The name derives from the Latin ‘amabilis,’ meaning ‘lovable’, or ‘dear.’) It’s an intense process, one that requires great patience, delicacy and solitude, and in an effort to gain Mabel’s trust, there is a sense that Macdonald must make herself seem invisible. Only once Mabel is focused on eating can Macdonald remind the bird of her presence. As long as she takes it slowly, very slowly indeed, the decisive moment will come:

Regarding the room with simple curiosity, she turned her head and saw me. And jumped. Jumped exactly like a human in surprise. I felt the scratch of her talons and her shock, too, cold and electric. That was the moment. Until a minute ago I was so terrifying I was all that existed. But then she had forgotten me. Only for a fraction of a second, but it was enough. The forgetting was delightful because it was a sign that the hawk was stating to accept me. But there was a deeper, darker thrill. It was that I had been forgotten (pg. 73)

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald chooses to deal with the process of bereavement by training a goshawk. There is a sense that she is trying to rebuild herself by investing her energy and love in the hawk. A deep relationship develops as she watches Mabel (like a hawk!) and becomes attuned to the smallest of cues and changes in the bird’s posture, feathers and eye movements. All of these actions act as signals thereby enabling Helen to read and anticipate the bird’s mood. As the days pass, Mabel comes to represent everything Macdonald wishes to be, self-assured and released from the weight of grief:

I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

I was turning into a hawk. (pg. 85)

When the time comes to take her hawk outside (and unhooded) for the first time, Macdonald also appears to be seeing the world afresh as if she is viewing everything through Mabel’s eyes. We follow Helen as she introduces Mabel to a new environment and teaches her to take flight, an activity that emphasises the bird’s capacity for living in the present moment, something Macdonald wishes she could mirror.

H is for Hawk is a multi-layered book, and alongside her quest to train Mabel, Macdonald reflects on the life of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King. White also penned The Goshawk, a book that captured his own attempts – ill-judged in this instance – to tame and train a young German goshawk named Gos. It’s a text that Macdonald read as a young girl with a developing interest in birds. This could have been jarring, but she skilfully weaves these observations on White’s troubled existence (and passages of White’s writing) alongside her own story to form a richly textured and connected narrative.

In an attempt to suppress his homosexuality, White had tried to conform to the conventional rules of society at the time, to fit in with everyone else, but to no avail. His years as a schoolmaster at Stowe and a fear of war had pushed him to breaking point, and he saw Gos as the living embodiment of all the dark desires he had tried to repress for years:

He had refused humanity in favour of hawks, but he could not escape himself. Once again White was engaged in a battle to civilise the perversity and unruliness within himself. Only now he had put those things in the hawk, and he was trying to civilise them there. He found himself in a strange, locked battle with a bird that was all the things he longed for, but had always fought against. It was a terrible paradox. A proper tragedy. No wonder living with Gos brought him nearly to madness. (pg. 80)

Throughout the course of H is for Hawk, we also learn a great deal about hawks, the history, heritage and myths surrounding falconry, and a sprinkling of the terminology used to describe goshawks. For instance, we discover how a hawk will ‘bate’ by exhibiting ‘a headlong dive of rage and terror’ as it leaps from the fist or perch in wild bid for freedom; how a goshawk in a state of readiness to hunt is in ‘yarak’; how its prey is termed ‘quarry.’

The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. Ultimately though, it is Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel which forms the beating heart of this book. Once the bird takes flight, the sense of relief Helen feels when Mabel returns to her fist is like a balm, something to help ease the pain of grief.

Those of you who know me well may realise I had to pick the right moment to read H is for Hawk – I’ve wanted to read it for months, but I knew it would be an emotional read for me. Here’s the thing…both my parents died suddenly: my father when I was eleven, my mother fifteen years later. I can’t recall much about the years following my father’s death (there was school to deal with), but I was in a very dark place for a year two after my mother died of a brain haemorrhage. I’m not saying that training a hawk would have helped me to cope with my own grief crisis, but I can relate to Helen’s need to have a focal point in her life. Something to help her through that period when she probably felt numb and gripped by a strange kind of madness (she talks about this in the book). I think this is why H is for Hawk resonated so strongly with me as I could relate parts of it to my own life experience. 

Irrespective of this, H is for Hawk is a wonderful book, and I’m glad I finally found the right time to read it. I’d like to finish on an upbeat note, so here’s a passage on Mabel at the height of her powers in flight:

I let her go. Her tactical sense is magnificent. She drops from the fist, and sets off, no higher than a hand’s width above the ground, using every inch of the undulating relief as cover, gathering speed until the frosty stubble winks and flashes under her, and she curves over the top of the hill. Then she sets her wings and glides, using gravity and momentum to race downhill, flash up over the top of the hedge in a sudden flowering of cream and white, a good hundred yards away, and then continue down the hedge’s far side, invisible to me. I’m running, all this time, my feet caked with mud, feeling earthbound but transported at the same time. (pgs. 234 – 5)

Claire at Word by Word, Naomi at The Writes of Women, Belinda at Bii’s Books and Eric at Lonesome Reader have also reviewed (and loved) this book.

H is for Hawk is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. Source: personal copy.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien

Daniela Krien’s debut novel (tr. by Jamie Bulloch) takes us to the East German countryside in the summer of 1990 shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sixteen-year-old Maria – who narrates the novel – has recently moved to join her boyfriend, Johannes, and his family in their home on the Brendel’s farm. Maria’s parents are divorced, and with her father about to marry a nineteen-year-old, her mother’s sadness has prompted Maria’s move:

‘It drains every scrap of energy from my body, and the joy from my heart.’ (pg, 34, MacLehose Press)

Having dropped out of school, Maria spends her days with books and helping in the Brendel’s farm shop, which she hopes will make her feel less of an outsider amongst the family. At first she seems happy living with Johannes, her first lover, in the attic room at the top of the farmhouse. But then a chance encounter with Henner, the owner of the neighbouring farm changes everything for Maria, a girl on the brink of womanhood.

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Johannes’ grandmother describes forty-year-old Henner as ‘a wild one.’ Ever since his wife left several years ago, Henner has neglected the farm allowing everything, himself included, to run to seed. He is a loner, unpredictable and feral. But despite the warnings, Maria finds herself strangely attracted to this man, and the two begin an intense and unstable affair.

Henner’s attraction to Maria manifests itself in a variety of ways. At times, there is something bestial and ferocious about his desire as he forces himself on Maria almost crushing her beneath his weight. On other occasions, however, he is gentle and attentive towards the girl:

I did cry a little last night, and at one point I asked him to stop. He replied quietly, but with an odd tone to his voice, that I should have thought about that earlier; now it was too late.

The dogs are quiet again, and Henner is washing me with a warm sponge. He strokes the hair from my face and wants to make me pure again, Then he makes tea and goes into the village to fetch some rolls. He stays with me all day, feeding and cleaning me. I am not at all well. My head is hot and my mind scrambled, yet I feel happy. Just so long as he doesn’t leave my bedside; that makes me anxious. (pg. 88-89)

Before Maria can get her head around the situation, she’s in deep and when she returns to Johannes, it is Henner she desires:

Now, like a thief, sleep takes hold of me; it descends from the gloomy sky and sinks heavily onto my abused body, ill-treated by love. I can feel Henner’s hands – course, gentle, brutal, expectant – and I long for them… (pg. 54)

For the time being, the affair must remain a secret and Maria embarks on a series of furtive trips to Henner’s farm, covering her tracks by telling the Brendels she’s visiting her mother. Luckily for Maria, Johannes is so wrapped up in his growing obsession for photography that he fails to notice any signs of the affair. In fact, she wonders about the depth of his feelings for her at all:

We’re sitting by the river with our feet in the water. Johannes only ever sees me through the camera lens these days. Every gesture becomes a picture, every look becomes infinity. He delivers me from time and captures a moment, which is then immediately lost for ever – every picture is a small death. (pg. 41)

Johannes, a budding photographer, wants go to art college in the city. Maria doesn’t love Johannes, and whilst it is difficult for her to imagine the future, she feels as if they are each heading in different directions. Maria finds it easier to live in the present, moving from one day to the next, and there is a sense that time stands still when she enters the gates to Henner’s farm:

This is his road, and mine – this much I know – is currently heading in a different direction. It’s too early to say where, I’m lurching from one emotional state to another, living from one day to the next, always in the present, always in the now, and the now is Henner. Johannes and the future are unknowns. (pg. 84)

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is a thoughtful slow-burner which draws the reader into Maria’s story. Krien’s prose is spare and uncluttered, and the style suits Maria’s lifestage and sparse nature of life on the farms. We gain a sense of the mix of emotions inside the girl’s mind. Maria is inexplicably drawn towards Henner and yet she feels guilty for deceiving Johannes and his family, all the more so as they begin to accept her as one of their own. We also learn more about Henner’s backstory, and there’s a suggestion that his violent behaviour may stem from events in his mother’s past.

Krien also weaves the theme of transition into the narrative drawing parallels between different threads in the story. As Maria tries to come to terms with her emotions and decide on a course of action regarding Henner, the world around her is changing too. German reunification is imminent offering the Brendels new opportunities to modernise and expand the farm. But any change can also bring challenges with a real risk that local businesses may fall by the wayside if they struggle to conform to new regulations. The author does a good job in conveying this state of flux and sense of uncertainty amongst the family.

First and foremost though, this is Maria’s story. I liked the measured pace of this novel and the quiet way the story unfolds. The intimate nature of the narrative works well, although this style and some of the details Maria shares might not be to everyone’s tastes (Henner’s behaviour is abusive at times). Maria does come to a decision about her future, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself should you decide to read this book. This is a good debut with a very powerful, poignant ending, and I’ll be interested to see what Krien does next.

German Lit Month

I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November. Caroline, Lindsay (The Little Reader Library) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s) have also reviewed this book.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. Margot Bettauer Dembo)

Anna Seghers, born in Germany in 1900 to a Jewish family, fled from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Seghers (a Communist) and her family sailed from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 and she began to write Transit, a novel inspired by her experiences as a refugee, shortly after her arrival. The novel was first published in English in 1944 but did not appear in German until 1948.

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As Transit opens, our unnamed narrator, a young German man sitting in a pizzeria in Marseille, invites us to listen to his story, the whole story from start to finish. As we join him for a slice of pizza and a glass of rosé, he begins his tale. Having escaped first from a concentration camp in Germany and then from a work camp near Rouen, our narrator makes his way to Paris. Whilst in the capital, he is asked by an old friend to deliver a letter to a man named Weidel, but when he arrives at the man’s hotel, he encounters a puzzle. Weidel, a writer, has committed suicide leaving a suitcase containing a manuscript and some letters. One letter is from the Mexican Consulate in Marseille claiming that a visa and travel funds await Weidel there; the other is from Weidel’s estranged wife urging him to come to Marseille. Our narrator takes the suitcase and ultimately decides to travel to the city with the intention of handing the contents over to the Consulate. Moreover, he hopes to evade the Nazis by losing himself in the strange and unknown city of Marseille, a place on the edge of Europe:

The last few months I’d been wondering where all this was going to end up – the trickles, the streams of people from the camps, the dispersed soldiers, the army mercenaries, the defilers of all races, the deserters of from all nations. This, then, was where the detritus was flowing, along this channel, this gutter, the Canebière, and via this gutter into the sea, where there would at last be room for all, and peace. (pg. 35, NYRB Classics)

Whilst en route to Marseille, our narrator acquires refugee papers in the name of Siedler. When he tries to hand Weidel’s case to the Mexican Consulate, the officials assume Weidel is Siedler’s pen name and that the two men are one and the same person. In an effort to secure some breathing space, our narrator goes along with this assumption and begins to look for Weidel’s wife.

Our narrator, however, soon realises that Marseille is a place of departure; no one asks where you have come from, only where you are going to. In fact, the Marseille Prefect will only allow visitors to stay in the city if they can prove they are making arrangements to obtain all the necessary documentation for departure. In order to leave, a refugee requires a visa to enter the country of their destination, transit visas for all countries he/she will pass through on the journey, and an exit visa granting permission to leave France. Moreover, one or more of these visas may be dependent on other documentation: a birth certificate, lack of convictions or black marks on the traveller’s character, medical certificates…the list is endless. And each visa is valid only for a discrete period of time; if any one of these documents expires while others are being processed, the traveller must start the application sequence all over again.

One of the most compelling (and frightening) aspects of this novel is just how effectively it conveys the maze of bureaucracy and red tape refugees must navigate in order to secure a passage from Marseille. New requirements and regulations can be introduced at any time dashing the hopes of many refugees. In this passage, our narrator listens to the experience of just one of the many refugees he encounters, a man hoping to travel to Brazil:

“I had everything; I even had the eye doctor’s certificate. And eventually the consulate did open. I even reached the room of the consul, but they said they had just received a telegram, and now they were asking for proof of Aryan ancestry. And so, in accordance with the laws of this country, I have to go back to my department of origin…” (pg. 219)

Transit pulls the reader into a Kafkaesque nightmare, a ghostly world populated with grotesque and detached officials passing judgement of the future of humanity without a care for the plight of individuals. The futility of this never-ending paper chase is vividly realised:

Of course, you’re also familiar with the cavernous Prefecture and the horde of frizzy-haired bureaucratic goblins that work there, digging out dossiers from the walls of shelves with their little paws and red-lacquered claws. And then, depending on whether you’ve hit a well-disposed goblin or a malicious one, you leave the cave either happy or gnashing your teeth. They gave me a magic paper, a new invitation to appear at a later date. They indicated that a general proof of departure wasn’t enough, and that I would only receive a limited-residence permit if I brought along specific proof that I had booked passage on a ship, the date when my ship would leave, and a transit visa, giving me permission to pass through the United States. (pgs. 100-101)

As our protagonist wanders the streets of Marseille, he encounters a variety of characters, each one memorably realised even if we glimpse them for just the briefest of moments. Marseille is a city of lost and frenzied souls forever waiting in line at various Consulates and Offices, streaming in and out of the bars and cafés. There is an almost ghostly quality to their existence; trapped in limbo they long for a chance to touch the elusive horizon which remains tantalisingly out of reach. And our narrator himself is torn; should he stay and try to establish a life in the South of France, or join the others in a desperate quest for a place on a ship? His thoughts and mood change as quickly as the Marseille weather.

Finally, our protagonist spots a woman desperately searching the cafés for someone, and he is drawn towards her:

She searched through the entire café, going from table to table. She came back to my section, pale with despair. But then she immediately began the search all over again. She was alone and helpless in this herd of escaped demons. She came close to my table. Her gaze now rested on me. I thought: She’s looking for me, who else? But already her eyes had moved elsewhere. She made her way out. (pg. 83-84)

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, save to say that our narrator believes his future is inextricably linked to that of this woman, and he continues to pursue her.

At the heart of this novel lie questions of identity and destiny. Before our narrator arrives in Marseille he feels lost; he has lost something so fundamental that he doesn’t know who he is any more. And this feeling is only heightened by the shifting sense of identity he experiences on being sucked into the Marseille transit process. If only he really were Weidel, perhaps then he would feel anchored by a sense of reality:

The web of questions was so dense, so cleverly thought out, so unavoidable, that no detail of my life could have escaped the consul, if only it had been my life. I’m sure they’d never had a questionnaire so blank and empty on which they tried to capture a life that had already escaped this world and where there was no danger of getting tripped up by contradictions. All the details were in order. What did it matter that the entire thing wasn’t true? All the subtleties were there, giving a clear picture of the man who was to be given permission to leave. Only the man himself wasn’t there. (pgs. 181-182)

I found Transit to be an utterly absorbing and haunting novel, one that burrowed its way into my mind where it feels set to remain for some time. Siedler/Weidel’s story is a little like a spiral. Once in Marseille, he gets caught up in the circuit of bureaucracy that governs his status in the city. He continues to encounter the same characters again and again. He revolves around from one café to another, and several glasses of rosé and slices of pizza are consumed during a sequence of visits to the pizzeria. The narrative might sound a little repetitive – and to some extent it is – but I wonder if Seghers is deliberately using this circular structure to emphasise the seemingly never-ending chase and exasperating nature of life as a refugee.

On a deeper level, this novel also contains references to mythology and to biblical themes. And with a nod to Weidel’s unfinished fable-like manuscript, the one he left in the suitcase, Transit’s story could be seen as possessing an existential and allegorical quality. Life is an impenetrable forest, ‘a forest for adults.’  Whichever way you look at it, Transit is a truly remarkable book, one that draws you into its unforgettable world.

German Lit Month

I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. I bought Transit last year on the recommendation of a bookseller, and I’ve just discovered that a few other bloggers have reviewed it too. Here are some links to other reviews from Guy, Kaggsy and Tony Malone.

Transit is published in the UK by NYRB Classics, tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo. Source: personal copy.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (book review)

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is such a brilliant classic, I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to add to the multitude of reviews already covering this book, but in the end I decided to capture a few thoughts in this post.

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The novel takes us back to New York in the late 19th century where we meet Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lily spends much of her time with a wealthy society set, namely Judy and Gus Trenor, Bertha and George Dorset and other assorted players in the same social sphere. However, Lily is a woman of very limited financial means; she enjoys the finer things in life, but is conscious of the need to rely on the generosity of her friends in return for gracing their social gatherings with her beauty and charm. Above all else though, she fears the threat of poverty:

No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. (pg. 23, Wordsworth Classics)

Between visits to the Trenors at their Bellomont estate, Lily (an orphan) finds herself dependent on her aunt, the somewhat mean-spirited and passive Mrs Peniston. In order to secure her future, Lily knows she must net a wealthy husband, but Lawrence Selden, the man to whom she is attracted, has insufficient funds to support her desired lifestyle. Nevertheless, Lily is smart enough to see a potential end to her financial worries; she believes she can marry the prosperous Percy Gryce whenever she chooses and although she doesn’t love or desire him, she knows this move would relieve her of a heavy burden:

She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free for ever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. (pg. 43)

At a fairly early stage in the novel, Lily seems all set to allow Mr Gryce to offer his hand in marriage. However, the reappearance of Lawrence Selden throws Lily off course at a key moment, prompting her to see her situation (and possible future life with Gryce) in a new light, one in which she envisages a desperately dull and boring existence despite the financial security it offers:

How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience:

[…]

How different they had seemed to her a few hours ago! Then they had symbolised what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement. […] She closed her eyes an instant, and the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning; (pg. 49)

A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer-book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. […] There was nothing especially arduous in this round of religious obligations; but it stood for a fraction of that great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path. (pg. 51) 

For a variety of reasons Gryce’s proposal of marriage never materialises, and this seems indicative of a certain aspect of Lily’s character; over the years she had squandered a number of opportunities for marriage in the belief that she could do better for herself. As Mrs Fisher, another member of the society set, comments:

‘…An Italian prince, rich and the real thing, wanted to marry her; but just at the critical moment a good-looking stepson turned up, and Lily was silly enough to flirt with him while her marriage-settlements with the stepfather were being drawn up. […] That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.’ (pg. 164)

In The House of Mirth, Wharton gives use a fascinating insight into the workings of this sector of American society at the time, a society in which appearances and others’ perceptions of one’s character are crucial. In fact in many ways, perceptions are more important than the truth in this rather cruel and unforgiving world. At an early stage in the novel, we learn that Lily must be seen to maintain an honourable and unblemished reputation for her to be fully accepted by society. She commits the indiscretion of joining Selden for tea in his rooms and when she bumps into Mr Rosedale (another player in the society set) on leaving Selden’s building, she invents a story to cover her tracks, one that Rosedale suspects is a white lie:

Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather more than she could afford. She was vexed to see that, in spite of so many years of vigilance, she had blundered twice within five minutes. (pgs. 13-14)

And it is other society members’ perceptions of Lily that ultimately play a key role in the narrative. Lily is drawn into playing bridge at the Trenors’ Bellomont estate, and as her gambling debts and expenses mount, she asks Gus Trenor to invest her meagre finances in the stock market. At first Lily believes her ‘investment’ to be a wise move as Trenor passes on the profits, but this transaction is far from transparent and Trenor clearly expects more than a little something from Lily in return for his efforts. As the ramifications of this episode unravel, Lily – through no real fault of her own – is once again at the mercy of the perceptions of others; a victim of scandalous rumours, ostracised and virtually abandoned by the society that once embraced her, she finds it increasingly difficult to establish a foothold in life. Lily realises that ‘a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.’

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, but it’s a brilliant story and Wharton executes it perfectly – her prose is magnificent. There are so many additional nuances to the narrative that I haven’t even touched upon here, and I can see myself rereading the novel to revisit Lily at some point.

Wharton has created a wonderful character in Lily Bart, one of my favourites this year (along with Cassandra from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding). Lily is a beautiful and fascinating creature, yet she is also frivolous and a little naïve despite her intelligence and wit. There are times when she doesn’t always make the best choice in life, but she seems to emerge with her own scruples intact. Ultimately though, she falls prey to the politics and conventions of society at the time and Wharton dissects this rather harsh culture with great skill, precision and candour. Bertha Dorset, another fully-realised character, is also worthy of a brief mention at this point as it she who plays a key role in Lily’s fall from grace.

Finally, I loved the dynamics of the bond between Lily and Lawrence Selden: their obvious attraction to one another; their knowledge that they cannot marry as Lily must find a wealthy husband; the role of chance and missed opportunities in their relationship. Interestingly, Selden is the one character in the book who is permitted to circulate in society, but also observe it from a distance. Here’s Lily as she studies Selden (at a time when she is still considering marrying Gryce):

It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside of the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden’s distinction that he had never forgotten the way out. (pg. 48)

So there we are; a few thoughts on The House of Mirth, another one for my end-of-year highlights. Cathy at 746 Books and My Book Strings have also recently reviewed this book.

My copy of The House of Mirth is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Back in July, I read a few books to tie in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month. All well and good except I ended up with several other books on my shopping list on the back of other bloggers’ reviews. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate was near the top of that list thanks to Grant’s review, and when I spotted it in the new Foyles, I couldn’t resist.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, first published in 1946, is the only known work of fiction by Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo and her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and what a little gem it is.

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The novella is narrated by Dr. Humberto Huberman, a physician who also happens to be a writer. As the story opens, Huberman is travelling to the Hotel Central in the Argentine resort of Bosque del Mar with the intention of working on his latest screenplay, an adaptation of Petronius. The hotel – owned by the doctor’s cousin, Andrea and her husband, Esteban – is marooned on a bed of sand ‘like a ship on the sea’, and at first sight the good doctor believes he has discovered the ‘literati’s paradise,’ the perfect setting in which to finish his play.

A number of other guests are staying at the hotel, most notably two sisters, Mary and Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel and Dr. Cornejo, another gentleman known to the group. It’s not long though before our narrator senses tensions within this party. Firstly, he overhears a disagreement between Mary and Emilia’s fiancé at the beach. Mary is determined to go swimming, but Atuel seems overly concerned for her safety in light of the currents. Cornejo, on the other hand, sees no little danger in the situation and encourages the girl to take to the waters. A little later, as Huberman returns to his room, he hears the two sisters insulting one another furiously, and as night descends, the atmosphere at the hotel takes a rather sinister turn:

Suddenly, the howling of the dogs was drowned out by an immense moan; it was as if a gigantic, supernatural dog, out on the deserted beaches, were grieving all the world’s sorrow. The wind had come up.

“A windstorm. We must close the doors and windows,” declared my cousin.

A drumming sound, like rain, beat against walls.

“Here it rains sand,” noted my cousin. Then she added: “Just as long as we don’t end up buried…”

Nimbly, the rotund typist closed the windows. She looked at us, smiling, and said: “Something is going to happen tonight! Something is going to happen tonight!” (pg. 32, Melville House)

And she’s right. When Emilia discovers Mary’s body the following morning, Huberman swiftly inserts himself into the proceedings by declaring that the young woman has been poisoned. By now we’ve gathered that our narrator is a somewhat supercilious and pedantic busybody, one who feels compelled to involve himself in the investigation, at least until the police arrive.

Bioy Casares and Ocampo have much fun with this set-up, and Huberman’s character in particular. The narrator’s observations on Atuel, whom he considers a prime suspect, are deliciously sharp and barbed:

“Don’t touch anything!” I shouted. “You are going to muddle the fingerprints.”

I gave Cornejo and Atuel a severe look. The latter seemed to be smiling with veiled slyness. (pg. 41)

“The manner makes the man,” I thought. Atuel’s manner, like that of an overly debonair tango crooner, was beginning to exasperate me. (pg. 42)

And while Humberto waits for the arrival of the police, he seems equally concerned with the impact of events on the hotel’s schedule for meals and afternoon tea:

My plan was precise: take tea; visit Emilia before the police arrived; receive the police. Yet I feared that my cousin’s inexplicable delay in preparing, recipe in hand, some scones that aspired to equal Aunt Carlota’s justifiable famous ones, might perhaps signal the downfall of this most reasonable plan. (pg. 50)

Naturally, once Commissioner Aubrey and Doctor Montes (the police physician) arrive, our narrator could step aside and leave the investigation to the authorities. Huberman, however, continues to believe that the case will benefit from his observational skills and powers of reasoning, especially since Montes appears to have arrived in a state of inebriation:

The doctor was drunk; he had arrived drunk.

Cecilio Montes was a man of medium height and fragile build. He had dark wavy hair, large eyes, extremely pale skin, a finely boned face and a straight nose. He was dressed in a greenish cheviot hunting- suit, quite well cut, that, once upon a time, had been of high quality. His silk shirt was dirty. The hallmarks of his general aspect were slovenliness, neglect, ruin – a ruin that yet allowed glimpses of a former glory. I asked myself how this character, an escapee from a Russian novel, had appeared in our midst; (pg. 53)

What follows is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect, even Huberman initially. There are twists and turns aplenty, and a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. It’s all tremendous fun.

On the surface, the novella reads like a traditional murder mystery; look a little closer, however, and we can see how the writers are gently poking fun at the genre. Once the heat is off and he can align himself with the police team, our narrator draws upon his knowledge of crime fiction to aid and abet the investigation. For instance, when the Commissioner relays his initial hypothesis on the murder, Huberman goes a little too far in trying to challenge a logical argument with an emotional response:

“Your explanation is psychologically impossible. You remind me of one of those novelists who focus entirely on action but neglects the characters. Do not forget that, without the human element, no work of literature would endure…” (pg. 67)

I thoroughly enjoyed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. It’s atmospheric, too; at one point, our narrator gets lost in a sandstorm, swept up in a labyrinth of sand, mud and marine life. The hotel seems to be sinking into the sand, almost as if it is being subsumed by its surroundings. As Andrea warns Huberman soon after his arrival at the hotel: ‘If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.’

In many ways this book reminds me of Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, which I reviewed a few months ago, another delightful novella involving a mysterious death. I can recommend both.

I read this book to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine and Uruguayan lit.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell) is published in the UK by Melville House Publishing. Source: Personal copy.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra at the Wedding (first published in 1962) will make my end-of-year highlights, no doubt about it. As this novel opens, Cassandra Edwards, a graduate student at Berkeley, is preparing to drive home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith. From the opening pages, she seems in two minds as to whether to take the trip, and as she looks at the Golden Gate Bridge, we begin to sense that something is desperately wrong:

Besides, my guide assures me that I am not, at heart, a jumper; it’s not my sort of thing. I’m given to conjecture only, and to restlessness, and I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited… (pg 4, NYRB Classics)

Cassandra narrates the first section of the novel, and as she travels home we learn more of her relationship with Judith. The two twins used to share an apartment in Berkeley and seemed inseparable, content to live their lives for each other with little need for outsiders. But then Judith departed for New York leaving Cassandra cut adrift and in a state of procrastination over her thesis on French novels. In this respect, Cassandra is also living in the shadow of her deceased mother, Jane, a famous writer and influential figure in the twin’s lives.

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Identity is a key theme in this novel. As the twins were growing up, their parents, Jane in particular, refused to have the girls dress alike. And as Cassandra tells her grandmother (at a later stage in the novel) “they were concerned to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” (pg. 65)

But despite her parents’ best efforts there are hints that Cassandra is losing a sense of her own identity. During her journey home, Cassandra stops as a bar and catches her face in the mirror, and at first she sees the face of Judith looking at her very thoughtfully:

By a firm act of will I forced the face between the shelves to stop becoming Judith’s and become mine. My very own face – the face of a nice girl preparing to be a teacher, writing a thesis, being kind to her grandmother, going home a day early instead of a day late or the day I said, and bringing something decent to wear. But it can give me a turn, that face, any time I happen to catch it in a mirror; most particularly at times like this when I’m alone and have to admit it’s really mine because there’s no one else to accuse. (pg. 8)

Moreover, Baker develops this theme of identity as the novel progresses. On Cassandra’s arrival home, we meet her amiable, brandy-soaked father, her slightly befuddled but well-meaning grandmother (Rowena) and Judith, of course. In this scene, Cassandra asks her father what he thinks of her sister’s fiancé, Jack Finch – Judith is not present here:

“Rowena,” my father said to my grandmother from behind me, “Cassie is very much concerned to find out what Jack Finch is like.”

“He’s all wrapped up in Judy,” gran said in a fluty voice, “and that’s the most important thing.”

[…]

“Is Jude wrapped up too?” I said. I said it possibly a little too loudly or pointedly just to let her know how a phrase like wrapped-up sounds to the sensitive ear; but though I meant it only for her, it was my father who answered.

“I don’t think we need to be too much concerned,” he said. “They seem to understand each other.”

This was the second time he’s used the word concerned, and I considered asking him why he kept using it on me. Was the implication that what Judith did was no concern of mine, because if that was what he meant I should make it very clear that I could not possibly be less concerned. If a person of her stature and of her gifts chooses to sell herself short and go all the way of suburbia, who am I to speak up for what I think of as virtue? Who am I? Or possibly, who am I? Make it who was I, because once I was somebody. (pgs. 39-40)

Cassandra is a very complex character. She is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel. Her thoughts and actions are full of contradictions, and at times she deludes herself. At heart, Cassandra is emotionally dependent on Judith, and deep down her sister’s departure to New York (some nine months ago) and imminent marriage feel like acts of betrayal. The presence of a grand piano in Cassandra’s apartment – an instrument jointly purchased by the twins – remains a constant painful reminder of Judith’s desertion. The twins were meant to live their lives together, travel to Paris and beyond. How could Judith ever imagine life being any other way?

As the story unfolds, it appears as if Cassandra is all set to derail her sister’s wedding. In this scene, Cassandra is alone with Judith following a kerfuffle over their wedding outfits:

I twitched and got her arm off my shoulder quite fast and quite suddenly. After all, I didn’t have to sit here with some bride and listen to her saying wedding dress over and over.

“Will you just do this,” she said, and she was pleading now – “wear the dress you bought? Let me get something else, but you wear that one, will you please – for me?”

I turned and looked at her. The pounding was very strong now and my eyes felt as if they’d caught fire. I had my glass in my hand, about a fourth full.

“For you?” I said. “Who’s that?” and I drained the glass at a shot and threw it as hard as I could down onto the terrace between us and the pool. It shattered with a real smash and I felt one of the pieces hit me in the leg. (pg. 77)

And here we see how Judith – who by contrast to Cassandra is calm, reasonable, sensible yet vulnerable in her way – finds her sister rather overwhelming and draining on occasions:

“I’m going alone,” she said. “I thought I told you.”

“You told me so many things,” I said.

She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re –”

“I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.”

“You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you – kind of a circus. Only –”

She stopped, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to prod her. Maybe the best would be to keep her stopped, but before I thought how to do it it was too late.

“The trouble is that just when it’s all fun, all high and wild, you do a switch and have to be rescued all of a sudden…” (pg. 121)

That’s about as much as I’m prepared to say about the plot, save to say there’s plenty to come. In the second section of the book, Judith takes up the role of narrator and we hear a very different voice, one that is mature and measured.

Cassandra and the Wedding is a brilliant novel; so layered and nuanced I’m already on my second read. It’s a novel about the process of maturing as a young adult. Cassandra has to balance the pull of her relationship with Judith against the need to break free to establish her own identity, and the reverse applies, too. There are allusions to Greek mythology; the girls’ father is a retired philosopher, and their names are not insignificant. And the novel’s ending has an air of ambiguity about it, one that makes it all the more intriguing.

Cassandra, with her distinctive voice, is one of my favourite characters from literature, and while the novel exposes her, replete with flaws, Baker adds some wonderful comic touches. I’ll finish with one of Cassie’s one-liners – of which there are many – following her grandmother’s declaration that it’s ‘God’s plan’ for Judy and Jack to be together:

“What do you suppose God’s planning for me?” I said. “Besides poverty, chastity, obedience, brain damage and death?” (pg. 96)

Cassandra at the Wedding is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.