Tag Archives: #TBR20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

One of the things I enjoy about following other bloggers and reading their reviews is the discovery of ‘new’ things, interesting books that I might not have heard of otherwise. A case in point is The Incident Report (2009), an excellent novella by the Canadian author, Martha Baillie, which I bought after reading Max’s review. I very much doubt that I would have stumbled across this book had it not been for Max’s blog, and that would have been a shame as it’s a little gem.

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In some respects, Baillie’s book could be described as a fragmentary novella. The central figure here is Miriam Gordon, a thirty-five-year-old single woman who works as a Public Service Assistant at the one of the branches of Toronto’s Public Library. The book is written as a series of library incident reports. Whenever an incident occurs at library, the librarian in charge is required to complete the necessary forms detailing a description of the episode, the perpetrator, any witnesses, actions taken, etc. (There’s a template at the beginning of the book.)

The reports themselves cover quite a variety of different incidents ranging from minor offences (squabbles over the use of a computer) to health-related issues (a man who experiences recurring fainting episodes) to the downright bizarre (a guy who spends hours stripping the plastic covering from electrical wire with the aid of a pocket knife – it’s his own length of wire, not the library’s). Some reports are fairly innocuous, others more threatening and abusive. Here are a few to give you a flavour – all three are quoted in full.

Incident Report 61

A young patron, suspected of previous thefts, was caught at 10:30 this morning in the act of stealing a brand new Mad magazine. He was warned that his behaviour was ill-advised. The magazine, though slightly torn, was reinstated in the collection. (pg. 100)

Incident Report 9

At 11:20 this morning, a patron entered the library to report that a man outside, who was embracing a tree, appeared to be experiencing some distress.

By the time the ambulance arrived the man had lost hold of the tree and lay unconscious. He was lifted from the ground into the ambulance, which drove away without event. (pg 31)

Incident Report 67

At precisely 2:00 this afternoon, I received a telephone call from a patron who complained that the library ought not to hire librarians who “look like terrorists.” I thanked the caller for his advice and assured him that his concerns would be taken into consideration. He suggested that if all our librarians were dressed in cheerful uniforms, the public would feel less threatened by the severe demeanour and foreign physique of certain librarians. As soon as I’d hung up I reported his suggestion to our Branch Head, Irene Frenkel, thereby carrying out my end of the bargain. I remained uncertain as to what constituted his end of the bargain. (pg. 108)

As the book progresses, more details about Miriam herself start to emerge. Some incident reports have little to do with the library; instead they reveal something about Miriam’s life, her current situation and certain significant episodes from her past. In particular, Miriam reflects on her relationship with her father, a gentle, outwardly cheerful man who suffered terribly from an inner sense of despair.

It was all a performance, one he badly wanted to believe in, while inside his head he was whistling a private tune of grave self-deprecation and despair. A master of distractions, light on his feet for such a heavy man, and quick with his hands, he would have made a fine magician or boxer. Instead he wrote poems in rhyming verse that nobody would publish, and earned his living by selling insurance of various kinds.

I wanted to save him from humiliation. (pg. 34)

When Miriam was eleven, her father disappeared for three days. Even though she knew her husband was probably wandering around somewhere (almost certainly visiting bookstores), Miriam’s mother had a hard time accepting this, especially on his return. In time, her initial resentment turned to fear, a worry that almost certainly transferred to Miriam herself. There are more details of Miriam’s backstory in the book – in particular, the quiet tragedy of her father’s life – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves should you decide to read the book. These experiences have left their mark on Miriam, and she is reminded of her father during another incident at the library – it’s one of the most poignant episodes in the novel (quoted here in part).

Incident Report 44

At precisely 11 AM this morning, when the library was not yet full of urgency, John B, a regular, sat down and looked at me through his watery blue eyes. His long stiff legs stuck out in front of him. His bony hands rested on the Reference Desk. He asked that I locate the Web site of a small publishing house, Raccoon Jaw Press, and write down their address for him. I did so. He explained that the press was on the brink of publishing a collection of his poems.

“Very soon my book will be out. I’ll bring you a copy.”

I thanked him and handed him the address, the same address I’d copied out for him the week before and the week before that. Once a week he requested this address. (pg. 76)

The fallout from past events has left Miriam reluctant to form any lasting relationships with men. She is wary of getting too involved, fearful of exposing herself to the possibility of more suffering in the future. Even so, Miriam finds herself attracted to a man she meets in the nearby park where she likes to go for lunch. His name is Janko, a taxi driver from Slovenia. He is kind, gentle and sensitive, an avid reader and a talented artist. Maybe, just maybe, Miriam has found a soulmate.

Incident Report 55

Again I arrived at Janko’s apartment. His skin, and under his skin. What his left toe knew. The smell of him. The orbital smell of him. That our knees spoke willingly. Inexplicably, the taste of raspberries filled my mouth. (pg. 90)

In another book, I might have found that last passage a little annoying, but not here; it works perfectly within the context of Baillie’s story as snapshots of Miriam’s new life with Janko are threaded through the second half of the novella.

Certain other threads also recur: stories of some of the library regulars, typically those who come with their own habits and idiosyncrasies; incidents involving one of Miriam’s co-workers, an annoying woman named Nila who seems to delight in sounding off about the most trivial things at every opportunity; and perhaps most worryingly, details of a series of very creepy notes left in various places around the library, notes that appear to be targeted at Miriam herself.

In spite of its fragmentary nature, Baillie’s novella hangs together quite beautifully. For such a short work it’s surprisingly layered and satisfying. Everything comes together to build a picture of Miriam’s life, and when the ending comes it packs quite a punch.

One aspect that works so well here is the juxtaposition of different tones. Some of the reports concerning ‘true’ incidents at the library – numbers 61 and 9, for example – are, on the whole, factual and objective; others – the excerpts from Miriam’s life and even some of the episodes at the library itself – are more emotive, often embellished with subjective details which bring them to life. They are by turns, amusing, touching, melancholy and unsettling.

I enjoyed this book very much. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novella I quite liked in parts but not as a whole. To my mind, the Baillie is the more successful of the two, or maybe it’s just more my kind of book. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Incident Report is published by Pedlar Press.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley was made for the summer. First published in 1953, it is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. It’s one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

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As the novel opens, Leo Colston (a man in his sixties) finds an old diary from 1900 among a box of mementos from his childhood. The diary triggers a series of memories of a month spent at Brandham Hall – the Norfolk home of an old school friend – memories that Leo has kept buried for over fifty years. The events in question have left a terrible mark on Leo; they shaped his personality and direction in life in the years that followed. In some respects, this reawakening of old memories is an opportunity for Leo to finally deal with the fallout from this time in his childhood, to let go of the emotional burden that has haunted him ever since (albeit subconsciously). As he looks at the pages for July, Leo is powerless to resist the reopening of old wounds; it’s a classic set-up for the story to come.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like the effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with an effort that I can see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I can remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream. (pg. 28)

Winding back to the summer of 1900, Leo is twelve years old. He is on the threshold of adolescence, and his 13th birthday is fast approaching. A sensitive boy at heart, Leo’s stock has recently risen at school. He is an inventive child with a keen sense of imagination, and recent mysterious events have earned him some kudos among his fellow boarders.

When he arrives at Brandham Hall to stay with his friend, Marcus Maudsley, Leo is somewhat daunted by his new environment. The privileged Maudsley family belong to a higher social class than Leo, and their ways of operating are very different from those of Leo and his mother. Moreover, he feels buttoned up in his fusty clothes — a thick jacket, breeches and boots, items which prove totally unsuitable for the scorching July weather. All this leaves Leo somewhat fearful of losing face; in short, he feels utterly out-of-place among the smart, well-to-do people of Brandham Hall.

Marcus’ older sister, Marian, can tell that Leo feels uncomfortable in his heavy clothes, so she offers to buy him something more suitable — the gift is tactfully positioned as an early birthday present. Leo is transformed by his light linen suit and summer shoes; his confidence is restored, and his mood lightened. Even Marcus’ mother approves of the change, the woman who seems to hold the reins of power at Brandham, directing the social agenda each morning after breakfast.

Leo is also befriended by Lord Trimingham, the man the Maudsleys consider as Marian’s rightful future husband. Trimingham is kind to Leo, talking to him and giving him verbal messages to deliver to Marian on his behalf. Leo, for his part, warms to Trimingham. In general, these grown-ups in their late teens and early twenties are a mystery to Leo, but Trimingham with his relaxed and friendly manner strikes a chord with the young boy.

When Marcus is confined to bed for a few days, Leo occupies himself by roaming the countryside surrounding the Hall. One afternoon, he cuts his leg quite badly and is helped by the local farmer, the rough-and-ready Ted Burgess. In return for bandaging the boy’s leg, Ted asks Leo if he will take a secret note to Marian at the Hall. Leo is keen to repay the favour, so he agrees to deliver the farmer’s letter. In effect, Leo becomes a kind of Mercury – the messenger, postman and Go-Between – as he finds himself passing a series of covert messages between Ted and Marian over the days that follow.

For I took my duties as a Mercury very seriously, all the more because of the secrecy enjoined on me, but most of all because I felt I was doing for Marian something that no one else could. She chattered to her grown-up companions to pass the time, she turned a smiling face to Lord Trimingham, sat next to him at meals, and walked with him on the terrace; but when she handed me the notes, young as I was, I detected an urgency in her manner which she did not show to the others – no, not to Lord Trimingham himself. To be of service to her was infinitely sweet to me, nor did I look beyond it. (pg. 94)

Leo looks up to Marian, viewing her as a rather god-like creature, standing as she does at the dawn of the 20th century, a new era full of hope and expectation. Ted, on the other hand, is a source of fascination for the young boy; Leo’s feelings towards Ted are a mix of part admiration and part aversion. Ted’s somewhat rough personality and physical presence cast a kind of spell on Leo; in some respects, he represents everything a ‘real’ man should be. But at the same time, Leo is a little wary of Ted’s apparent power over Marian. Nevertheless, Leo enjoys his role and status as a Mercury – certainly at first – mostly because he feels trusted by Ted and Marian. Moreover in return, Leo gets seduced by their charms.

Needless to say, Leo is getting drawn into a world of secrets, duplicity and desire. When he reads a few lines from one of Marian’s letters, Leo starts to realise what might be happening between the pair, so he tries in vain to disentangle himself from the role. Plus, he is puzzled as to where this leaves Trimingham. Unfortunately for Leo, both Ted and Marian – the latter in particular – apply all kinds of direct and indirect pressure to persuade him to continue to deliver their messages. Poor Leo seems powerless to resist. As you’ve probably gathered by now, everything comes to a head in a dramatic dénouement, the event that shapes the young boy’s life in the years that follow.

The Go-Between is a superb novel, fully deserving of its status as a 20th-century classic. Plot, character development and a strong sense of period/place all come together in perfect harmony. Like Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, Hartley’s story captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world. Leo is exposed, caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. As such, Leo is totally reliant on the guidance of the people who befriend him, most notably Ted and Marian.

It is also a novel of many contrasts: the differences in class between Leo’s family and the Maudsleys; the contrast between the kindly, sophisticated, war-wounded Trimingham and the rough, tempestuous, manly farmer Ted. Marian is expected to marry Trimingham out of a sense of duty and social convention, but it is Ted whom she really loves. Some of these contrasts are captured in a marvellous central scene, a cricket match between the men of the Brandham and the local villagers. As twelfth man for the Hall team, Leo should be rooting for his friend Trimingham; but he is also keen to see Ted do well, especially when he turns out to be a rather nifty batsman.

Dimly I felt that the contrast represented something more than the conflict between Hall and village. It was that, but it was also the struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and revolution, between one attitude to life and another. I knew which side I was on, yet the traitor in my gates felt the issue differently, he backed the individual against the side, even my own side, and wanted to see Ted Burgess pull it off. (pg. 124)

There are other contrasts too, perhaps most significantly Leo’s reliance on the trust he places in other people; it is this (along with his lively imagination) which guides him rather than experience, knowledge or certainty.

Finally, the novel perfectly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the Norfolk countryside at the height of July. There are hints of the danger to come in the rampant belladonna plant that Leo discovers in one of the outhouses near the Hall. I’ll finish with a short passage on the blistering heat, one that struck a chord with me.

Sounds were fewer and seemed to come from far away, as if Nature grudged the effort. In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one was another person. (pg. 70)

The Go-Between is published by Penguin Books. #TBR20 Book 3.

The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

When Richard and Stu decided to host Spanish Lit Month in July, it seemed like the right time for me to read another Javier Marías (you can find my thoughts on the others I’ve read here:  The Infatuations, A Heart So White and All Souls). First published in Spanish in 1986, The Man of Feeling would make a good introduction to Marías; it’s a short, hypnotic novel in which Marías’ long looping sentences add to the slippery feel of the narrative, a feature that seems so characteristic of much of his work.

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As The Man of Feeling gets underway, the narrator, an opera singer named León de Nápoles, is travelling by train to Madrid where he is to perform the role of Cassio in a production of Verdi’s Otello. Sitting opposite him in the compartment are three other people, two men and a woman, possibly travelling together (although it is a little unclear at first). As he observes his fellow passengers, the narrator begins to hypothesise about their lives: their personalities, their potential situations, and what they might do for a living. In particular, he is intrigued by the woman whose face, at least initially, is shielded by her hair.

Her hair, arranged with a single, much-practiced toss of the head, did not even allow one to build up an image of the whole face from a single feature, falling as densely as an opaque veil. (pg. 8)

When a sudden jolt in the movement of the train allows the narrator to catch a brief glimpse of the woman’s face, he senses in her features a kind of melancholy disposition, a look that stays with him as he continues his journey.

A few days later the narrator spots one of the men from the train in the bar at his hotel. The two men recognise one another from the journey, so they strike up a conversation. The man’s name is Dato, and by a strange coincidence he and his two travelling companions happen to be staying in the same hotel as the narrator. On the face of it, Dato is employed as a private secretary to the other male traveller, a Belgian banker named Manur. However, in reality, he serves as a near-constant companion to Manur’s wife, the melancholy Natalia, accompanying her on visits to shops, trips to the theatre and suchlike while her husband goes about his business. In effect, Dato’s role is to keep Natalia amused, a challenge that has become increasingly difficult of late as strategies for maintaining the lady’s interest are rapidly running low. Furthermore, Dato is there to protect Natalia from the advances of any potential admirers, men such as the narrator himself should he be so inclined.

Before long, the narrator finds himself spending much of his spare time with Natalia and Dato. As Manur is tied up with work from morning till night, Natalia and Dato are free to do what they choose during the day. They watch the narrator rehearse at the opera house, take all their meals with him, and include him in their various trips around the city. Somewhat inevitably, the narrator finds himself deeply attracted to Natalia, but to reveal anything more about what happens next would be a little unfair of me. What I will say, however, is that Manur is a self-confident, imposing and commanding man, someone who seems to exert a rather strange hold over his wife, the true nature of which is only revealed once events take their natural course.

Marías uses a very interesting structure to frame his narrative. In telling us his story, the narrator is recalling the details of a dream he experienced the previous night, a dream which replicates (more or less exactly) the events that happened during his trip to Madrid. Everything I have described above – the train journey and the various meetings between the narrator and the three travellers – all took place some four years earlier.

And last night I dreamed about what happened to me four years ago in the real world, if such a term serves any purpose or can usefully be contrasted with anything else. Of course there were differences, because although the facts and my vison of the story all correspond, I dreamed what happened in another order, in another tempo and with time apportioned and divided differently, in a concentrated, selective manner and – this is the decisive and incongruous part – knowing beforehand what had happened, knowing, for example, Dato’s name, character and subsequent behaviour before our first meeting took place in my dream. […] But it is also true that now I do not know to what extent I am recounting what actually happened and to what extent I am describing what happened in my dream version of events, even though both things seem to me to be one and the same. (pg. 25-26)

There is a sense that the narrator is not necessarily revealing everything he knows, prompting the reader to look between the lines, filling in the gaps, searching for meaning where necessary. Once again Marías blurs the margins between dreams and reality, between what is experienced, what is remembered and what might be imagined. At the heart of the novel is the idea that in some respects, much of the power of love stems from its anticipation and its recollection. In other words, it is not necessarily the present moment itself which is the key focal point here, but rather the anticipation of what might be experienced in the future or the memory of what has been experienced in the past.

Alongside the novel’s central thread, the narrator takes time to reflect on other aspects of his life, most notably the somewhat solitary existence of an opera singer, forever moving from one lonely city to the next. In some respects, it is not unlike the life of a commercial traveller, a comparison that allows Marías some scope to demonstrate his rather dry sense of humour. Moreover, there are one or two priceless glimpses into the eccentricities of the leading opera singer, someone the narrator performs with during his tour.

As with the other Marías novels I’ve read, certain themes are revisited during the novel, echoing earlier notes and references. It all makes for a spellbinding reading experience, the narrative almost coming full circle towards the end. This is another very fine novel by this writer – not simply a love story, but a beautiful meditation on memory too.

The Man of Feeling is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. (#TBR20 Book 1)

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Does it get much better than Richard Yates? I’m not sure that it does. That’s certainly my feeling after rereading his 1976 novel, The Easter Parade. According to the quotes at the beginning of the book, Joan Didion considers it to be Yates’ best novel, and I can understand why. It’s a desperately sad story, one that taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seem to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this is a wonderful book. It has left me keen to read more of Yates in the future.

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The Easter Parade follows the lives of two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes, from their childhood through to middle age. Neither of the sisters seems destined to live a happy life, and the novel makes this clear from the opening line. By 1930, their parents are divorced, and the girls go to live with their mother in a rented house in New Jersey. The mother, Pookie, is a bit unstable. She aspires to belong to a higher social class, to live in a bigger and better house. Just as the girls get settled in one home, Pookie insists on moving them to another. In short she is constantly seeking the finer things in life.

One of the pleasures of this novel (and this author’s work in general) is Yates’ ability to capture a sense of character in just a few short sentences. Here’s how he introduces Pookie:

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called ‘flair.’ She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick within the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty. (pg 7, Vintage Books)

The girls have a somewhat idealised view of their father, a copy-desk writer for the New York Sun newspaper, whom they visit every now and again. He dies young from pneumonia although there are hints of a reliance on alcohol and cigarettes which may well have contributed to his death.

The focus of the story is the different paths the two girls follow in their lives, each of them yearning for happiness, neither of them finding it within their grasp. Sarah is four years older than Emily. As a young woman, she is curvy, attractive and her father’s favourite. Keen to get married and settle down, Sarah marries Tony, a well-educated, handsome young man with the look of Laurence Olivier about him. They go to live in a country cottage within the grounds of Tony parents’ estate in St. Charles, Long Island. Three sons follow within the space of a few years. On the surface, everything appears rosy, but as this is a Richard Yates novel, we know that’s not going to be the case here.

By contrast, Emily’s life follows a more independent route than that of her sister. Emily is tall, rather flat-chested and perhaps a little plain compared to Sarah. There is a sense of vulnerability about Emily’s character. At first she appears somewhat self-conscious, especially in the shadow of her older sister, but as the years slip by she grows in confidence. The novel focuses on Emily, so we see most of the story from her point of view. She gains a scholarship to Barnard College and her education enables her to find work as a librarian, a journalist, and ultimately as a copywriter in an advertising agency. At Barnard, she meets and marries a philosophy grad assistant named Andrew. The marriage, however, is a disaster – blighted by Andrew’s bitterness over his impotence – and so the couple separate within a matter of months.

While working on the editorial staff of a trade journal, Emily falls for her editor, a divorcee and published poet named Jack. They move to Iowa when Jack lands a role teaching at a writer’s workshop at the university there. At first everything seems to be going well, but as Jack struggles to complete his next book, everything starts to fall apart. A holiday to Europe turns sour leaving Emily feeling more alone than ever before.

‘It isn’t you; why do you always think everything’s you? It’s just – it’s just that this is my first night in a foreign country and it’s made me feel so vulnerable.’ And that was true enough, she decided as she got up from the bed to blow her nose and wash her face, but it was only part of the truth. The rest of it was that she didn’t want to travel with a man she didn’t love. (pgs. 112-113)

During the years that follow, Emily goes from one doomed relationship to another, forever seeking the love and companionship of a stable partner. While she continues to hope things will finally come together, there is occasionally a feeling of relief if they don’t.

As the cab pulled away she turned around in the heavy scent of roses to see if he would wave, but she caught only a glimpse of his back heading into the sidewalk crowd.

Except that she wanted to cry, she didn’t really know what she felt. She tried to figure it out all the way home until she discovered, climbing the stairs, that she felt a great sense of relief. (pg. 62)

As the years pass, the sisters drift apart. While Emily grows increasingly lonely, cracks begin to appear in Sarah and Tony’s marriage. When Emily meets her sister for lunch in town one day, she finds her much changed. Sarah appears so much older than her forty-one years, her faced lined and shadowed, her hand permanently clutching a glass of martini. At first, Sarah is keen to maintain appearances – she pretends everything is okay, resorting to drink as she attempts to wipe away the reality of her life with Tony. By the evening, however, it becomes clear that she is the victim of domestic abuse. In a particularly painful scene, Sarah calls her sister from a hotel; when Emily goes to see her sister, she urges her to leave Tony.

The only important thing now is to make up your mind. Either go back to St. Charles, or start a new life for yourself here.’

Sarah was silent, as if pretending to think it over for the sake of appearances; then she said ‘I’d better go back,’ as Emily had known she would. ‘I’ll take the train back this afternoon.’

‘Why?’ Emily said. ‘Because he “needs” you?’

‘We need each other.’

So it was settled. Sarah would go back; all of Emily’s days and nights would be free for Michael Hogan, and for whatever man might follow him in the long succession. She had to admit she was relieved, but it was a relief that couldn’t be shown. ‘And what you’re really afraid of,’ she said, intending it as a kind of taunt, ‘what you’re really afraid of is that Tony might leave you.’

Sarah lowered her eyes, displaying the fine little blue-white scar. ‘That’s right,’ she said. (pgs. 155-156)

The underlying tragedy of these sisters’ stories is that they each crave a little part of what the other one has in her life and yet they seem unable to share their true feelings with one another. In her younger days, Sarah aspires to be a writer, but her promising start in putting together a book of letters falls by the wayside; her duties as a wife and a mother must come first. Sarah envies her sister’s independence, and yet she is unable to break free from Tony even though she knows her situation is likely to deteriorate even further over time.

Emily, on the other hand, longs for a different type of fulfilment: the stability of a permanent relationship. Not quite the type of marriage that Sarah has made with Tony, but something more loving, more caring.

By the end of the novel, I found myself wishing they had been able to help and support each other more along the way. If so, perhaps things would have turned out differently for both of them…

Update: Kim (at Reading Matters) and Carly (guesting at tomcat in the red room) have also reviewed this novel – just click on the links to read their excellent reviews .

The Easter Parade is published by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy. Book 17/20, #TBR20 round 2.

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

First published in Spanish in 2005 with an English translation following in 2011, The Secret in Their Eyes was Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s debut novel. If the title sounds familiar, that might be because the book was turned into an award-winning film. The original screen adaptation—which happens to feature one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darín—picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It’s been a while since I last watched the film, so the time felt right to pick up the book. I’m so glad I did. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

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As the novel opens, Benjamín Chaparro is retiring from his post as a deputy clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court, a position he has held for over thirty years. After two unsuccessful marriages, Chaparro is a little weary of life—in short, he is a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin. A little unsure as to what he is going to do with the rest of his life, Chaparro decides to write a book: an account of the fallout from a brutal crime that has occupied his thoughts for the past thirty years.

Rewinding to May 1968, a beautiful young woman, the recently-married Liliana Colotto, is raped and strangled in her home in Buenos Aires. As the deputy clerk on duty at the time, Chaparro is required to attend the scene of the murder where he meets the police officer in charge of investigating the case, Inspector Báez. The crime leaves Liliana’s husband, bank clerk Ricardo Morales, utterly devastated.  As Chaparro watches Morales, this quiet, unremarkable man seems completely lost.

It seemed to me most likely that he was taking a mental inventory of everything he’d just lost. (pg.50)

It was as if Morales—once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins on his life—could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing. (pg. 51)

As the case progresses, it gets under Chaparro’s skin. Three months down the line, there are no firm leads or pieces of evidence on which to proceed, but Chaparro keeps the case file open despite the wishes of his boss. As far as the investigative judge is concerned, the fewer the number of active cases the better. During this time Chaparro keeps in touch with Morales, meeting him in a bar to discuss the situation every now and again. He soon discovers that Morales is too detached and too intelligent to find solace in anything other than the truth. Something about the young bank clerk’s melancholy demeanour, the way he appears resigned to suffer the harshest of blows in life, prompts Chaparro to do everything in his power to help him.

I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or the “self” I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit or—worse yet—like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could. (pgs. 72-73)

As a result of his discussions with Morales, Chaparro uncovers a lead in the case and decides to do a little investigating himself. With the help of Inspector Báez, he identifies the murderer and so the case moves into a different phase. The police set off on the trail of Liliana’s killer, various developments happen, time passes. This is a slow burn story of a crime and corruption in the system, but it’s one that kept me gripped throughout.

Things are never straightforward, especially in Argentina in the 1970s, a time when the country’s Dirty War was rumbling away in the background. At one point, it becomes clear that Chaparro’s own life is in danger, a situation that prompts him to move away from Buenos Aires for a number of years until he can return safely. Our protagonist is also very open about his frustrations with the Argentine judicial system, an organisation that seems to favour assholes and imbeciles in equal measure.

During the previous three years in the court, few things had changed. We’d been able to get the wretched Clerk Pérez off our backs—he’d been promoted to public defender—but losing our boss that way had left a bitter taste, because it appeared to confirm our belief that a certain level of congenital stupidity, such as the kind he displayed like a flag, could auger a meteoric ascent in the juristic hierarchy. (pg. 192)

The chapters recounting the investigations into Liliana’s murder, the subsequent developments, and Chaparro’s relationship with Morales are interspersed with shorter passages in which our protagonist reflects on his own life. Or, more specifically, the questions he is grappling with while trying to write his book…not to mention his feelings for Irene Hornos, the current judge in the investigative court. Following his retirement, Chaparro remains in touch with Irene—the woman he has loved from afar for the last thirty years—visiting her at work during the twilight hours of the night.

With her lips, she’s asking him to explain why he’s blushing and squirming in his chair and looking up every twelve seconds at the tall pendulum clock that stands against the wall near the bookcases; but with her eyes, besides all that, she asking him something else. She’s asking him what’s wrong, what’s wrong with him, with him and her, with him and the two of them, and she seems interested in his answer,… (pg. 269)

The story also touches on Chaparro’s enduring friendship with his assistant, Sandoval, the very astute accomplice who plays a pivotal role in the investigation. At the end of the day, though, the core of Sacheri’s novel revolves around the inextricable bond between Chaparro and Ricardo Morales, a man who continues to radiate an unrelenting aura of loss.

When I saw Morales sitting there in front of me on that June afternoon in 1973, I understood that the brevity or longevity of a human being’s life depends most of all on the amount of grief that person is obliged to bear. Time passes more slowly for those who suffer, and pain and anguish leave definitive marks on their skin. (pg. 256)

The Secret in Their Eyes is an excellent novel, one that’s definitely worth reading even if you’ve seen the film. As is often the case, the book is much subtler and more layered than the screen adaptation. There are differences in emphasis between the two forms as the novel allows more space for character development along with greater exploration of the connection between Chaparro and Morales. Certain aspects of the narrative differ as well, but I’ve kept discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum for fear of revealing any major spoilers. Ultimately, this is an intricate story from an author in complete control of his material. Highly recommended.

Interestingly, Sacheri worked as an office employee in the Buenos Aires sentencing court in the late 1980s. (In his introduction, the translator John Cullen explains that the Argentine judiciary at the time of the novel was divided into two jurisdictions: investigative courts and sentencing courts.) During his time in the sentencing court, Sacheri happened to hear an anecdote about an old case from the seventies. Even though the novel’s plot and all of its characters are entirely fictitious, Sacheri used the core of this anecdote as inspiration for a key element in his story. To say any more would take me into the realm of spoilers, but Sacheri’s own experience undoubtedly gives the novel an air of credibility.

Guy has also reviewed this book, which I read for Richard’s Argentine Literature of Doom event.

The Secret in Their Eyes is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20, #TBR20 round 2.

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

The story running through The End of Days, the latest novel from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, features an intriguing premise. By following five different variations of the life of one woman, the novel examines the role chance plays in our lives. In doing so, it touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century from the hardship in the years following WWI, to the rise in anti-Semitism, to the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious narrative, and Erpenbeck pulls it off to very good effect.

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The novel is divided into five books, each one covering a possible life of the woman in question. In the first variation of her life, our central character dies in her cradle just a few months after her birth in Galicia in 1902. (Galicia now straddles the Poland-Ukraine border, but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) As her Jewish mother mourns the loss, her father (a Christian) drowns his sorrows in drink. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy, the father set sail for America, abandoning his wife in the process. The man’s arrival at Ellis Island’s immigration hall provides an opportunity for reflection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where ‘German remained the language of democracy’ despite all the intermingling.  

The Kaiser, though, hadn’t selected the individuals to be let in; rather, he’d swallowed up entire peoples indiscriminately, making all of them part of his realm. Melancholia, madness, and unlawfulness remained at home—even after home became suddenly known as Austria or Hungary—and it did the monarchy no harm. Europe’s peoples, with or without wars, had always crisscrossed the continent, intermixing and seeking out new homes whenever their one bit of land produced too little or life became unbearable for some reason. But perhaps a coastline like this was a more naturally defined border. Here you could send the people you didn’t want back out on the water, even if it meant they would perish back home or simply drown at sea like surplus kittens. (pg. 50)

Meanwhile, the bereaved mother slips into a life of prostitution as a means of supporting herself after the desertion of her husband.

Each of the five variations of the central character’s life are separated by Intermezzos, short sequences of 4-9 pages in which Erpenbeck raises the question ‘but what if…’. For instance, what if the baby girl didn’t die in her cradle that night? What if she survived the crisis and her life continued? In effect, these intermezzos serve as a means of moving us from one version of the woman’s life to the next.

But if, for example, the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again, possibly cried again as well, in any case its heart might have gone back to beating, its skin would have grown warm and the snow melted on its chest. (pg. 57)

As book II begins, we fast forward to 1919, and the seventeen-year-old protagonist and her family have moved to Vienna in the hope of finding a better life. Despite the end of the First World War, food is in desperately short supply, and the girl’s younger sister queues all day for meagre rations until her mother takes her place for the night shift. In this scene, the central character’s father reflects on the family’s situation.

For a brief time he had nurtured the hope that by moving to Vienna they would all be moving to an easier life, but then there’d been four years of war, a capitulation, and four months of hunger, and now all their provisions—their supplies of wood, groceries, hope—were running out, the emptiness in the pantry and storeroom equally great, the dirt floor showing through. Here in Vienna, his wife was reproaching him for one last thing: having married her, a Jewish vixen from the provinces, and not even a rich one at that. Something he had always refused to believe was apparently proving true after all: she was trapped in her Mosaic origins as if in a cage, knocking herself black and blue against bars. (pg. 79)

As for our central character, the weight of trying to find her way in an uncertain world proves too much to bear, and she enters into a suicide pact with a young medical student. Things don’t quite go to plan, but nevertheless the girl dies in hospital a few days later. And so we move to the next Intermezzo and another ‘what if?’ and her life continues once more.

In the third variation of her life, our protagonist is in Moscow. As book III opens, the year is 1938, and she is writing an account of her life in the hope of gaining Soviet citizenship. As the woman writes her story, we learn that she joined the Communist Party of Austria in 1920 where she met her husband, Comrade H. Both she and her husband were writers, keen to use language and words as a means of forging progress in the years following the War. Now, as she sits at her desk in Moscow, she knows that this written account might put an end to her life; alternatively, it might be kept in reserve, forcing her to live by it, ‘to prove herself worthy of it’. With her husband already under arrest, she must try to survive. Her aim is to save herself by writing her way back into life.

Now that her husband has been taken away, she knows that when she sits here putting her life to paper, she is playing not just with her own life, but with his as well, not just with her own death, but also with his; or she is playing against death—or does all this pro and contra make no difference at all? She knows that with every word she writes or leaves unwritten she is playing with the lives of her friends, just as her friends in turn, when they are asked about her, are forced to play with hers. (pg. 152)

I’ll refrain from covering the fourth and fifth lives in detail—I’m sure you’ve got the idea by now—but final instalment finds our protagonist living in a care home and suffering from dementia as her life draws to a close.

This impressive novel touches on various different ideas, and several of these are revisited throughout the narrative. Alongside the recognisable themes of personal sacrifice, loss, and the fragile nature of our existence, other themes emerge, too. Erpenbeck’s story highlights our desire to keep secrets from those who are closest to us as a means of protecting them from the heartache of knowing the truth. The daughter who doesn’t know her father was beaten to death by the Poles; the son who is told his father fell in the battle of Kharkov – these motifs echo and reverberate through the text.

Did keeping her misguided love a secret from her friend make her just as halfhearted and deceitful as her parents? It had done no good to keep the truth to herself either, for a truth remained even if it was never spoken aloud, day after day it went on doing what it had to. (pg. 89)

As I mentioned earlier, the intermezzos highlight the role chance plays in our existence – how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments and the smallest of decisions, many of which are subjective. A handful of snow; a chance encounter in a café; a decision to cross a street at a certain point – all these things and more play a significant role in the lives of the central character.

Ultimately though, the novel’s overarching theme is, perhaps, the continuation of humankind – even when an individual dies, life goes on.

A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (pg. 15)

Before I finish, a few thoughts on Erpenbeck’s prose. While the style is spare and haunting throughout, it does vary somewhat from one section to another. Personally, I found Books I, II and V more engaging than the middle sections despite the highly compelling subject matter at the heart of the novel. Book III alternates between a first-person narrative (the documented account of the central character’s life) and passages written in the third person. While different fonts are used to differentiate between each section, the frequent switches between these two forms (together with the inclusion of snatches of conversation from a possible interrogation session) didn’t quite work for me. That’s just my personal opinion, though, and others may well disagree. Nevertheless The End of Days is a very powerful work, one I’m glad to have read.

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This novel won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November.

The End of Days is published by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy. Book 14/20, #TBR20 round 2.