Tag Archives: #WITMonth

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

First published in German in 1929, Grand Hotel is Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s best-known work. Following its initial success, this charming novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and subsequently for the cinema screen, with significant input from Baum herself – the film adaptation (which I have yet to see) features Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore brothers, amongst others.

IMG_2938

The setting for the novel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin, an establishment which endeavours to furnish its residents with the best of everything the city has to offer. Baum’s carefully constructed story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at the hotel. While it doesn’t aim to follow a conventional narrative arc, Grand Hotel has plenty of surprises in store for its readers, many of which are connected with the secrets and inner lives of this diverse group of guests.

The central character in the mix is Otto Kringelein, a down-at-heel bookkeeper who has travelled from the provinces to Berlin to live the high life for a week or two. After enduring many years of bullying and penny pinching both at work and at home, Kringelein has come to the city with the knowledge that he has only a few weeks left to live. Backed by funds from his savings and life insurance policy, Kringelein is intent on experiencing Life and everything it has to offer before his time is up. Here are his first impressions of his new environment, a passage which I hope will give you a feel for the Grand Hotel itself.

He stood there in his old overcoat, and through the lenses of his pince-nez eagerly devoured it all. He was as exhausted as the winner of a race when he breasts the tape, but he saw the marble pillars with stucco ornament, the illuminated fountain, the easy chairs. He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. (pg. 13)

At first, Kringelein is befriended by another guest, Doctor Otternschlag, a lonely, embittered war veteran who comes to the bookkeeper’s aid when the hotel staff prove rather reluctant to give him a room. Once he realises that Kringelein’s days are numbered, Otternschlag offers to show him something of Berlin with a trip to the ballet and other civilised outings. Nevertheless, Kringelein cannot help but feel that ‘real life,’ whatever that may be, remains out of his reach.

All that changes when Kringelein crosses paths with the dashing Baron Gaigern, a charming young playboy who also happens to be staying at the hotel. I love this description of the Baron, which serves as an excellent introduction to this elegant womaniser.

There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. (pg. 6)

Everyone at the Grand Hotel is enchanted by the friendly Baron Gaigern, but little do they know that he is in fact a cat burglar on the lookout for rich pickings. Once he realises Kringelein is in the money, Gaigern sees an opportunity, and so he takes this somewhat fusty bookkeeper under his wing. At long last Kringelein begins to experience the thrill and excitement of the life he has been craving. Under the guidance of the worldly Baron, Kringelein is persuaded to invest in the finest of clothes, new silk shirts and beautifully tailored suits that transform him in an instant. Further delights soon follow: the adrenaline rush of a drive in a fast car; the adventure of an aeroplane flight; and the heady atmosphere of a night at a Berlin club. There is a touch of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about the sense of vitality (not to mention nervousness) that Kringelein experiences in this new and exhilarating world.

Another character whose life is most definitely altered by an encounter with the Baron is Grusinskaya, an aged Russian ballet dancer and fellow guest at the Grand. Following years of success at the top of her game, Grusinskaya’s career is now on the slide as she finds herself playing to half-empty houses of unappreciative onlookers.

Madame sat in the little dressing room staring at the electric bulb that hung in a wire cage over the looking glass and consulted her memory. No, she thought gloomily, it was not such a success as at Brussels. She was tired to death. She stretched out her most limbs. She sat there, like a boxer who lies in his corner after a hard round, and let Suzette rub her down and chafe her and remove the paint. The dressing room was overheated, dirty, and small. It smelt of old dresses, of glue, of grease paint, of a hundred exhausted bodies. (pg. 26)

A little like Doctor Otternschlag, Grusinskaya is another lonely soul. That said, while past events have left the doctor feeling bitter and cynical, Grusinskaya has been dealt a slightly different hand. The lack of warmth and true love in her life has taken in toll, leaving this once great dancer somewhat vulnerable and fragile. Funnily enough, Grusinskaya is the real reason for Baron Gaigern’s visit to the Grand. The lovable young rogue is after the lady’s pearl necklace, an item rumoured to be worth in the region of 500,000 German marks. Nevertheless, when the Baron embarks on the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s jewellery, something rather surprising happens. To reveal anything more might be a step too far, so perhaps I can encourage you to read the book instead.

The final two characters are Preysing, General Manager of a provincial textiles company, and Flämmchen, the attractive young secretary he hires to assist him with some typing (and a little more besides). Somewhat intriguingly, Preysing is of particular interest to Kringelein as he happens to be the bookkeeper’s ultimate boss. While Kringelein has a score to settle with the GM, Preysing doesn’t even recognise him as one of his own employees when the two men come into contact with each other at the hotel. Preysing, a somewhat cold and unadventurous businessman at heart, has pressing troubles of his own. He has come to Berlin to negotiate a key business deal, a precarious merger with another company which he desperately needs to pull off. Flämmchen, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Tired of looking for a permanent job, she knows her own value and longs to be in the movies. Like many of other characters here, Preysing and Flämmchen find their lives irrevocably altered by their time at the prestigious hotel.

Grand Hotel is an utterly delightful novel full of moments of light and significant darkness. Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one character to another with great ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these characters as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. What appears to be chance and the luck of the draw may in fact turn out to be a case of cause and effect. In some ways, the Grand is a metaphor for life itself, complete with the great revolving door which governs our daily existence. I’ll finish with a short quote that hints at this.

These unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the elevator; you meet again in the dining room, in the cloakroom, and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door—the door that never stops shoveling people in and shoveling them out. (pg. 190)

This is my first read for Biblibio’s Women in Translation Month, which is running throughout August. For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Guy and Melissa. Update: Caroline has also reviewed it, link here, as has Emma here.

Grand Hotel is published by NYRB. My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

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

My first encounter with Silvina Ocampo’s work came in the shape of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella she co-wrote with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. This playful take on the traditional murder mystery genre made my 2014 end-of-year highlights, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short stories published earlier this year. In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeyemi informs us that the panel of judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature deemed Ocampo’s body of work to be “demasiado crueles” meaning “far too cruel”  and so they denied her the prize. While it’s true to say that several of these stories feature rather sinister events, I’m not sure I would simply label them as “cruel”. They’re far more interesting than that, a point I hope to demonstrate in this review.

IMG_2354

Faces contains forty-two stories drawn from seven different collections of Ocampo’s writing published from 1937 to 1988; the pieces vary in length from one or two pages to longer works.

Several of the pieces throughout the collection feature individuals who possess the ability to see into the future, an unsettling sense of clairvoyance that often arouses suspicion amongst those around them. In one of my favourite stories, Autobiography of Irene, a young woman describes how she foresaw her father’s death three months before it happened.

I was happy, but the sudden death of my father, as I said before, brought about a change in my life. Three months before he died, I had already prepared my mourning dress and the black crepe; I had already cried for him, leaning majestically on the balcony railing. I had already written the date of his death on an etching; I had already visited the cemetery. All of that was made worse by the indifference I showed after the funeral. To tell the truth, after his death I never remembered him at all. (pg. 78)

This clever, beautiful and moving piece ends with a development that brings Irene’s story full circle, one that made me turn back to the beginning to read it a second time.

The supernatural crops up again in The House Made of Sugar, the first of several excellent pieces taken from Ocampo’s 1959 collection, The Fury. In this disquieting story, the narrator tells of his partner, Cristina, a woman whose life is governed by superstitions.

There were certain streets we couldn’t cross, certain people we couldn’t see, certain movie theaters we couldn’t go to. Early in our relationship, these superstitions seemed charming to me, but later they began to annoy and even seriously worry me. When we got engaged we had to look for a brand-new apartment because, according to her, the fate of the previous occupants would influence her life. (She at no point mentioned my life, as if the danger threatened only hers and our lives were not joined by love.) (pg. 91)

Finally, the narrator finds what he hopes will be the ideal place: a little house that looks as if it is made of sugar. On discovering that the house had been occupied in the past and subsequently remodelled, he decides to keep quiet and let Cristina believe that their home is brand new. But once the newly-weds move in, the narrator starts to notice certain changes in Cristina’s behaviour. Slowly but surely she begins to inhabit another woman’s life, that of the mysterious Violeta, the previous occupant of the house.

In The Photographs, a fateful little story from the same period, Ocampo shows her talent for taking what should be a joyful celebration and injecting a touch of the macabre into it. Recovering from a stay in hospital and unable to walk unaided, Adriana is allowed home for her fourteenth birthday party. As they wait for the photographer (Spirito) to arrive, the guests entertain themselves with ‘stories of more or less fatal accidents. Some of the victims had been left without arms, others without hands, others without ears’.

Members of the family jostle and position Adriana for a series of photographs, moving and manipulating her as if she were a rag dog. As the story unravels, there is a striking contrast between the sugar-coated sweetness of the occasion and the insensitivity shown towards the young girl.

In the third photograph, Adriana brandished the knife to cut the cake, which was decorated with her name, the date of her birthday, and the word “Happiness,” all written in pink icing, and covered with rainbow sprinkles.

“She should stand up,” the guests said.

An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”

“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”

Adriana grimaced with pain, and once more poor Spirito had to take her picture sunken in her chair surrounded by the guests. (pgs. 122-123)

The Velvet Dress, touches on another contrast: the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough when rubbed the other; a fabric with the power to repel as well as attract. This story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet dress featuring a dragon motif embroidered with black sequins.

I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequin dragon. The lady stood up again and, staggering slightly, walked over to the mirror. The sequin dragon also staggered. The dress was now nearly perfect, except for an almost imperceptible tuck under the arms. Casilda took up the pins once more, plunging them perilously into the wrinkles that bulged out of the unearthly fabric. (pg. 146-147)

Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but effective tale takes a sinister turn. It’s narrated by a child, the dressmaker’s companion, who peppers the narrative with several cries of “How amusing!”

This childlike sense of mischief and wickedness is present in several of Ocampo’s stories, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other pieces from this period include:

  • The Wedding: another story with a sting in its tail, this one featuring a girl who hides a huge spider in the hairpiece of her soon-to-be married neighbour, Arminda. As the girl’s friend says “Spiders are like people: they bite to defend themselves.”
  • Mimoso: a sinister story of a woman who has her beloved dog embalmed following its death. But when someone taunts and criticises her for doing so the woman takes her revenge in the most fitting way possible.
  • The Perfect Crime, in which a man commits a crime of passion involving poisonous mushrooms.
  • The Lovers, which features a couple who meet sporadically. Shy and with little to say to one another, they indulge in a ritual of picnicking on cakes. As they devour the pastries with ‘loving greed and intimacy’ they find a way to commune with each other and their movements become synchronised.
  • Thus Were Their Faces: a strange, dreamlike story in which forty children from a school for the deaf strive to assume similar characteristics, personalities and identities ‘as if they wanted to become equal’. Here’s an extract:

They were also linked by the violence of their gestures, by their simultaneous laughter, by a boisterous and sudden feeling of sadness in solidarity hidden in their eyes, in their straight or slightly curly hair. So indissolubly united were they that they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.

At the top of a slide, out of excitement not wickedness, they almost killed a child who had slipped in among them. On the street, in the face of admiring enthusiasm, a flower vendor almost perished, trampled with his merchandise. (pg. 193)

Several of Ocampo’s stories blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. One of the earliest stories, The Imposter, demonstrates this to good effect. In this extended piece, the young man who narrates the story is sent on a journey by a family friend to check up on his son – the boy has hidden himself away at a secluded ranch in the countryside. When the narrator arrives, several objects and people remind him of things he has seen before: images, people and scenes from his dreams start to appear in reality; strange developments occur; and as the story progresses, one begins to question what is real and what is illusory. This is another story featuring a shift that will have you flipping back to the beginning to read it again.

Some of Ocampo’s final stories are characterised by a free-spirited wildness, possibly the product of an especially vivid imagination in the years leading up to her death. Others are gentler, tenderer pieces such as And So Forth, which features a man who falls for a mermaid. This beautiful, mystifying story reads like a prose poem, an ode to a different kind of love.

I love the stories in Thus Were Their Faces, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of the pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. Ocampo studied painting with the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and this flair for the artistic shows in her prose which sparkles with strange and mysterious imagery. This is an unusual and poetic collection of stories – highly recommended.

Thus Were Their Faces is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night. The back cover describes it as an autobiographical novel, but like some other stories of this nature, De Vigan’s book reads as if it is non-fiction. Either way, I found it utterly compelling, an immersive reading experience.

IMG_2300

In the opening chapter the author describes how she found her mother’s body at home one January morning, her skin blue, ‘a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes’. The author’s mother, a woman she names Lucile Poirier, took her own life at the age of sixty-one. Over the following months, the author wrestles with the notion of writing about her mother. At first she strongly resists the idea, keeping it at a distance for as long as possible. The image of Lucile represents too boundless a field, too clouded, too risky. In the end, though, she decides to write about her mother as a way of preserving her character, of getting closer to her:

And then I learned to think of Lucile without it taking my breath away: the way she walked, her upper body leaning forward, her bag resting on her hip with the strap across her body; the way she held her cigarette, crushed between her fingers; of how she pushed her way into a metro carriage with her head down; the way her hands shook; the care with which she chose her words, her short laugh, which seemed to take her by surprise; the way her voice changed under the influence of an emotion, though her face sometimes showed no sign of it. (pg. 7)

In order to do this, the author talks to those who were closest to Lucile at various points in her life – Lucile’s friends, her brothers and sisters, other members of the family – collecting memories and stories along the way.

Born into a lively, somewhat unconventional bohemian middle-class family, Lucile is the third of nine children. Her father, Georges, founder of an advertising agency, is generous, confident and sociable; her mother, Liane, is energetic, full of vitality and unquestionably devoted to Georges. Lucile is very beautiful. By the age of seven she is a successful fashion model, albeit one who is starting to feel ill at ease with life.

…but at the age of seven, Lucile had built the walls of a hidden territory which belonged to her alone, a territory where the noise and the gaze of others did not exist. (pg. 15)

From an early age, Lucile appears somewhat distanced from her brothers and sisters, a quiet, mysterious child who grows up all too quickly. Shortly before Lucile’s eighth birthday, her younger brother, Antonin (aged six) drowns in an accident. There is a sense that from this point onwards, the concept of death would be part of Lucile’s character, ‘a fault line’ or ‘indelible imprint’ marked in her DNA.

As de Vigan compiles her story, various revelations about the Poirier family come to light, especially in relation to Georges, Lucile’s father and the author’s grandfather. There are hints of a murky side to Georges’ character at the very beginning of this book. From a young age, Lucile had always intrigued him; he is fascinated by her. As a child, Lucile shares a connection with her father, but over time she becomes increasingly aware of her father’s limitations, his intolerances and contradictions. By the end of the book, a much darker side to Georges has emerged, and I was left wondering how his behaviour may have contributed to Lucile’s collapse.

When she is eighteen, Lucile falls in love with a friend of the family, the confident and athletic Gabriel. Lucile falls pregnant and marries Gabriel a few months before the birth of their first daughter, the author. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Lucile’s future appears bright and radiant. And yet there is an inherent sadness in the film footage of Lucile and Gabriel’s wedding. While they appear to be in love, something in Lucile’s eyes seems weakened; a sense of absence sets her apart from the scene.

Throughout the story, the author reflects on the difficulty of writing this book, of trying to find a truth within the myriad of disparate fragments and impressions of Lucile’s life. She talks of the limitations of writing, how at best it can enable her to pose questions and examine memories. There is a desire to get behind the myths surrounding the Poirier family in an effort to get to the source of Lucile’s pain. And in doing so, she knows how painful this will be for those closest to her mother.

But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering, as though there were a precise moment when the core of her self was breached in a definitive, irreparable way, and I cannot ignore the extent to which this quest – as if its difficulty were not enough – is in vain. It is through this prism that I interviewed her brothers and sisters, whose pain in some cases was at least as visible as my mother’s, that I questioned them with the same determination, eager for details, alert to the possibility of an objective cause that eluded me as I thought I was getting close to it. That was how I interviewed them, without ever asking the question which they nonetheless answered: was the pain already there? (pgs. 61-62)

Perhaps the author goes some way towards identifying one of the factors when she reflects on her mother’s marriage to Gabriel, the years of immense loneliness that play their part in the breakdown of Lucile’s life. She likens the meeting of Lucile and Gabriel to the coming together of ‘two great sufferings’. Contrary to the law of maths whereby the multiplication of two negatives leads to a positive, this union gives rise to ‘aggression and confusion’.

The marriage lasts for seven years, and Lucile is twenty-six when she leaves Gabriel. In time, Lucile and her two daughters move in with Tibère, a freelance photographer and naturist. She gets a secretarial job with a small advertising agency in Paris. For the author, this is the start of the golden age, a four-year period when all is relatively calm. It is the ‘before’: before the fear, the worry and everything that comes later.

In the summer we went to the naturist camp at Montalivet, where Lucile and Tibère rented a bungalow among the pines. We met friends there, a shifting community of people who drifted in and out; some people would move on, others stayed and pitched their tents in the forest […]

The photos of those years, taken mainly by Tibère, are the ones I like the best. They sum up a whole period. I like their colours, their poetry, the utopia they capture. (pg. 151)

After a couple of years, Lucile and Tibère split up, other men come and go. And then, on more than one occasion, Lucile is reminded that death can strike at any moment – I won’t reveal the details for fear of spoilers. At this point, the author (now aged eleven or twelve years) becomes afraid that her mother might take her own life. Lucile seems lonely, tired and detached; she shuts herself up in her room at night smoking grass on her own.

The remainder of the books charts Lucile’s breakdown: the periods of delirium when her imagination runs wild; the periods of numbness as she withdraws from the world; her confinements and hospitalisations. All this might sound very bleak, but De Vigan’s portrait of Lucile is at once painful, compassionate and tender. It is written in a style that immediately draws the reader into the world of this family, so much so that you feel you are observing these scenes unfold before your own eyes. The prose has a glassy, luminous quality, especially in the first two-thirds of the book before Lucile’s breakdown.

There are periods of lightness too. In the years prior to her death, Lucile experiences a kind of renaissance. She goes back to college, and in time becomes a highly effective social worker. In effect, by helping to ease the suffering of others, Lucile finds a sense of meaning her life, perhaps a sense of accomplishment as well.

All in all, Nothing Holds Back the Night is a remarkable book – a genuinely affecting story and an impressive achievement.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. Emma, Guy and MarinaSofia have also reviewed this one.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Madame de ___ by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Duff Cooper)

While looking through my shelves for suitable books for Women in Translation month, I found Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame de___. It’s a perfect one-sitting read, short enough to squeeze into a spare hour or two. Despite being published in 1951, Madame de ___reads like a classic 19th-century French novel, albeit in miniature. It is a beautifully constructed story: elegant, artful and poignant all at once.

IMG_2297

Madame de___ is a woman of some distinction. She and her husband, an astute and wealthy man, belong to a circle of society that values elegance, discretion and reputation. They are no longer in love with one another but have moved into a different phase of their marriage; nevertheless, it suits both of them to remain together.

Even though her husband never questions the amount of money she spends on clothes, Madame de ___ likes to think of herself as rather clever and prudent. Consequently, she keeps the true extent of her expenditure hidden from her husband. After this has been happening for few years, Madame de ___ finds herself with significant debts to settle. Unwilling to confess her position to her husband for fear of losing either his respect or his confidence, she decides to sell some of her jewellery in secret. After some deliberation, Madame de ___ settles on a pair of earrings made of two glittering heart-shaped diamonds, a gift from her husband on the day after their wedding.

She called on her jeweller. He was a thoroughly reliable man; in the houses of many of his most important customers he was as much a friend as a jeweller. She swore him to secrecy, and spoke to him in such a way that he received the impression that M. de ___ was aware of what his wife was doing. The jeweller assumed that M. de ___ had some private money troubles, and wishing to help him without letting Mᵐᵉ de ___ realise what he suspected, he tactfully asked:

“But, Mᵐᵉ, what will you say to M. de ___?”

“Oh,” she answered, “I shall tell him I’ve lost them.”

“You are so charming that I am sure people always believe whatever you say,” said the jeweller, and he bought the earrings.

Mᵐᵉ de ___ paid her debts, and her beauty, free of care, shone brighter than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

This unfortunate act sets in motion a sequence of lies and acts of deceit that come back to haunt Madame de ___ over the course of this story. Perhaps she really did believe the jeweller when he flattered her with the notion that people will always accept whatever she says without probing too deeply…

A week later Madame de ___ claims she has lost the diamond earrings on the evening of a ball. The next day the incident is reported in the newspaper giving the impression that the earrings may have been stolen. On seeing the report, the jeweller feels he must approach M. de ___ and discreetly inform him of the true whereabouts of the earrings. M. de ___ is saddened to learn of his wife’s actions. He is shocked not only by the blatant manner of her deception at the ball but also by her insincerity. By pretending to be upset by the loss of the jewels themselves, Madame de ___ has shown herself to be somewhat disingenuous.

Unbeknownst to his wife, M. de ___ buys the earrings from the jeweller and promptly gives them to his Spanish lover who is leaving Europe to live in South America. Following her arrival in her new home, this lady also finds herself with debts to pay, and so she sells the earrings given to her by M. de ___ to a local jeweller. A European diplomat then spots the earrings and buys them for their beauty.  By pure chance, the diplomat, a newly-appointed Ambassador, happens to meet Madame de ___ at a formal dinner, and they are clearly attracted to one another. At first Madame de ___ is unsure of her true feelings for the Ambassador, but they maintain a flirtatious relationship over the course of several months. Finally, Madame de ___ realises she is in love with Ambassador and rushes to inform him. Delighted at this development, the Ambassador gives Madame de ___ a gift as a token of his love: a beautiful pair of diamond earrings, cut in the shape of hearts.

By now we’re about one-quarter of the way through the book. It’s a short novella, so I don’t want to reveal too much more about the remainder of the plot; save to say the return of these earrings gives rise to more lies, duplicitous behaviour and heartache for more than one person in this story.

Madame de ___ proved to be an excellent choice for WIT month. I was utterly captivated by this little novella; the prose is graceful and stylish, just like our initial impressions of Madame de ___ herself. Ultimately though, the story evokes an enduring sense of melancholy and solitude. I’ll finish with a quote that captures it as well as any other. As we join the scene, Madame de ___ is just coming to terms with the nature of her true feelings for the Ambassador.

Wrapped in a heavy cloak, with some muslin round her head and her arms buried to the elbows in a fur muff, she sat by a low wall which overhung the beach and gazed on the waves and the horizon, which was lit up at regular intervals by the beam of a lighthouse. Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and of that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew that life would be unendurable. (pgs. 22-23)

Max and Guy have reviewed Madame de ___, and their posts include further analysis on particular elements of the story – as always, they are well worth reading. My thanks also to Scott who recommended this novella. The Pushkin Press edition contains an excellent afterword by John Julius Norwich, son of the translator, Duff Cooper (one of Louise de Vilmorin’s lovers). It offers a fascinating insight into de Vilmorin’s life, one that adds another dimension to this fateful little tale.

Madame de ___ is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20, #TBR20 round 2.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

La Femme de Gilles was Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s debut novel, first published in 1937 when the author was in her early thirties. It centres on a ménage à trois involving Gilles, his wife, Elisa, and her younger sister, Victorine, a timeless story of desire, selfless love and the pain these things can bring.  Bourdouxhe was a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, who praised the novella for its subtle portrayal of the differences between male and female sexuality. An English translation first appeared in 1992, but Daunt Books have given it a new lease of life with this beautiful edition published last year.

IMG_2294

As the novella opens, we find Elisa ‘giddy with tenderness’ as she awaits Gilles’ arrival home from work at the local factory in the Belgian countryside. Deeply in love with her husband and expecting their third child, Elisa wants little more than to care for her family. In doing so, she strives to maintain as comfortable a home as possible. The opening scenes paint an idyllic picture, full of the simple pleasures of life:

He is leaning out of the window again, his mind at once blank and spinning with small thoughts: Sunday tomorrow…the smell of the soup…the beauty of the flowers in the garden. Life is sweet. As he watches Elisa bathing his two little naked daughters in the setting sun, he feels at peace. (pg.9)

Sadly for Elisa, it doesn’t take long for this harmonious existence to fall apart. Shortly before the birth of her baby, she begins to experience a vague sense of unease. Gilles appears unsettled in some way. At first Elisa puts it down to her own condition – after all everything is a little strange when one is heavily pregnant. But one evening, as Gilles is about to go out with Victorine (Elisa’s attractive younger sister), Elisa is a gripped by an acute sense of anxiety. With her back turned on Giles and Victorine, she rummages through her bag for some money.

One by one she fixed her gaze on some of the objects around her, the things that made up her familiar world, then her eyes lit on her own hands as they closed the bag, and she saw they were trembling. Precisely at that moment Elisa knew that behind her back there was another world, a world that was complicated, threatening, unknown. She felt it to be so and she was certain she was not mistaken; she was also certain that it was absolutely essential not to turn round suddenly and confront it. (pg. 18)

This quote is indicative of Elisa’s character. She realises that something is going on between Gilles and Victorine, but rather than addressing it directly, she chooses to remain silent and wait. Even though she is tormented by the thought of the affair, she follows Gilles when he goes out unexpectedly certain in the belief that he must be meeting Victorine. With each new discovery, Elisa hovers between a desperate fear of losing Gilles and a desire to cling to the hope that this phase will pass.

There is that long sequence of days when she anxiously awaits Gilles’ return, days when she is always on the lookout for whatever affection he still feels for her, however small, days when she discovers that he hasn’t been seen at the place where he told her he was going. And there are the nights, indistinguishable from each other, when Gilles is asleep but her suffering keeps her wide awake. She moves her hands towards him, runs them over his skin, leans close to his face very quietly, so as not to wake him: she sniffs out unfamiliar smells on him like a ferreting cat. (pg. 59-60)

At times, Elisa wonders if she should speak frankly to Gilles or to Victorine, to intervene in some way, but she is afraid of losing her husband. Even though the marriage is hanging by a thread, Gilles still comes home to Elisa. ‘As long as he is there, he’s still hers.’

Unable to talk to her sister or to confide in her mother, Elisa turns to the church for guidance. But in place of the comfort and advice she so desperately seeks, she is told to face the trials that God has sent her way. When Gilles finally opens up and confesses, Elisa finds herself in the role of confidante advising her husband on his relationship with Victorine. It’s a strange situation, one that highlights Gilles’ complete inability to appreciate his wife’s anguish, never mind the notion that he might be the cause of it.

La Femme de Gilles can be easily read in two or three hours, but this story has the potential to linger in the mind for much longer. The style is minimalist but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a devastating portrait of a woman isolated in her pain and suffering, in her self-sacrificing love for her husband despite his avaricious desire for her sibling.

There were many ways this excellent novella could have ended, but Bourdouxhe has constructed a forceful conclusion – even though I didn’t see it coming, with the benefit of hindsight it feels painfully inevitable. Rather than saying anything else about it, I’ll finish with a quote on Victorine. In contrast to her honourable, respectable sister, Victorine is rather capricious – a flirtatious creature who retains her angelic demeanour throughout the whole affair. One could describe her as thoroughly amoral.

For Victorine is one of those creatures who have no consciousness of their actions: she parades her irresponsibility throughout her life. One day, simply because Gilles was there, perhaps because it was rather too hot, her flesh desired that man, and she took him. So what? Nothing more in it for Victorine, it stops there. Afterwards it’s a question of trying to make sense of things, sense of life, and life doesn’t touch Victorine, it will never mark her smile or her eyes, which will stay young, clear, innocent for a long time. Unconscious offenders are the most dangerous of criminals. (pgs. 67-68)  

I selected this novella for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. If you’re looking for ideas for #WITMonth, here’s a link to my reviews of translated literature by women writers.

La Femme de Gilles is published in the UK by Daunt Books. Source: personal copy. Book 5/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

As many of will you know by now, I’m like a magnet for these beautiful Pushkin Collection books from Pushkin Press. Last year I bought Subtly Worded, a collection of short stories by Teffi (a pen name for the Russian author, Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya). I was planning to post this review in August to link up with Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, but I accidentally pressed ‘publish’ while drafting it yesterday! My #WITMonth has started a little early.

IMG_2275

Teffi was born in 1872 into an esteemed and cultured St Petersburg family. During her literary career she wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of 40 she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles.

The stories in Subtly Worded are grouped into five sections covering various periods in Teffi’s life starting with her early stories written before the Russian Revolution through to later stories of life as an émigré in Paris. The collection closes with a series of haunting works from the period prior to her death in 1952. As with other short story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn – rather, my aim is to give a flavour of themes along with some thoughts on the collection as a whole.

Teffi began her literary career by writing a series of satirical pieces and her talent for wit is evident in the early stories included here in Subtly Worded. ‘Will-power’, the story of an alcoholic who puts his inner mettle to the test, is tinged with irony. And in ‘The Hat’, one of my favourite stories from this collection, we are introduced to the poet without any poems:

The poet was someone very interesting.

He had not yet written any poems –he was still trying to come up with a pen name—but in spite of this he was very poetic and mysterious, perhaps even more so than many a real poet with real, ready-made poems. (pg. 35)

‘The Hat’ also offers a sharp and witty insight into the ability of a stylish new hat (or any such article of clothing) to alter a woman’s mood. In this scene, Varenka is admiring herself in her new hat, ‘a deep-blue hat with a deep-blue bow and a deep-blue bird, a true bluebird of happiness.’ She is anticipating the arrival of her friend, the poet with no poems.

She can be arch, she can be tempestuous, or dreamy, or haughty. She can be anything – and whatever she does she can carry it off with style. (pg. 36)

This story, which ends on an amusing note, seems to typify much of Teffi’s work from this period.

There are one or two more poignant pieces too. ‘The Lifeless Beast’ tells of a young girl who feels desperately lonely at home due to a breakdown in relations between her mother and father. Her only friend is a soft toy – a stuffed ram that she longs to bring to life.

He always looked at Katya with gentle affection. He never made any complaints or reproaches and he understood everything. (pg. 43)

But as the weeks pass by, and the ram turns grubby and worn he becomes a metaphor for the parents’ decaying marriage.

The second group of stories, those covering the period 1916-19, are especially interesting. ‘One Day in the Future’ takes a satirical look at the Communist movement. It describes a world where the old social orders are a reversed: doctors are reduced to the roles of servants; vice-admirals act as couriers; draymen and watchmen are elevated to a higher status.

His doorman had once been a singer at the Imperial Theatre. With the graceful magnificence of Verdi’s Don Carlos, he flung open the doors before Terenty.

The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor. Though that may have been why he talked with such enthusiasm about oats. (pg. 81)

One of the most fascinating pieces in the whole collection is ‘Rasputin’, an account of Teffi’s own encounters with this legendary figure. Here’s how she describes him:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, piercing, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes. Whenever he said something, he would look round the whole group, his eyes piercing each person in turn, as if to say, “Have I given you something to think about? Are you satisfied? Have I surprised you?” (pg. 104)

Rasputin is drawn to Teffi and cannot understand why she fails to respond to his charms – he is clearly not accustomed to meeting such resistance from anyone, let alone a woman. Teffi detects something deeply unpleasant and chilling about the atmosphere surrounding Rasputin: ‘the grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark beyond our knowledge.’ There is the sense that one could quite easily fall under his hypnotic spell and never be able to break free from it.

In the third section, the stories from Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, we learn a little of Teffi’s life as an émigré. ‘Que Faire?’ perfectly captures the mood amongst the community:

We – les russes, as they call us – live the strangest of lives here, nothing like other people’s. We stick together, for example, not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion. Every lesrusse hates all the others – hates them just as fervently as the others hate him. (pg. 139)

This sense of mutual wariness seeps into everyday conversations amongst the lesrusses in which everyone’s name is prefaced by the phrase ‘that-crook , a habit that gives rise to comments such as this:

“Some of us got together at that-crook Velsky’s yesterday for a game of bridge. There was that-crook Ivanov, that-crook Gusin, that-crook Popov. Nice crowd.” (pg. 140)

Several of the remaining stories in this section are shot through with a strong sense of nostalgia, a deep longing for the days of Teffi’s childhood in her beloved homeland.

Section IV contains two Magic Tales from the 1930s, including ‘The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)’. This is another highlight of the collection, a haunting story that feels grounded in truth. In this extract, Teffi recalls a time during the Civil War.

That evening I wept for a long time. I was burying my past. I understood for the first time that all the paths I had taken, all the paths I had followed to reach my present position, had been entirely destroyed – blown up like railway tracks behind the last train of a retreating army. (pg. 218)

The final stories in this collection are deeply melancholic in tone. Once again, there is a strong sense that Teffi is drawing on her own life experience. This is especially clear in ‘And Time Was No More’, a poignant tale of dreams reaching back into the author’s time in St Petersburg.

Subtly Worded is a fascinating collection, notable for the sheer variety of stories it contains. What makes these pieces particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience. Subtly Worded is another gem from Pushkin Press, one of my go-to publishers for interesting literature in translation.

Grant (1streading) and Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) have also reviewed this excellent collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 3/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. by Stephen Snyder)

This review was originally published as a guest post on The Writes of Women blog (25th March 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish it here – I’ve held it till August to tie in with Biblibio’s Women in Translation month.

When the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa was one of two female writers from Japan to make the shortlist this year. The other was Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone – my review of Strange Weather; Naomi’s review.

IMG_1713

Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed, and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier, but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year (see here for Naomi’s review). In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15, Harvill Secker)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories, Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, Old Mrs. J (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings that have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’ (pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

Several other bloggers have reviewed Revenge including fellow IFFP-shadow participants: Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List, David Hebblethwaite, Dolce Bellezza and Tony Messenger.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: personal copy.