Tag Archives: #WITMonth

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Chéri by Colette (tr. by Roger Senhouse)

Today sees my next contribution to August’s Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), a brilliant event hosted by Biblibio: Colette’s Chéri, first published in France in 1920.

In the opening pages of this novella, we are introduced to Léa de Lonval, a courtesan in her late-forties, and her young gigolo, Fred, affectionately known as Chéri.

Chéri Peloux, a rather vain and idle twenty-five-year-old with a penchant for pearls, has been living with Léa, a ‘friend’ and sparring partner of his mother‘s, for six years. Léa has, in many ways, been the making of Chéri, transforming him from an undernourished adolescent into a handsome young lover. But now their situation is about to change. Chéri is to be married to Edmée, the daughter of Marie-Laure (another acquaintance of Léa’s), and this development leaves Léa feeling somewhat concerned about her advancing age and the end of her days as a courtesan:

‘What’s the matter?’ Chéri asked.

She looked at him in astonishment. ‘Nothing, I don’t like the rain, that’s all.’

‘Oh! All right, I thought…’

‘What?’

‘I thought something was wrong.’

She could not help giving a frank laugh. ‘Wrong with me, because you’re getting married? No, listen…you’re…you’re so funny.’

She seldom laughed outright, and her merriment vexed Chéri. He shrugged his shoulders and made the usual grimace while lighting a cigarette, jutting out his chin too far and protruding his lower lip.

‘You oughtn’t to smoke before luncheon,’ Léa said.

He made some impertinent retort she did not hear. She was listening to the sound of her own voice and its daily lectures, echoing away down the past five years. ‘It’s like the endless repetition in opposite looking-glasses,’ she thought. Then, with a slight effort, she returned to reality and cheerfulness.

‘It’s lucky for me that there’ll soon be someone else to stop you smoking on an empty stomach.’

‘Oh! she won’t be allowed to have a say in anything,’ Chéri declared. ‘She’s going to be my wife, isn’t she? Let her kiss the sacred ground I tread on, and thank her lucky starts for the privilege. And that will be that.’

He exaggerated the thrust of his chin, clenched his teeth on his cigarette-holder, parted his lips, and, as he stood there in his white silk pyjamas, succeeded only in looking like an Asiatic prince grown pale in the impenetrable obscurity of palaces. (pgs. 30-31, Vintage Books)

There’s so much in the passage I’ve just quoted: Léa’s inner sadness and resignation at the prospect of Chéri’s forthcoming marriage; her determination, outwardly, to put a brave face on things; Chéri’s vanity and air of self-importance. And there’s Chéri’s comment about the role of his bride-to-be. A wife is expected to serve and attend to her husband’s needs; her own voice and opinions are of little importance in this society. In fact, I didn’t feel I got to know Edmée very well at all during the course of this story, but perhaps that’s the author’s intention?

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As the novella progresses we are treated to some wonderfully comic interplay between the main players, especially the three middle-aged women: Léa, Chéri’s mother (Madame Charlotte Peloux) and Marie-Laure, the mother of Chéri’s young bride. Colette portrays Léa and Charlotte Peloux as friendly adversaries, somehow drawing comfort from one another despite their differences. In this scene, at a gathering at Madame Peloux’s house, the guests discuss Chéri and Edmée’s wedding and the mother of the bride, Marie-Laure:

‘Madame Charlotte told us all about the wedding ceremony,’ bleated Madame Aldonza. ‘The young Madame Peloux was a dream in her wreath of orange blossom!’

‘A madonna! A madonna!’ Madame Peloux corrected at the top of her voice, with a burst of religious fervour. ‘Never, never, has anyone looked so divine. My son was in heaven! In heaven, I tell you! … What a pair they made, what a pair!’

‘You hear that, my passion? Orange blossom!’ Lili murmured. ‘And tell me, Charlotte, what about our mother-in-law, Marie-Laure?’

Madame Peloux’s pitiless eyes sparkled: ‘Oh, her! Out of place, absolutely out of place. In tight-fitting, black, like an eel wriggling out of the water – you could see everything, breasts, stomach – everything!’

‘By Jove!’ muttered the Baroness de la Berche with military gusto.

‘And that look of contempt she has for everybody, that look of having a dose of cyanide up her sleeve and half a pint of chloroform inside her handbag! As I said, out of place – that exactly describes her. She behaved as if she could only open spare us five minutes of her precious time –she’d hardly brushed the kiss off her lips, before she said, “Au revoir, Edmée, au revoir, Fred,” and off she flew.’ (pgs. 43-44)

However, it is the changes in Léa and Chéri’s relationship which form the heart of this book. Léa has had a number of other lovers in the past, but Chéri just might be the love of her life. At one point, he openly admits:

‘What I should have liked, or rather what would have been…fitting…decent…is to be your last [lover].’ (pg. 33)

Alone for the first time in many years, Léa is unable to settle, anxious that her beauty is fading. Which of the old crones at Madame Peloux’s house will Léa resemble in ten years’ time?

She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known: grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living: years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless. (p. 47)

That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, apart from saying that my sympathies were with Léa throughout. Luckily for her, she is financially independent at a time when many women had to marry for financial support and survival.

Chéri was my first experience of Colette, and I’d happily read another at some point. I enjoyed the richness of Colette’s prose and the wonderful evocation of the period.

Other information on ColetteLizzi at These Little Words posted a very interesting piece on Colette (which prompted me to try one of her books), and Max at Pechorin’s Journal has reviewed Gigi and The CatGigi sounds as if it would make a delightful companion piece to Chéri.

My edition of Chéri (tr. by Roger Senhouse) is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.

Drowned by Therese Bohman (tr. by Marlaine Delargy)

Where to start with Drowned? Well, I should say upfront that it’s a psychological novella by the Swedish editor and literary critic, Therese Bohman. Drowned is a little different to the types of books I typically choose, but a reading friend recommended it and I was keen to give it a shot.

The story is divided into two parts, and the first section opens with Marina, who narrates the story, arriving in Skåne (in the Swedish countryside) to visit her older sister, Stella. The two sisters have not seen one another in some time, and Stella now lives with Gabriel, a relatively famous novelist in his mid-forties. Gabriel is a good fifteen years older than Stella, an age difference that appears to have caused the girls’ parents some concern.

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The differences between the two sisters are evident from the opening pages of this novella. In the blistering heat of midsummer, Marina arrives by train feeling listless, grubby and headachy from the journey, whereas Stella appears cool and elegant. Marina seems ambivalent about the demise of her relationship with boyfriend, Peter (who has gone to Spain with friends), and shows little enthusiasm for her studies at Stockholm. By contrast, Stella invests much energy in her role as a landscape planner; she is a keen gardener, both at home and at work where she heads up the planning section of the council and parks department.

Gabriel works from home in the couple’s somewhat isolated idyllic cottage surrounded by a garden bursting with plants and flowers, and these images form one of the key themes within the book. Following the success of his first novel, Ophelia (another reference point), Gabriel is frustrated by the process of re-writing his second. Marina read Ophelia some years ago in high school, and while her memories of the book are somewhat vague, she can recall a ‘cloying sense of love bordering on obsession’ so well written it was almost as if she had experienced it herself.

In the heady and intense summer heat, it’s not long before a precarious attraction develops between Marina and Gabriel. In this early scene, Gabriel has been painting the henhouse in the garden and on seeing Marina, he realises there is a smear of paint on his forehead:

I move a step closer and run my thumb gently over the mark on his forehead. He looks at me, no longer smiling. There is a strong smell of paint, as if the hot, still air is intensifying the smell, making it linger. The lock of hair falls into his eyes again, and I gently push it aside to get at the paint. I can feel his breath against my cheek, he is close now, bending his head toward me so that I can reach. His forehead is brown from the sun, his whole face, his arms, he is wearing a faded black T-shirt and he smells wonderful, warm.

“Has it gone?”

“Yes.”

I hold up my hand to show him, red paint on my thumb and forefinger, and he suddenly grabs hold of my wrist, twists my hand around, and looks at my fingers. It is a rapid movement, decisive, his grip is hard, just like when I met him on that first evening, the firm handshake. Perhaps he isn’t aware of how strong he is.

“Pretty nail polish,” he says.

I did my nails last night, a cool pink, shimmering like mother-of-pearl in the sunlight.

“Thanks,” I say quietly.

My cheeks flush red. (Other Press, pg. 33)

There is a vague sense of unease in the relationships between each of the three main characters. Relations between the two sisters feel a little strained, and I’ve already touched upon Marina and Gabriel. As for Gabriel and Stella, at times the writer is loving and attentive towards his partner, but on other occasions he wonders what he’s supposed to do to make her happy. Moreover, Stella hints to her sister that she finds Gabriel somewhat unstable and difficult to live with.

Bohman brings a claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere to this first section of Drowned. Aromas pervade the air, and the heady, oppressive, almost fecund mood is augmented by descriptions of plants and flowers as they creep and spread into every available space:

There is a vase of sweet peas on the table now, spreading a perfume that seems to grow more intense as the day goes on. They clamber up a length of chicken wire in the kitchen garden, getting entangled in one another and in the wire, winding their tendrils like lianas around everything they can reach, greedily, clinging on tightly, some are impossible to pull free when you’re picking them. (pg. 72)

The second section of the book moves forward to November as Marina returns once again to the house in Skåne. The torrid heat has long gone, but this part of the story remains atmospheric as a result of a plunge in temperature:

This is late fall, raw and rainy. I can no longer smell the rotting leaves, it is no longer possible to tell that it was once summer. The entire landscape is in a state of torpor, it has resigned itself, let go. No fall colours, only brown and gray, no leaves left on the trees, they are lying on the ground now, sodden in the puddles, crushed, a mush of fallen leaves covering the lawn. (pg 111)

I enjoyed this psychological novella about how secrets, obsessions and guilt can bind people together. Bohman explores the darker aspects of our relationships, and she does so in a way that held my interest throughout. There are a few themes I would have liked to discuss further in this review, but it’s very difficult to do so without disclosing key elements of the plot. Drowned is an unsettling read, and in some ways it reminds me a little of Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room (tr. by Deborah Dawkin), certainly in terms of the novella’s somewhat claustrophobic and unnerving atmosphere – while Drowned maintains an air of ambiguity, The Blue Room is a more slippery read and harder to pin down.

I’ll wrap up with one final point. Occasionally during the narrative, Marina reflects on memories of her relationship with Stella when they were children, and I found myself looking for hints and clues from the past. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of these sections:

I think about when I was little, when it was winter and Stella and I were waiting in the backseat of the car for Mom and Dad, who had gone off to do some shopping or something, and the windows got all misted up on the inside and we drew flowers and animals and hearts, and Stella wrote the names of the boys she was in love with. Dad used to tell us to try not to breathe until he had closed the car door and we would laugh and try, timing each other to see how long we could hold our breath, Stella always won. (pg. 136)

I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s focus on Women in Translation (#WITMonth), which is running throughout August.

Drowned is published by Other Press. Source: personal copy.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (review)

I’ve already reviewed My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s recent series of Neapolitan novels. The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel, was first published in Italy in 2002 and translated into the English in 2005.

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The Days of Abandonment is narrated by Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old woman originally from Naples, now living in Turin. She has been married to Mario for fifteen years, and they have two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. In a quietly devastating opening paragraph, Mario informs Olga that he wants to leave her:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink. (p. 9, Europa Editions)

At first, Olga is convinced that Mario isn’t serious; after all, this has happened before. Six months after the couple got together, Mario suddenly announced that he no longer wished to see Olga, only to return five days later claiming ‘there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense.’

Consequently, in the early stages of their separation, Olga continues to behave affectionately towards Mario ‘ready to sustain him in his obscure crisis’ as he returns periodically to visit the children. But Olga soon feels a sharp animosity growing inside her, a bitterness only heightened when she learns Mario has left her for another woman, and her demeanour starts to alter:

I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully. I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.

Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate to the few acquaintances who still tried coldly to console me that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut. I hated the idea that he knew everything about me while I knew little or nothing of him. (pg. 26)

In an effort to calm herself, Olga begins to re-examine her relationship with Mario in the minutest detail in an attempt to understand where she has gone wrong and why her husband has left. But it’s not long before her need to self-analyse gives way to feelings driven by resentment and rage:

A tangle of resentments, the sense of revenge, the need to test the humiliated power of my body were burning up any residue of good sense.  (pg. 48)

As Olga struggles to maintain a grip on her life, those around her bear the brunt of her frustrations; she strikes out at Mario, strangers who cross her path, and she comes perilously close to abandoning her children in the gardens of the local museum (near a statue of Pietro Micca):

And I began to shout that, if in their opinion I was no good, they should go to him [their father], there was a new mother, beautiful and smart, certainly from Turin, I would bet she knew everything about Pietro Micca and that city of kings and princesses, of haughty people, cold people, metal automatons. I screamed and screamed, out of control. (pg. 65)

And a few lines later:

Ah yes, I wished to wound them, my children, I wished to wound above all the boy, who already had a Piedmontese accent, Mario, too, spoke like a Turinese now, he had eliminated the Neapolitan cadences utterly. Gianni acted like an impudent young bull, I detested it, he was growing up foolish and presumptuous and aggressive, eager to shed his own blood or that of others in some uncivilized conflict, I couldn’t bear it any more.

I left them in the gardens, beside the fountain, and set out quickly along Via Galileo Ferraris, toward the suspended figure of Victor Emmanuel II, a shadow at the end of parallel lines of buildings, high up against a slice of warm cloudy sky. Maybe I really wanted to abandon them forever, forget about them, so that when Mario finally showed up again I could strike my forehead and exclaim: your children? I don’t know. I seem to have lost them: the last time I saw them was a month ago, in the gardens of the Cittadella.

After a little I slowed down, turned back. What was happening to me. I was losing touch with those blameless creatures, they were growing distant, as if balanced on a log floating away upon the flow of the current. Get them back, take hold of them again, hug them close: they were mine. (pgs 65-66)

From here, Olga descends into a deep depression and finds herself staring, falling even, into the darkest recesses of a terrible abyss. There is an excruciating scene in which she seeks sex with one of her neighbours, not out of any feelings of desire (in fact she finds this man quite repulsive) but out of a desperate need to negate the insult of being deserted by Mario.

Tormented by thoughts of Mario and his new life, Olga is unable to think clearly or concentrate on anything else. Confusion and disorientation reign as this woman’s previously ordered life crumbles around her. Having neglected to pay the bill she finds the phone is no longer working; ants infest her apartment, and there are a couple of scenes involving door locks which I’ll avoid discussing for fear of revealing further details about this section of Olga’s story.

I had only to quiet the view inside, the thoughts. They got mixed up, they crowded in on one another, shreds of words and images, buzzing frantically, like swarms of wasps, they gave to my gestures a brute capacity to do harm. (pg. 93)

While the title, The Days of Abandonment, clearly refers to Mario’s desertion of Olga, there’s also a sense that the phrase refers to Olga’s surrender to her own state of mind:

Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings. Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened…I didn’t know how to find answers to the question marks, every possible answer seemed absurd. I was lost in the where am I, in the what am I doing. I was mute beside the why. (pg. 107)

At various stages of her abandonment Olga is hounded by her memories of a once contented woman from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman whose husband ran away to Pescara for the love of another. This woman’s husband ‘had abandoned her, had cancelled her out from memory and feeling’ leaving her with nothing, not even her name; she became known as the ‘poverella,’ a poor woman torn to pieces by the loss of her husband. At one stage, Olga even questions her own identity as she struggles to separate reality from the imaginary: is she becoming the ‘poverella’ of her childhood?

Occasionally though, Olga regains a sense of proportion, a feeling that she can recover from this terrible experience and pull herself out of this place. Will she succeed? Well, that’s not for me to say, but if you read this exceptional novel, you’ll find out for yourself.

I was expecting The Days of Abandonment to be very good, but it is extraordinarily good. This is no-holds-barred fearless writing, a novel that delves deeply into the human psyche. Ferrante writes with devastating candour, exploring our perceptions of a woman, a mother with responsibilities, who finds herself face-to-face with a crisis. The story is shocking and violent in places, and the language explicit at times, but my word it feels necessary to convey the intensity of Olga’s story. A disturbing, but utterly unforgettable and compelling book, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein.

Biblibio and Tony Malone have also reviewed this novel, which I read as part of August’s Women in Translation #WITMonth, championed by Biblibio.

The Days of Abandonment (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.