Tag Archives: Women in Translation

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Françoise Sagan was just eighteen when she wrote her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. On its publication in 1954, the book was an instant sensation, flying off the shelves and making a celebrity of its author in the process. It is a wonderful book, an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the backdrop of a heady summer on the Riviera. Bonjour Tristesse might just be the perfect holiday read.

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Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond. At forty, Raymond – a widower for the past fifteen years – seems young and vibrant for his age; he is an attractive man ‘full of life and possibilities’. Also staying with them at their beautiful villa in the South of France is Raymond’s latest lover, a tall red-haired girl named Elsa. She is to all intents and purposes a young playmate for Raymond.

For the past couple of years, Cécile has been living the high life with her father, accompanying him to glamorous parties and sharing his fondness for amusement and frivolity. She loves Raymond very dearly, for he is kind, generous, fun-loving and full of affection for her. In some ways, Cécile sees Raymond more as a friend and equal than a father/authority figure. Elsa fits into this set-up quite neatly for she is youthful, sweet and very easy-going (if a little transparent). In any case, Cécile knows that Elsa probably won’t be around for very long. After all, her father gets bored with his playthings fairly quickly; consequently, there is a new mistress in his life every six months or so. In this scene, Cécile reflects on her father’s views on love, views that have almost certainly influenced her own impressions of the subject.

Late into the night we talked of love and its complications. In my father’s eyes these were purely imaginary. He categorically rejected all notions of fidelity, earnestness or commitment, explaining to me that they were arbitrary and sterile. Coming from anyone else, these views would have shocked me. But I knew that, in his case, they did not rule out either tenderness or devotion, these being feelings which he entertained all the more readily because he believed them to be, indeed knew they were, transient. I was greatly attracted to the concept of love affairs that were rapidly embarked upon, intensely experienced and quickly over. At the age I was, fidelity held no attraction. I knew little of love, apart from its trysts, its kisses and its lethargies. (pg. 9)

At first, everything is leisurely and glorious. The three holidaymakers spend their days on the beach, swimming, relaxing and acquiring golden tans. All except Elsa, who – being red-haired and fair-skinned – is burning up, blistering and peeling in the heat of the sun. Plus for Cécile, there is the added attraction of Cyril, a handsome law student who is staying with his mother in a neighbouring villa. While she does not usually care for young men, Cécile finds herself drawn to Cyril; he has a sensible, reliable look about him that she immediately likes.

Nevertheless, it’s not long before this idyllic existence is disturbed. Into the mix comes Anne Larsen, a beautiful, sophisticated, elegant woman, close to Raymond in terms of age, and the polar opposite of the young, free-spirited Elsa. Without really thinking about the potential impact on Elsa, Raymond has invited Anne – an old friend of his late wife’s – to come and stay at the villa for a while. Here’s how Cécile recalls Anne when she hears of her imminent arrival.

At forty-two she was a very attractive woman, much sought-after, with a beautiful face that was proud, world-weary and aloof. This aloofness was the only thing that could be held against her. She was pleasant yet distant. Everything about her denoted an unwavering will and a serenity that was actually intimidating. (pg. 8)

At first, Cécile is relatively happy with Anne’s appearance on the scene. After all, she was friendly with Cécile’s mother when the latter was alive; plus Cécile rather admires Anne even if she does find her quite intimidating at times. A couple of years earlier, Anne spent some time with Cécile, giving her a few lessons in life and ensuring she was tastefully dressed into the bargain. As a consequence, Cécile has remained very grateful to Anne for this grounding in elegance.

Before long, the rather glamorous Anne is in the ascendancy with Raymond, while Elsa, with her sunburnt skin and dried-out hair, is fading into the background. Moreover, Raymond appears pretty keen on Anne, viewing her both as a possible partner and as a mother figure for Cécile. All of a sudden Anne and Raymond announce that they would like to get married, an announcement that seems to please Cécile, at least initially, even if she harbours some internal doubts.

Being forty must bring with it the fear of loneliness, perhaps the last stirrings of desire…I had never thought of Anne as a woman, more as an abstraction. I had seen her as being composed of confidence, elegance and intelligence, though never of sensuality or weakness. I could understand my father’s pride: the haughty, aloof Anne Larsen was marrying him. Did he love her and would he be capable of loving her for long? Could I distinguish between this tenderness and the tenderness he felt for Elsa? I closed my eyes. The heat was making me drowsy. There we were on the terrace, all three of us, full of reservations, of secret fears and of happiness. (pg. 35)

Nevertheless, nothing in Cécile’s world seems to stay the same for too long. It soon becomes apparent that Anne is intent on introducing a certain amount of structure and discipline into the young girl’s life (and Raymond’s too for that matter). She persuades Raymond that Cécile should stop seeing Cyril; instead Cécile must knuckle down to some serious revision for the retake of her exams in September. Gone are the glorious, heady days of endless pleasure and happiness. While Cecile and Raymond favour fun, entertainment and gaiety, Anne despises anything taken to extremes. Instead she values intelligence, serenity and discretion. Cécile realises that life with her father is about to change forever, and not for the better. She feels resentful towards Anne, somewhat betrayed by her father and bereft at the loss of Cyril.

Yes, that was what I held against Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I was, by my very nature, made for happiness and affability and light-heartedness, but because of her I was entering a world of reproaches and guilt, a world in which I was getting lost because I was not used to introspection. And what was she bringing me? I took stock of how strong she was: she had wanted my father and she had got him; she was gradually going to make of us the husband and daughter of Anne Larsen, which meant that we would become civilized, well-mannered, happy people. For she would make us happy. I could well imagine how easily we, unstable creatures that we were, would yield to the attraction of having structure in our lives and of not having to shoulder responsibility. She was much too efficient. My father was already growing away from me. (pgs. 39-40)

As a consequence, Cécile hatches a plan – one that will involve all the key players in the mix, one designed to restore the perfect balance in her life.

Bonjour Tristesse is an utterly compelling read. It feels very accomplished and self-assured for the work of an eighteen-year-old girl, especially given the time when it was written. Up until the point at which Anne arrives at the villa, Cécile’s actions and way of life have not been subjected to any form of critical appraisal or moral judgment. She has simply been allowed to do as she pleases. Anne’s attitude exposes Cécile to a world of censure and reproaches, and it’s an environment that feels completely alien to her. I particularly love Cécile’s inner reflections and the sense of duality that starts to emerge in her character. On the one hand, Cécile admires Anne for all the reasons I mentioned earlier; on the other, she despises Anne for admonishing her and for threatening the joy of her life with Raymond. In concocting her plan, Cécile is aiming to leverage a number of things: her father’s jealousy, youthful spirit and sense of pride; Elsa’s vanity and sentimentality; and Cyril’s devotion to Cécile herself. Plus she is counting on a particular response from Anne too. It’s a fairly potent mix.

I’m going to leave it there for now. I have some thoughts on the translation too, but I’ll leave those for the comments (or another time). There are several other reviews of this novel across the blogosphere, but here are links to a few I recall: posts by Claire, Max and Gemma.

As I was thinking about Bonjour Tristesse, I couldn’t help but be reminded of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which I read back in July – another intoxicating read, perfect for summer.

Bonjour Tristesse is published by Penguin Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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.

Escape by Dominique Manotti (tr. Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz)

Escape is my first encounter with Dominique Manotti – a French crime novelist and specialist in the economic history of the 19th Century – and it’s a very enjoyable one indeed.

The novel opens in 1987 with the escape of Filippo and Carlo from an Italian prison. For the past six months, Filippo, a simple petty criminal from Rome, has been sharing a cell with Carlo, a former leading figure in the left-wing Red Brigades movement. During this time young Filippo has been in thrall to Carlo, mesmerised by his charismatic cellmate’s story of activism and violence against the authorities.

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Carlo has engineered his escape via the prison’s waste-disposal chute, and Filippo, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, dives into the rubbish skip to join his cellmate as he makes his exit. Carlo’s associates are waiting for him on the other side, but no one wants Filippo tagging along for the ride. As a result, Carlo sends Filippo on his way with some sage advice, words that continue to flit through Filippo’s mind during the days and months to come:

‘We part company here.’ He places a canvas bag at Filippo’s feet. ‘I’ve put everything I could find in the cars in there for you. Clothes, two sandwiches, and some money.’ Carlo pauses, Filippo says nothing. ‘My escape will be in the news, I think. And they’ll be looking for you, because you broke out with me. You’ll have to keep a low profile for a while, until things settle down.’ A pause. Filippo still saying nothing. ‘Do you understand what I’m telling you?’

A nod. Filippo continues to gaze at the mountains.

‘If things get too tough here in Italy, go over to France. Here on this envelope, I’ve written the address of Lisa Biaggi, in Paris. Go there and say I sent you, tell her what happened. She’ll help you.’ Filippo takes the envelope without looking at Carlo and slips it in the bag. Carlo stands up.

‘Goodbye, Filippo. Take care of yourself.’

And he leaves, walking fast and without turning round. (pg. 5, Arcadia Books)

Carlo’s swift departure leaves Filippo feeling bereft and abandoned. He decides to head north across the mountain paths and two or three weeks later, he hits Bologna. On his arrival in the city, Filippo buys a newspaper and reads of Carlo’s death during an attempted bank raid in Milan. Moreover, two of Carlo’s accomplices were observed fleeing the scene leaving a member of the carabinieri and a security guard for dead.  Filippo quickly realises he’s almost certainly a prime suspect for the crime, and skips to Paris in search of Lisa.

Lisa – a political refugee from Italy and Carlo’s girlfriend – is suspicious of Filippo and believes Carlo’s death may have been a planned assassination, a set-up involving the Italian Secret Service. Nevertheless, she finds Filippo an apartment in Paris (by way of her friend, Cristina), but wants little more to do with him. Once again, Filippo feels dumped and worthless:

He’d jumped because he’d followed Carlo, like iron filings to a magnet. His thoughts always returned to Carlo. His form, so clear, so close, within reach, a warm glow – Filippo closes his eyes and hold out his hand, as he used to do in their cell, but only encounters emptiness. He hunches over his sheet of paper; his drawings overlap. Above all, Carlo is a voice, a language, and stories. The memories of never-ending nights spent listening to him flood back powerfully, overwhelming him, those memories that he’d tried to bury, to destroy because he felt abandoned, betrayed. Carlo had the words to talk about the struggle of those heady years, the passion, the battle against slave labour, the thrill of the fight, the euphoria of victory, the agony of defeat and the joy of freedom, jubilant violence. Being prepared to put your life at risk, every day. For a while I wanted to forget everything about him. Betrayal. Impossible. Filippo is suffocating. The sheet of paper is now covered in black. He screws it into a ball, throws it into the waste-paper bin and picks up another. (pgs. 43-44)

Gradually, Filippo channels his frustration in a more positive direction. Filippo recalls how Carlo inspired him to find a way of expressing his feelings through language, and the young escapee decides to document his story. He sees this as a means of demonstrating his own importance, to show Lisa and Christina he means business. Filippo wants to claim Carlo as his own:

Those two [Lisa and Christina] will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men. (pg. 45)

Filippo writes the story, starting with the pair’s escape from prison and ending with the botched bank raid, embellishing his own role in events at every stage. His narrative is compelling, his characters realistic and free of the typical stereotypes of the genre, and his novel is snapped up by a publisher. Keen to position Filippo’s ‘story’ as a fictional one, the publishers advise him to change the characters’ names together with the date and location of the bank raid just to be on the safe side. On its publication in France, the novel is a major success and Filippo – expertly groomed and coached by the publisher’s in-house publicist – is in demand for interviews and public appearances. But as the novel’s fame grows, Filippo is at risk as the Italian police, the public prosecutor and intelligence services begin to suspect that the book presents the authentic version of events. And as Lisa, a former journalist, begins her own investigation into Filippo and Carlo’s story, her discoveries lead back to political events and acts of corruption in the recent past.

I enjoyed Escape very much. Manotti draws on The Years of Lead, a period of socio-political turmoil and terrorism in Italy that lasted from the late-sixties to the eighties, to provide some context for events in her novel. Acts of unrest and terrorism were attributed to far-right and far-left groups depending on the source, and corruption was rife. Manotti uses this framework to produce an intelligent and intricately-plotted novel with several layers and developments, one that held my attention throughout. At 160 pages, it’s a pacey and thought-provoking read on a political and emotional level.

Filippo, the novel’s central character, is very engaging and so much more than just a one-note street criminal. We understand his conflicted emotions: his admiration for Carlo during their time as cellmates; his feelings of rejection when Carlo abandons him; his need to prove himself to Lisa and Cristina. And we follow his transformation from naïve kid to self-assured literary star.

Escape also shows us how the relationship between reality and fiction is often complex. In an afterword to the novel, translator Amanda Hopkinson mentions that Manotti, a former political and union activities herself, has turned to writing novels ‘par désespoir’. As one of the characters in Escape reflects ‘If I want to try and salvage our past, there’s only one thing left for me to do. Write novels.’

Stu at Winstonsdad’s and MarinaSofia at findingtimetowrite have also reviewed Escape.

Escape is published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

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.