Have you ever finished a novel with a sigh of mingled relief and bafflement (“whatever that was about I’m so very glad that it’s over); puzzled over what you had read for the last day or so; bored your companions enormously by recounting various bits and pieces (well, Mr. J was pretty bored but the cats seemed o.k. with the monologue); found yourself laughing at something you passed over at first and, finally, realized that you’d just finished one of the strangest small masterpieces that was ever likely to come your way? And all this in less than forty-eight hours? An odd reaction, to be sure, but then, this is a very odd book, at least for readers like myself who are unfamiliar with Solstad’s work. If you’ve read any of it, please share your own reactions. Don’t be shy! Are you a fan, who’s devoured everything translated into your own language (or — and I’m in awe if this is the case — were you able to read it in the original Norwegian?). Or were you more in the “one and I’m done” category?
Before going further, I need to point out that I owe my discovery of this very interesting writer to my participation in two fun reading events: Annabel’s #NordicFinds Reading Month and the 2022 European Reading Challenge. Although I already had a copy of Novel 11 as part of my subscription to the New Classics series offered by New Directions press, I’m afraid it would have languished in the TBR pile (probably near the bottom) had I not had an incentive to actually read it. Isn’t self-discipline wonderful? I’ve always wished I had some!
Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies? I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable. My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five. If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.
The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work. Childhood,Youth andDependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976). All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years. After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019. In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.
This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic). This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart. Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years. These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long). The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession. For me the answer is “no.” If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.
Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background. Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen. Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood. Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention. The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark. The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty: she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.
Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details. In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center. And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.
Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer. It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):
In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles. My father had left for work and my brother was in school. So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.
* * *
Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know. Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window. On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child. Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’ Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad. But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once. My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.
* * *
It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me. Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us. And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it. I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other. Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..
Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:
When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me. My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility. She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either. From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.
Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.
Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion. Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots. It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt. And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed. By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break. Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe. Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon. Ditlevsen’s reaction? In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.
In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life). It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success. It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program. One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom. It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:
I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband]. I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window. It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.
As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life. The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience. But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?
In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested. As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate. Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review. Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review. Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy. The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022. (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.) If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.
Although I have a dismal completion rate, I adore book challenges! There are few joys to compare with lovingly pawing through my stacks (and I really do have stacks. And stacks) of unread books, searching for just the combination that will inspire me (for once) to finish whatever challenge it is that I’ve decided to undertake. I think I basically love book challenges for the sense of possibility they offer, the lure that this will be the year I read Ulysses; or five 19th century classics by unfamiliar authors; or a pre-1970 novel that has an animal in the title! Of course, my January exuberance is counter-balanced by my December reality check, when I (again) sadly acknowledge that most of these wonderful accomplishments didn’t materialize (even so, however, I always discover at least a few great new books/authors). But away with the pessimism because — it’s the beginning of January! The possibilities are endless! Reverting to my southern, down-home roots, I tell you, dear readers, that January, with its plethora of fresh, shiny new challenges, is a month when I’m in hog heaven!
One of my favorite challenges from last year was Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, which focuses on reading books by European writers or set in European countries. Given my dismal completion rate for such things, I was sensibly doubtful about participating. The Challenge looked so much fun, however, and was such a painless way to read more translated literature, I decided to go for it. I had only discovered the challenge, however, very late in January and lingered just a bit too long over my selections. Then, with my utter lack of technical ability, I was unable to satisfy Mr. Linky in time to sign up officially. Quel désastre! There was clearly only one solution — I would be a shadow participant! Although I ultimately didn’t review any of my selections, I actually read quite a number of them and, most importantly, really enjoyed the experience. After a few substitutions for my original choices and a false start or two (my apologies to Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronica, but the time just wasn’t ripe for you), I read eight books I selected specifically for this challenge.
After shadowing in 2021, I decided that in 2022 I’d do the real thing and officially sign up for this year’s Challenge (besides, I now have almost a month to outwit Mr. Linky!). The Challenge simply requires participants to read books set in a European country or by a European writer; each book must be by a different writer and set in a different country. It’s very flexible in that participants decide how many books they want to read, from Pensione Weekender (one qualifying book in 2022) to a Deluxe Entourage (five). This year, as I did as a shadow participant, I will also observe a couple of my own idiosyncratic rules in choosing my selections. Because my reading is so overwhelmingly slanted towards books originally written in English, I will choose novels by non-Anglophone writers set, where possible, in their native or adopted countries. For the same reason I also won’t select any works by writers from the U.K. or Ireland; at least half of my reading comes from British and Irish writers, and for this Challenge I’d like to continue learning more about books from other European countries. Because I’m full of January optimism, and given that last year I read eight books that met the Challenge’s requirements, I’ve decided in 2022 to sign up for the deluxe package!
One result from a year of massive self-indulgence in acquiring books is that I’ve managed, with very little effort, to compile a list of some very enticing possibilities. This has been aided enormously by the fact that I’d already decided to participate in Annabookbel’s Reading Nordic Literature month; in effect, I’ve already had a lot of fun looking for reading possibilities from Scandinavia. As the reading year develops, my precise itinerary may change, i.e., I may add or eliminate countries and/or books; what you see below is simply the rough pool from which I plan to draw my selections. Although my goal is a minimum of five, I hope to read at least a few more. Because Scandinavia is a very much anticipated part of my tour, I’m starting my European journey with:
After Denmark, I’m on to
It’s now time to head south for to visit the German speaking lands:
It’s finally on to a very interesting tour through France, Belgium, Italy and Spain:
If I’m not totally exhausted by this point, I may take brief side trip:
I’ve had a copy of the great Hungarian writer Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy gathering dust on my shelves for several years now. I won’t say I’ve totally ignored it; every year or two I read a few pages, scratch my head and decide that, next summer will be the perfect time to dive in! You can imagine my delight when I discovered The Enchanted Night, Pushkin Press’s collection of Bánffy’s short stories. At last, something that fits my attention span and is (I hope) an accessible introduction to Bánffy’s work. Lana Bastašić is a contemporary Serbian writer whose debut novel, Catch The Rabbit, won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature. Having been in a few myself, I love stories about complicated friendships; Bastašić’s tale of two semi-estranged childhood friends on a road trip through post-war Bosnia looks really interesting.
Well, that’s it for my 2022 trip through Europe. Has anyone read any of my choices? If so, please share your opinion!
It’s that time of year again, isn’t it? Time to take stock of last year’s reads and to make those delightful reading plans for the coming months. As with so many other bloggers, last year was a difficult year for me. Not terrible, by any means, despite the pandemic, but — challenging. 2021 began with a house in disarray and my second move in ten months. It wound down with surgery last October; nothing serious, but I must admit recovery was slower than I had anticipated. Neither of these two events affected my reading very much, but as for the blogging — oh dear me! Frustrating really, as I read some marvelous things but couldn’t quite muster the concentration to do the reviewing. On both fronts, however, 2022 at least begins on a high note. Most of the boxes are unpacked (that is, if you ignore the garage), the books have (mostly) settled into their new resting places (although I’m already running short of shelf space — again!) and I’m whining (I believe the appropriate British term is “whinging”) about it but I’ve started back with the fitness routine. The pandemic, of course, is casting its hideously unwelcome shadow (particularly as I live in an area that’s partying like it’s 2019; needless to say the infection rate here is very high) but that’s life in the early 21st century.
Unsurprisingly, once things calmed down somewhat in my personal circumstances, my reading rebounded. Unlike 2020, when I seemed best able to concentrate on shorter works like novellas, this was the year I returned to novels, reading almost as many as I did before the pandemic. I don’t keep very complicated statistics (not that I dislike them, it’s just that I’m too lazy to keep track) but my informal list shows that in 2021 I finished almost double the number of novels I read in 2020. Approximately ten of these were old friends from the past (such as Henry James’ The Bostonians) that I was revisiting for a second or even third time. Although some of these were fairly short (if you’re being a bit picky about it, you might even term them “novellas”), they nevertheless packed quite a wallop and demanded slow and steady attention on my part. In this category, I’d include Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star and Fleur Jaeggy’s The Water Statues. Several, such as Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale (651 pages in my paperback Penguin edition) approached a Victorian tome in length. Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day was less physically substantial (a mere 400 Penguin pages) but a far more difficult read, as our Ms. Woolf struggled in this early work to develop the modernist novel while not being quite able to free herself from Mr. Bennett’s substantial (and very unwelcome) shadow. All of this is my own slightly pompous way of saying I counted each of these books as a “completed” novel, on the theory that the hefty page counts of some balanced the less substantial page counts of others.
Do you, like me, scan others’ yearly lists to see which novel was the very best one to that particular blogging friend? I’m afraid my list is a bit of a dud in that respect. Although I often pick something on impulse, or take a chance on a work that I’m not sure I’ll like, on the whole my reading selections are pretty targeted. While this makes for a happy reading life, it does tend to produce a blandly positive list, particularly as I don’t like to write extremely negative reviews (there are several books in my life, such as Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, that took me years to appreciate). Particularly as I didn’t review many books this year, I’m not going to pick out my top five, or ten or fifteen. I do feel comfortable, however, briefly highlighting just a few of the works that impressed me, each for different reasons. Please keep in mind that I’m excluding the novels that I posted on separately, such as Sigurd Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind or du Maurier’s The Parasites.
First Category: The Novel That Surprised Me Most
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Old Wives a jinx book, although I’ve clearly struggled with it. Do you have any inkling, my friends from the British Isles, how very difficult it can be for someone such as myself, when a writer begins his work with a detailed geographical description of a particular corner of England and then presupposes that you’re at least minimally acquainted with its character? So, yes, there was a barrier here. That was quickly surmounted, however, and I settled in to enjoy this wonderful novel. Bennett recounts an absorbing tale of two sisters or is his actual subject the nature of time itself? And who would have thought that Arnold Bennett would give such a exciting portrayal of a Paris under siege, or write such a vivid account of execution by guillotine, complete with sexual overtones? If you like big, multi-character realistic novels á la 19th century, put this one near the top of your list.
Second Category: New to Me Contemporary Author
Fagan uses her tale of a cursed Edinburgh tenement and its residents (which include the devil’s daughter herself, as well as the beat poet William Burroughs) to show an outsider’s history of Edinburgh over a ninety year period. Brutal and brilliant, this combination of fairy tale and urban realism stayed with me for a long time and put Fagan on my “always check out her latest” list.
Third Category: My Newly Discovered Classic
Fourth Category: Most Rewarding Re-Read
Have you ever had one of those horrible, walk-the-night cases of insomnia, where absolutely nothing will put you to sleep? In such cases, I’ve found, nothing will do but a really great novel that will take your mind off the fact that, all too soon, you’ll have to be up with the dawn and minimally functional. During my last such bout, I finally settled on James’ The Bostonians, with the idea that I’d read a chapter or two then move on to a more contemporary work. Well, two days later I’d finished my third (or is it fourth?) re-read of James’ flawed but fascinating novel. This time around, more strongly than ever, James’ exploration of a woman’s place in society and his examination of a brand of conservatism clinging to the past seemed especially timely. If you’re hooked on appealing characters and storybook endings, I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere. That would be a shame, as you’d miss a psychologically acute study of this novel’s three protagonists, a vividly drawn supporting cast of secondary characters, and a wonderful portrayal of post-civil war Boston in all its intellectual glory.
Fifth Category: Shorter Works
I was very pleased that my 2021 reading continued to include quite a few of those shorter works that I had mostly ignored prior to the pandemic. Although the five short story collections that I finished were all excellent, two deserve special mention:
Eileen Chang’s Love In A Fallen City and Aoko Matsuda’s Where The Wild Ladies Are really stood out for me among the short story collections I read in 2021.
Written and published in magazine form in the Shanghai of the 1940s, Chang’s stories were compiled and published in book form by NYRB Classics around 2010. Don’t be misled by the title; Chang is concerned not with love but with the raw sexual warfare between men and women. A young divorcee who has no illusions about the rich playboy with whom she becomes involved; an aging & unloved woman who spends most of her life getting those around her addicted to opium; a young girl who becomes a pawn in her scandalous aunt’s sexual maneuvers; the stories may be grim but they also effectively capture the tensions of a society in transition between old and new. And did I mention they’re beautifully written?
Matsuda’s collection is emotionally at the other end of the spectrum. Loosely inspired by Japanese fairy tales (no need to fear if you’re unfamiliar with them, as the collection includes a brief but helpful synopsis), Matsuda’s wildly inventive stories always manage to surprise. As an added bonus, they’re frequently very funny as well. I particularly enjoyed “Smartening Up,” in which a lovelorn young woman receives an unexpected visitor.
Sixth Category: Greatest Discovery of The Year
Seventh Category: Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction
Well, dear readers, I dare not disobey! That’s it for 2021; now on to the New Year!
I must say at the outset that I never intended to read, much less review, this book, at least not anytime soon. There I was, dear readers, working diligently (well, sort of) on a review of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale, when I became consumed with restlessness. After all, I hadn’t started a new book in almost two days! Oh, the horrors of withdrawal from my favorite drug! Writing a post was simply no substitute for the rush of a new reading selection, particularly when one has been mainlining for decades! Perhaps I could work on my Bennett post while making do with a slow read of an Edith Wharton novella, at least until I finished with Old Wives Tale and I was free to choose a longer work. Work before play, that’s always been my motto (except when it hasn’t). Just a click or two on the internet, then back to Mr. Bennett . . . but . . . what’s this enticing new novel, a bestseller yet in France? I don’t normally read bestsellers but this one is translated (by the well-known British translator Adriana Hunter) and doesn’t that elevate it a bit over usual entries on the New York Times’ bestseller list (I’m thinking here of an All American Christmas, a self-described heart warming collection of holiday memories from the Fox News staff, selling like hotcakes for five weeks now)? I’ll download a sample and read only a few pages, just to get some idea of the thing and then it’s back to Bennett’s tale of Constance and Sophie . . . . Well, dear readers, I think you can see where this is going. The Anomaly is so engaging, I’m afraid poor Arnold B. never had a chance (but I will get to him! Spoiler alert for my upcoming post: The Old Wives Tale is a fabulous novel).
Perhaps if I were more familiar with contemporary French culture, and better read in French literature, I would have been less surprised by this wonderful novel. For those who (like me) need to — ahem — brush up on the basics (all others may skip to the next paragraph), Le Tellier is a major figure in contemporary French intellectual life. He’s one of those amazing individuals who are supremely good at many things, including writing, journalism and mathematics. Offhand, I can’t think of any public figure comparable to Le Tellier in my own country (U.S.A.), particular when you throw in the fact that he’s also a food critic! Le Tellier has written several novels; The Anomaly, which is his fourth, won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2020 and has sold over a million copies world-wide. Have you ever, dear readers, come across a completely unfamiliar term, only to have it pop up again very soon afterwards? The word I’m thinking of, in the context of my review, is “Oulipian,” which I first encountered quite recently in one of Kaggsy’s reviews. Sparing you the click to Wiki, the adjective refers to a loose association of (mostly male) francophone writers and mathematicians who use constrained techniques to create their works, the idea being that the very rigidity of their chosen structure triggers ideas and inspirations. Italo Calvino was a member of the group and Le Tellier is, among his other accomplishments, its fourth president. Given this link, will it hardly surprise you to learn that Le Tellier ends The Anomaly with a calligram (that is also IMO a lipogram)! If you need an explanation of these terms, dear readers, you must click for yourself; while I am indulgent, I’ll only coddle so much, as any more “background” will confirm that I’m hopelessly pedantic.
Has my background paragraph given you an impression of a drily witty, erudite work, full of Gallic “in” jokes incomprehensible to a less refined anglophone audience? If so, I’ve done you a vast disservice. The Anomaly was one of the most entertaining, thought provoking and funniest novels I’ve read in quite some time. With a light touch and great psychological insight, Le Tellier welds a wild mix of genres (science fiction, thriller, love story, social satire, mystery) into a seamless whole, while dealing convincingly (and entertainingly) with subjects as diverse as a professional assassin’s business methods, a doomed love affair, probability analysis, and a child’s intense love for her pet frog. All this, combined with a masterly ability to maintain suspense, to make me care about a surprisingly large number of his many characters and to leave me pondering, long after I’d finished, the issues he raised concerning the nature of reality, the existence (or not) of free will and the ability of individuals to adapt to a drastically changed reality. C’est Magnifique!
If you’re still with me at this point, I can imagine your growing impatience. “O.k., so you liked it,” I imagine you saying, “but cut the adjectives and just tell me something concrete about the story!” Because Anomaly operates on so many levels, this is both an easy and impossible task. At its simplest, it concerns a seemingly random group of very disparate characters and how they cope, or don’t, with a situation straight out of The Twilight Zone. Le Tellier immediately plunges the reader into the very different stories of (among others) a merciless hired killer with a double life (when he’s not murdering people he runs a chain of vegetarian restaurants in Paris), a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful writer (quotes from his unexpected best seller, The anomaly, provide the novel’s epigraph and chapter headings), a closeted young singer from Nigeria who’s forced to conceal his homosexuality, and the six year old daughter of an American military family who’s blocking the memory of terrible events. Le Tellier develops these narrative arcs bit by bit, switching both style (the assassin’s sections are noirish, for example, while the arc devoted to an unhappy love affair is far more meditative and philosophical) and points of view. It’s a technique very reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (as I noted above, Calvino was also a member of the Oulipian group). As the stories develop, so does the suspense. In short order I was totally hooked on the mystery of what bound this seemingly random group together and why, as the novel progressed, they were being surveilled and/or apprehended by shadowy government agents. All I will say of the plot is that the reader eventually learns these flawed but engaging (well, maybe not the hitman) characters were passengers on a Paris to New York flight that underwent one of those terrible, near-fatal episodes that provide nightmares for every nervous traveler.
The explanation of what happened occurs about halfway through the novel (and I, at least, was in suspense all the way there). After this, Le Tellier deals with the implications of this cataclysmic event for both his characters and society as a whole. I had expected to be a little bored at this point but found that Anomaly’s “how” was every bit as interesting as its “what,” so to speak. Not only does Le Tellier offer some fascinating philosophical as well as scientific explanations, he also never loses sight of the very personal way in which his characters attempt to cope with a drastically altered reality.
Le Tellier’s genre salad includes, as I previously mentioned, a bit of social satire. This mainly manifests itself in his treatment of U.S. popular culture as well as the differences in how the French and U.S. governments deal with events. At least one professional (U.S.) reviewer found this aspect of the novel condescending. Although I did not (Le Tellier aimed his arrows at legitimate targets IMO), I did think this novel’s satire wasn’t quite as strong as its more psychological and philosophical aspects.
A few other odds and ends deserve mention before I end this overly long post. Adriana Hunter’s translation is so lively and idiomatic it was difficult to believe that the novel wasn’t originally written in English. Hunter is British and it seemed to me that she found that almost impossible spot between British and American English, but I’d be interested to discover whether any readers of the novel from the U.K. would share my opinion. One particularly attractive aspect of Anomaly for us blogger types is its use of literary allusions, which add to its depth without detracting from the pace and flow of its narrative (because I haven’t studied French and am poorly versed in French literature, I fear I missed many of these but even so I have an exciting list of references to track down). Lastly, I kept my discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum because I think that, especially with this novel, the less one knows in advance the better. If you plan on reading Anomaly, I strongly advise caution in checking out its reviews in advance (the Washington Post reviewer, for example, gave away practically every plot twist in his otherwise insightful review. I am deliberately not including a link).
It’s impossible to close this post without mentioning the novel’s literal ending. Le Tellier finishes his work with a calligram shaped like a funnel into which words and letters disappear, leaving only “e nd.”
Le Tellier has declined to explain or supply the missing text, thereby compelling each reader to supply her own interpretation. His is a very elegant — and Oulipian — suggestion that there is no one answer to the questions raised by his novel.
Although I prefer realistic fiction and am most comfortable with a style that at least nods to tradition, I do occasionally venture further afield. After all, dear readers, we don’t want to read Anthony Trollope all the time, do we? Or even dear Jane, as fond as we are of Lizzie’s adventures and Anne Elliot’s romantic travails? When I do venture to sail in unfamiliar waters (I’m afraid the nature of the book I’m about to discuss has me thinking in aquatic metaphors), it’s a struggle for me to be open to work that is totally new, particularly if it’s written in a non-traditional style.
My immersion in the blogging world, however, has slowly, slowly, expanded my reading horizons, albeit in inverse proportion to my bank account! This was the year, for example, that I’ve almost become comfortable reading translated literature. Having dipped my toe into non-anglophone waters and survived, I decided to take on the ultimate challenge: a subscription to “the New Classics Club” sponsored by New Directions publishing. Once I did so, strange, exciting & frequently disconcerting works of fiction began arriving in my mail box on a monthly basis. This November, for example, brought me:
For those who are interested in bio, Jaeggy was born in 1940 in Zurich, Switzerland, where she spent most of her early life. Like many of her fellow nationals, Jaeggy is multi-lingual and grew up speaking French, German and Italian. In her twenties she moved to Rome, where she became friends with the Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachman. It was in Rome that she also met, and eventually married, the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso. Jaeggy, who writes exclusively in Italian, has continued to live in Italy, where she has bagged most of the country’s major literary prizes. The Water Statues, originally published in 1980, is an early work; it was in 1989, with Sweet Days of Discipline (translated by Tim Parks) that Jaeggy became widely known. New Directions has published English translations of these as well as others of Jaeggy’s novels, essays and story collections. In addition to writing fiction, Jaeggy has also translated the work of Thomas de Quincy and Marcel Schwob into Italian.
All very interesting, I can hear you mutter, but — what about the book? Who are the characters, what is the plot and, most importantly, what is your opinion of it? Ah, dear readers, it’s easier to provide questions than to supply answers regarding this enigmatic little work, whose nature and meaning are as elusive as the element contained in its title. Jaeggy’s novel (more properly novella) clocks in at a scant eight-nine pages of generously spaced text that, technically, could be read in an hour or two. Its impact, however, is disproportionate to its word count. Unlike my usual way of plowing through a work of fiction, I read this one very slowly, in small bits spread over several days and stopped frequently to re-read a phrase and to savor the atmosphere. The impression it creates remains long after the last word is read.
For a variety of reasons, The Water Statues doesn’t lend itself to an analytical discussion. For one thing, it concerns encounters rather than events and marks time in a circular or even random, rather than linear, fashion. Essentially its “structure” is a seamless web in which one’s point of entry or exit doesn’t matter too much. Stylistically, TWS struck me as a hybrid of poetry and prose (some of its short sections definitely call prose poems to mind) as well as a combination of a play — Jaeggy begins with a list of nine “Dramatis Personae” and there are a few sections that consist solely of dialogue — and, well, what isn’t a play. TWS’ viewpoint continually shifts among the characters, who sometimes address the reader directly; these shifts in view and narration heighten the malleable, fragmentary nature of the reality they are experiencing. The inclusion among the named characters of an additional individual who is never identified but who sometimes narrates or gives his/her version of events further heightens the novella’s mysterious nature. Who is this person and what are they doing in the story?
The protagonist, to the extent there is one, is Beeklam, the rich and eccentric collector of the statues that provide the novella with its title. Early in the novella Beeklam relates how as a child he experienced the death of his mother Thelma. After her death (pp 8-9):
He’d abandoned his newly widowed father to go and “buy statues,” he said, and it was as if he were joking. From early childhood he’d been drawn to figurative imitations of grief and stillness; from childhood he’d been a collector, museums were in him; statues were his playthings, a privilege of all who are born lost and who start out from where they end. The child looked at them: he inspected eyelids and napes, drawn into their definitive dimensions of seriousness, some molded by artists of renown, others by unknown workshops. He had a name for each: Roselind, Diane, Magdalena, Thelma, Gertrud. Those statutes with their often amiable faces disclosed the things that dwell in things themselves, vitreous things.
After abandoning his father, Beeklam moves to Amsterdam, where he lives, “quite alone” with his statues in the basement of a villa close to the sea. Because the villa’s basement extends “down to the water,” its gaps and cracks give (p 8):
a sense of the movement of the waves: of a submerged world that he [Bleeklam] believed to be populated by other statues with feet (if they still had them) tied to stones; and whose knuckles of stone knocked on his walls. No one shooed him away when he rested his head on the wall and waited — perhaps for the statues of water to return, or to summon him. The child now wished to live as though he’d drowned.
Although I don’t pretend to any expertise in interpreting these strange and beautiful images, it seems to me that Jaeggy is hinting that the wall between living and dead is thin and that we each long for some form of permanence in a shifting and unstable universe. In this respect, I think it’s significant that Beeklam calls one of his statues by his dead mother’s name. It’s also worth noting that Jaeggy dedicated TWS to her close friend Ingeborg Bachmann, who had died several years previously in a fire (at one point (p 22) Bleeklam remembers reading that “Water is a burnt body,” a line that further hints of themes of death and mortality.)
Emerging from his basement of statues, Beeklam wanders the streets of Amsterdam in the late spring twilight, accompanied by his servant Victor. The lives they observe at a distance and their sporadic encounters with others are their only human connections: fleeting encounters and detached observations, with no lasting effect or central meaning.
The second part of TWS concerns Katrina and Kaspar, who may, or may not, be Katrina’s father. These “two loners” reluctantly share a pavilion on the grounds of a boarding school; “reticent in speech, they tolerate brief and stinting evening conversations” (p 44). Images, phrases, characters and even some of Beeklam’s statues make a reappearance in this section of the novella, reinforcing its non-linear structure and the circularity of time. As once character puts it (p 72), “One says goodbye to everything here; in places like these it’s as if all that is yet to happen were already in the past.”
It’s impossible to quit this overly long review without briefly mentioning the beauty of Jaeggy’s language and images, all the more striking because her prose is so very economical. Without wasting a word, or deploying any particularly lush or descriptive adjectives, Jaeggy has an unbelievable knack for creating images that stick in the mind long after her novella is finished. A crow’s eyes are “two miniature swatches of velvet” (p 53); cabbage leaves dropped in a garden are transformed overnight into “green drawing rooms” teeming with snails (p 84); the child Beeklam has “a horror of anything hereditary, because whatever comes * * * by natural inheritance belongs to the dead” (p 38). This particular combination of beauty and reticence is something new in my reading experience.
Have any of you, dear readers, explored Jaeggy’s fiction? If so, what do you think of it? Although TWS tested my limits a bit, I’m glad I read it and will definitely try more of this very interesting writer’s work (most probably I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories). Would I recommend TWS to others? It’s definitely not for those wedded to a traditional style and a linear plot, but for those willing to tolerate ambiguity and open to atmosphere it’s an immersive and rewarding work.
Well, the answer to my non-rhetorical question is — yes! At the best of times, it’s difficult to stay focused down here in the U.S. of A.’s semi-tropics, a land of palm trees, sunshine and delightful concoctions embellished with little pink umbrellas and chunks of tropical fruit. And these, dear readers, have not been the best of times for your scribe. For several months I’d been staring at a surgery date, elective stuff, nothing too serious and certainly not life-threatening, but still . . . . Yuck! Doctors! Needles! Nasty medicines! Like the consummate ex-professional that I sometimes pretend to be, however, I decided to make productive use of both my pre- and post-surgery time. Never waste a minute, that’s my motto! (which explains those wonderfully invigorating filing days, driving around urban Washington at 11:45 P.M. in search of a post office where I could date stamp my brief, thereby proving it was “filed” on its due date. Ah, memory …) I made a neat little grid of my putative late summer and early autumn activities. While waiting for my surgery date (which didn’t worry me at all; not one little bit) I’d catch up on writing reviews and participate in a limited way in the blogging events I mentioned above. I’d do my medical thing, or, rather, have it done to me, then use my recovery period to finish reading my various Challenge books; complete my zoom art history classes; and (finally) get started on that intensive Spanish review I’d been contemplating for some time (nothing like getting a grip on something other than the present tense, is there?) Seriously. I really, honestly thought I’d be doing all these things. As I listen to the sounds of your gentle laughter, vibrating through cyber space, I’ll draw a merciful curtain over these severely delusional plans. In reality I spent August and September sitting on my nice, shady lanai reading escapist lit of some type or other (Elizabeth Hand, anyone? bHer Cass Neary series is a great & very creepy read). And October? Well, I passed much of October sleeping, taking extra strength tylenol and watching some seriously good television. In my more intellectual moments I also dipped into and out of various bookish blogs, since it’s a well established fact that it’s much, much easier to read & comment on other people’s posts than to write one’s own reviews.
Aside from the fact that I’ve now almost recovered, October did offer a bright spot in the form of a return trip to Washington, D.C. (my doctor’s located there), which happens to be an area where I’d lived for many years and that I still love in many respects. Although I visited Washington late last spring, severe covid restrictions were still the order of the day and most of the museums remained closed. Since the area’s vaccination rates were up, and many attractions were now reopening, I decided to arrive a few days early to enjoy the sights and sample some ethnic fare (although not the rival of many cities, D.C. does have a wide variety of ethnic cuisines; it seems to get a new one every time there’s a new world crisis. During this visit, I noticed that one of the Maryland suburbs now has an Uyghur restaurant). I hate to pack, so I usually just throw a few things in a bag:
One of my very first stops when I’m in the Washington area is always Second Story Books’ warehouse, located in Rockville, Maryland, just a stone’s throw from downtown D.C. I’ve written about Second Story before (because I’ve visited many times) but its wonders never pall.
As you can see, a trip to SSB’s warehouse is akin to a treasure hunt, as you never know just what you’ll discover; naturally, some visits are more fruitful than others, depending on turnover. This time I hit the jackpot (hence the overflowing box in my first photo) as I found numerous novels by Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner and Louis Begley (an American writer I’ve been fond of in the past), along with some unexpected things such as works by Laurie Colwin (brought to my attention by Jacquiwine’s recent & excellent review of her work). I was a little disappointed not to find much by Louis Auchincloss, one of my favorite authors when I’m in the mood for a traditional, well-written tale of life among my country’s elite but — there’s always the next visit! (A note to those who may be visiting D.C. but staying closer to downtown, Second Story also has a store inside the city proper, in a very lovely and walkable area. The setting is more genteel and the selection is great but IMO prices are a bit higher.)
After rooting around Second Story Books for several blissful hours, the following day it was off to D.C.’s great independent bookstore, Politics & Prose. When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1980s, there were a great many wonderful small bookstores catering to a variety of tastes. Although many of these have disappeared, Politics & Prose seems to be thriving.
I can never totally skip the museums when I’m in D.C. and this trip was no exception. Thankfully, most museums have reopened and while the number of visitors seemed a little down to me, life is returning. Nothing’s sadder than an art museum with no visitors to look at the paintings.
The following day it was off to the Phillips Collection, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.” The Phillips began life in the 1920s as the private art collection of Duncan Phillips, who had access to one of America’s great steel fortunes. Working from an eclectic definition of “modern” (his collection contains an El Greco), Phillips used his impeccable taste and private fortune to build an amazing, not-to-be missed collection.
Between one thing and another, it had been some time since my last visit to the Phillips. I was a little disappointed to see that much of the collection had been temporarily rearranged to accommodate some new exhibitions but — not to worry! Everything was still on view, even if located in an unfamiliar spot.
After so much art, and so many books, it was time for a little nature viewing. Before the yucky medical stuff, I did have a couple of wonderful afternoons in the Maryland countryside, checking out a few of my old birding spots:
Finally, after a few days of recovery, it was time to return home . . . .
About halfway through June I discovered the very amusing “Six In Six” Challenge sponsored by Jo at Book Jotter. Since I’ve posted so very little this year while reading more than I have in quite some time, I decided this was an excellent way to share at least a little of the many great books that have come my way in what is shaping up to be a banner year for reading. Besides, isn’t quantifying one’s journey almost as much fun as undertaking the trip in the first place?
The challenge is to pick six categories and, having done so, to list six books that you’ve read by the end of June within each chosen category (as I understand it, the selections should be posted by the end of July. Since I just wouldn’t be me if I actually posted on time, I’m shooting for August 1!) In addition to supplying a multitude of categories from which to choose, Jo has very cleverly left room for participants to exercise their creativity by adding something new. I’ve taken advantage of her leniency by adding two categories of my own, “Short Reads,” which is self-explanatory, and my “Shelf of Shame,” a list of six books that I’ve had on my shelves unread for over six years! Can you, dear readers, match my brave honesty? If so, please share in a comment!
SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE
As a reader I am both loyal and tenacious, i.e., when I find a writer I like, I’m automatically “in” for her next novel and will frequently start working on that writer’s backlist as well. As a result, my yearly list almost always includes at least a few writers from prior years, although the particular combination of names may vary. Six of this year’s repeaters (there have actually been more but hey — we’re doing a “six in six” roundup here!) include:
Beryl Bainbridge (BB).Although I’ve always enormously enjoyed BB’s work, I took a rather extended break from it after reading a novel or two that didn’t quite do it for me.This year, however, Tony’s excellent review of BB’s The Bottle Factory Outing reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Bainbridge’s elegant prose and her unique view of the world. Resisting the temptation to re-read an old favorite or two (since I’m big on re-reading, this was difficult) I opted to tryEvery Man for Himself, in which a very privileged young man (he’s a nephew of J.P. Morgan) thinks it’s a great idea to book a homeward voyage on the Titanic. Well, we know how at least one part of the story is going to end, don’t we? Bainbridge, being Bainbridge, however, never fails to throw her readers a curve ball or two and this particular luxury ship as a metaphor is a perfect vehicle for her gimlet gaze at Edwardian Society at its height. Because I tend to avoid fiction (and movies ) invoking the Titanic (frequently too sentimental and/or melodramatic, don’t you think?) I was very skeptical the novel would work for me. Another of my egregious literary misjudgments, I’m afraid, as it was a fabulous read. If you share my phobia about things Titanic (Titanophobia?), fear not, gentle reader. This coming-of-age tale conjoined with the sinking of a very large ship is Bainbridge at her best.
Sylvia Townsend Warner. A favorite writer of mine, so much so that I actually summoned the energy last year to write a real review of one of her wonderful books. Since that time I’ve been hoarding The Flint Anchor to read for Gallimaufry’s annual STW week. Although Anchor is classified as historical fiction, it’s leagues above what’s included in this genre. Warner’s combination of realism and imagination is equaled IMO only by Hilary Mantel’s; both writers have the ability to convince me that I’m reading an actual account of an era while at the same time enriching their stories with modern flashes of insight and imagination. If you haven’t read Warner before I wouldn’t recommend that you begin with Anchor, which does start a bit slowly; if you need sympathetic characters with which you’re able to identify, I’d probably skip Warner altogether. If you’re looking, however, for an unforgettable reading experience from a master of English prose, then head for this novel about a 19th century Norfolk merchant and his tyrannized family. Despite my intense enjoyment of Flint Anchor, I didn’t manage a review for STW week. Not to worry, gentle readers, as Gallimaufry’s excellent review says it all. (Note to Gallimaufry: typepad frequently gives me technical problems, so I wasn’t able to leave any comments.)
Valerie Martin.A prolific and wonderfully skilled author that I’ve somewhat lost track of in recent years (if you haven’t read Property, put it on your TBR list immediately!).I was happy to renew our acquaintance this year with Martin’s latest, I Give It To You, a wonderful novel involving a writer’s use, and sometimes misuse, of fiction to interpret another’s life.Set in a beautifully described Tuscan countryside, with an interwoven plot strand involving Mussolini’s Italy, what’s not to like?
Joe Abercrombie: No one does dark fantasy better than Joe A.Why read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones when Abercrombie’s novels are available? And better? Unlike Martin, Abercrombie does tight plots, has a wicked sense of humor and can actually finish a story line (is it obvious, dear reader, that I’m a disgruntled fan of George R.R.?)From December 2020 to mid-February 2021, Abercrombie’s novels were calling my name; I totally immersed myself in his deliciously cynical world. Abercrombie’s realpolitik, tricky plots and flawed characters were such a perfect escape from pandemic and moving-to-a-new-house stress. When the dust cleared, shortly after my eyesight gave out, my total was two complete trilogies and the first two volumes of a third (last volume’s due out this September.Guess what I’ll be doing then?).Readers, what can I say?That’s a lot of trilogies.If you’d like to sample Abercrombie’s work on a less immersive basis, I’d recommend Best Served Cold, which can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Elizabeth Bowen.As I’ve noted before, Bowen is one of those writers with whom I have long had a problematical relationship.She’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, and her prose can be absolutely gorgeous but . . . at times she’s just a bit too nuanced and elliptical for little old me, who dearly loves an unambiguous story told in a straightforward manner (yes, dear reader, some of us never quite leave our childhood behind).Yet Bowen is one of those writers to whom I keep returning and I’ve slowly but steadily whittled away at her novels after discovering her work a decade or so ago. (I think Hotel and A World of Love are the only ones I haven’t yet read.)This year’s Bowen was Eva Trout, a wonderful novel involving a socially challenged and very rich young woman, a gun that goes off at a most unexpected time and the inability of humans in general to communicate anything important to each other. As if Bowen’s wonderful prose and the very interesting questions she raises aren’t enough to make it one of the best things I’ve read this year, the novel is also very, very funny in spots (there’s a luncheon scene I’d rank with some of Saki’s finer sketches).
Anita Brookner.After being a rabid (if one may use such a word in connection with such a genteel writer) fan for many years, I drifted away from Brookner’s work when she was slightly past mid-career.Undeterred by my desertion, the wonderful Ms. B just kept turning out her elegant, psychologically insightful novels.I hadn’t intended to read anything by Brookner this year, but Jacquiwine’s reviews of Brookner’s novels (she’s working her way through them in publication order) have been so much fun to read I was inspired last spring to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites.This time around, I enjoyed Brookner’s tale of the intelligent, lonely Blanche and her nemesis, a husband stealer named Mousey, every bit as much as before.
SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE READ IN AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND SIX WRITERS WHO ARE NEW TO ME
Until I started blogging, I really avoided translated literature for a variety of reasons, none of them good. One of the great joys of the last year (and, face it, weren’t we all seizing on the teeniest little bit of joy in that awful pandemic year?) was letting go, or at least beginning to let go, of that irrational prejudice, with some very happy results as a reward (the only downside has been an exponential explosion in my TBR list). Since I’m new to reading translated fiction, practically every translated novel that I read in the early part of this year (exception noted below) was by a writer who was new to me. Taking advantage of Jo’s invitation to be creative, I’ve decided to combine these two categories.
Aoko Matsuda. Placed at the bottom of my pile only for convenience (the other books stack up nicely on top of it), Matsuda was one of this year’s wonderful discoveries. Humor! A feminist slant! A great translator (Polly Barton)! Great characters and clever plots! Matsuda’s collection of short stories inspired by Japanese folk & fairy tales has everything. Although I read it back in January, thus beginning 2021 on a really high note, I’m afraid Abercrombie’s fantasy novels and my move to a new house got in the way of a proper review (I’m somewhat optimistic that I’ll manage this for #WIT month which begins, my heavens, can it really be tomorrow????)
Amélie Nothomb. I’ve been intending for (literally) years to read something, anything by this very interesting French/Belgian/grew-up-in-Asia novelist. Since she’s amazingly prolific (think Joyce Carol Oates) I had quite a lot to choose from. Because I’m drawn to mother-daughter tales, I decided on Strike Your Heart, the story of an unloved daughter and the effects of that maternal deprivation on her life. Since I’ve not read any of Nothomb’s previous work, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I must admit I was surprised by her terse style and the almost mythic nature of her story. This short and disturbing novel (the mother’s psychological brutality in the opening pages made me mildly queasy) can be read in an afternoon. Its effects, however, linger for quite some time afterward.
Magda Szabo. Including Szabo’s Katalin Street in this twofer category is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve previously read her wonderful novel The Door. But, hey — this is my list and if adding it here causes any of you to read it I’m sure you’ll forgive me for you’ll be reading a marvelous novel. Szabo’s tale of three interlocked Budapest families whose lives are torn apart by the German occupation of 1944 is quite different from The Door (aside from a more complex story arc, Szabo plays with a touch of magical realism by making one of her many characters a ghost) but is almost as good. Absolutely not to be missed.
Jens Christian Grøndahl. Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy was another great discovery from the earlier months of the year. I must admit that a somewhat prurient curiosity drew me to this novel in which the narrator addresses her dead best friend, who just happens to have stolen the narrator’s husband (I’m addicted to tales of marital betrayal. Don’t ask why). You can imagine my surprise in finding a spare, poetic meditation on grief, friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved this book and have now added to my TBR list everything of Grøndahl’s that’s been translated into English.
Margarita Liberaki. Do you, dear readers, enjoy coming of age novels written in beautifully sensual prose? Are interesting female characers and a sense of atmosphere high on your requirements for an ideal reading experience? Are you less exacting with respect to plot and action sequences? If so, Liberaki’s Three Summers, which charts the lives and relationships of three young sisters growing up in a suburb of Athens shortly before WWII, should be your next novel. Regardless of the time and place in which you read it, Liberaki will instantly transport you to the Greek countryside of the mid-1940s, in which you’ll almost smell those red poppies and hear the bees in the garden.
Eileen Chang. Languages as well as a universe of emotional difference separates Liberaki’s novel from the beautiful, brutal short stories contained in Love In a Fallen City (oddly, I think the two women are roughly contemporaries). If you’re seeking gentle tales of romantic love, well, Chang is not your writer. Despite the title, her stories are about anything but love; rather, they center on power, exploitation and raw sexual politics, all told against the exotic setting of mid-20th century Hong Kong. I loved this collection of stories, originally published separately in the 1930s-1940s, and put together by NYRB Classics. Next on my reading for Chang will be her Little Reunions, also an NYRB Classic.
SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST
As I noted above, 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for me as far as my reading selections are concerned, with scarcely a dud among the lot. Although it’s difficult to limit my choice to six (for one thing, I keep changing my mind) my current selection is as follows (those who bother to count will notice that I’ve sneaked in a seventh novel):
Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel. Another take on a love triangle, combined with a sensitively rendered portrait of childhood, told in beautiful prose by a marvelous, and marvelously underrated, American writer. Stafford was a journalist and writer of short stories, with only three novels to her name. Of these, only one, The Mountain Lion, seems to have remained continuously in print. Thankfully, NYRB Classics has recently republished Stafford’s Boston Adventure (very high on my TBR list) and the Library of America has taken up her work as well.
Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.
Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. A year without a Henry James novel is a sad year indeed. As much as I adore James, one has to be realistic about one’s available time and attention span, so I chose a shorter work to squeeze in this spring, keeping in mind that “short” does not equate to simple when reading HJ. Being a material girl myself, I was eager to see how this duel to death over the family heirlooms would play out. As usual, HJ did not do the expected but then — that’s why he’s The Master.
Paula Fox’s The God of Nightmares. This is the year that I’ve finally gotten to Paula Fox, a very interesting American writer whom I’ve been intending to read for years and years. This novel of a young woman, her fading actress-aunt and their bohemian circle of friends in 1940s New Orleans is told beautifully and with a complete lack of sentimentality (always welcome in novels with New Orleans’ settings). I am now an avid fan of Paula Fox and expect to read many more of her novels.
Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. One of my “rescued from the back shelf” books; that it remained unread for so many years speaks very poorly of my judgment. I loved this novel, for all the reasons I discussed in one of my few reviews this year.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’sThe Flint Anchor.
Jane Austen’sPersuasion. An impulse choice, but can one ever go wrong with Austen? Because I first read Persuasion at a particularly low point in my life, when facing the results of several very bad choices, this novel has a special place in my affection. Don’t we all need to be reminded at times that a bad choice can be redeemed? Aside from a wonderful heroine in Anne Elliot, Sir Walter is one of Austen’s great comic creations.
SIX SHORT READS
This is one of my “invented” categories, i.e., it’s not on Jo’s “Six in Six” list.Although I’ve never been a big reader of short stories or novellas, I found myself turning increasingly to both in 2020, when I (like many others) found it so difficult to concentrate on novels.The willingness to try shorter works has carried over to 2021, when I’ve finally started to read some of those many Melville House and Penguin novellas that have been sitting, neglected, on the shelf. So far this year I’ve managed:
Willa Cather’s “Alexander’s Bridge.” A very early work, with an uncharacteristically urban setting (Boston and London, no less), this is a satisfying if flawed introduction to Cather’s work. A love triangle in which two strong and very interesting women are being strung along by the same guy, who can’t quite make up his mind between the two. Considered by critics to be not among Cather’s best, it’s still very much worth reading.
Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone.” Not quite first rank Wharton IMO but still better than almost anything else written during that period. A brilliant, famous woman bestows her love on an unworthy object, who ultimately betrays her trust in a particularly dishonorable fashion. Wharton’s style and signature irony save this novella from being a tad sentimental and melodramatic.
Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love.” Another coming of age tale, with a twist. Although I guessed the plot well in advance, this novella was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. It’s the first thing I’ve read by Turgernev; now I’m eager to read his Fathers and Sons.
Joseph Conrad’s “The Duelist.” After watching Ridley Scot’s great movie of the same name for the umpteenth time, I finally read the source material. Although I’m not a big Conrad fan, this story of mad obsession, in which the irrational rancor of the duelists reflects the insanity of Napoleonic Europe, was a gripping and very satisfying read.
Stefan Zweig’s “Fear.” Ah, the carnal lust lurking beneath the respectable facade of the Viennese bourgeoisie! Adultery, guilt and blackmail! No one does this type of thing better than Zweig.
James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I’ve read it before, but what does that matter? A work to re-read, as many times as possible during one’s life.
SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE
MY SHELF OF SHAME: SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE HAD FOR MORE THAN SIX YEARS WITHOUT READING THEM
As I indicated at the beginning of this post, I devised this category largely because I have so very many unread books. The above, a mere bump on the iceberg, were chosen purely at random:
Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down: this one belonged to Mr. Janakay’s grandmother, who was quite a reader. In my possession, unread, since 1985. I love West’s novels, but just can’t seem to get to this one.
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: In my possession since shortly after its publication in 2008 (note: I have the other two volumes of the trilogy as well, also unread). Not to worry, dear readers! I’ll get to all three. Sometime.
Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights: sitting on my shelf since 2015; I can’t understand why, as I’ve always wanted to read it.
Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare. I’ve been dying to read this one since 2009. One day.
Ursula Holden’s The Tin Toys. I don’t know the precise date I acquired this, but it’s been warming the shelf for at least a decade. I actually took it with me on a long overseas birding trip, but ended up reading several of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels instead.
Esther Freud’s The Wild. Again, no precise date of acquisition, but this one’s looking pretty foxed. It was published in 2000, and I’m guessing I acquired it in 2011, when I first discovered Freud’s novels and went on a massive Esther Freud binge. I love her work, so I’ll definitely read it. At some point.
Are you sometimes surprised, dear reader, at what you actually discover when you start browsing among the peaks and vales of your very own TBR mountain? I’m not referring to that discarded tea cup that went missing a year ago, or the scrap of paper on which you’d written all the passwords to your various online accounts, or even (gasp! ) to the odd little bit of multi-legged organic life (you see, I hold nothing back). I’m referring, of course, to books! Notable books from yesteryear’s “best of” and prize lists! Sales books that were so attractively priced they demanded to be taken home! Serendipitous books rewarding an afternoon’s ramble in musty old secondhand shops and elbowing others at crowded library book sales! Impulse books (this category speaks for itself) and books acquired with an eye to impressing your visitors! Books that you were hot to read after a particularly glowing review by one of you naughty bloggers (names are unnecessary — you know who you are) but that you never actually read because you lost interest before your hard-to-locate copy arrived! “Mystery” books whose reasons for being on your shelves is now a conundrum that will never be solved! This “discovery phenomenon” (my own term, for lack of a better) no doubt mystifies organized readers but for book hoarders such as myself, well, let’s say it happens on a fairly regular basis. This was particularly true in 2020-2021, a period in which I’ve done a massive amount of packing, repacking, unpacking, shelving and reshelving of massive quantities of books. Since I’m past the point of embarrassment in this regard (I reached this milestone the first time I repurchased a replacement copy of a book I’d previously discarded), I’ve decided to share my discoveries in “Rescued from the Back Shelf” reviews, which I’ll post every now and then as the spirit moves me. On the theory that anything I’ve not touched in three years badly needs rescuing, I’ll limit these reviews to books that I haven’t read within three years of the time I acquired them.
As the needle-witted (I adore Georgette Heyer’s use of Regency slang) among you have no doubt concluded by now, my inaugural “Rescued from the Back Shelf” review is Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006. Although I can’t remember the exact details, I had certainly acquired a paperback copy of the novel no later than 2010. Doing so seemed a good idea at the time. Nunez, while not as famous as she subsequently became (she didn’t win a National Book Award until many years later), already possessed a substantial literary reputation. The novel’s reviews were good to excellent and the story seemed atmospheric and character-driven, two things that always heavily influence my reading choices. On the minus side, however, the novel centered on the 1960s counter culture and its aftermath, a period that’s never particularly attracted me as a setting (how many student radicals and drug trips can you read about in one life time?). I was also somewhat daunted by its length (almost four hundred pages) which meant a sizable time commitment; as well as several critics who thought the plot rambled a bit. The claim by at least one reviewer that Last stood “the American Dream” on its head didn’t help; since I’ve always been very resistant to novels about the American Dream (whatever that is), I was logically a little hesitant to embrace any topsy-turvy version of it. So you see, dear reader, the pros and cons for giving shelf room to this novel were rather evenly balanced. Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty at this point in time, a combination of impulse and greed most likely tipped the scales, i.e., my local Barnes & Noble had probably placed it on a “3 books for the price of 2” table, which was always located strategically near the check-out line.
In the years that Last subsequently sat on my book shelves, I’d occasionally consider actually reading it, but invariably other, newer and more attractive candidates for reading time claimed my attention (besides, after seven or eight years I thought Last was probably too dated to be anything more than a period piece). Since the book had been gathering dust for over a decade, it was a logical if heart-rending decision to get rid of it during last year’s ruthless, pre-move cull of my books. Of course, I only did so after I had put an electronic version on my kindle in case I had any second thoughts! As fate would have it, during one of those dreadful dry spells between books, I was recently marooned in a medical waiting room, frantically scrolling through my kindle searching for something, anything to read, saw Last for the umpteenth time on the menu and, in the same spirit in which I chose the name of my blog, thought “what the heck! I might as well read this since I’ve nothing better to do.” At this point in my narrative, commonsense suggests I should leave you dangling, dear readers, as an incentive for you to finish reading my post. I’m so enthusiastic about this book, however, that I want to share the good news immediately. The Last of Her Kind is a wonderful, absorbing, well written and very topical novel. It says much, and nothing good, about my literary judgment that it too me so long to get around to reading it.
The novel, which is divided into seven sections and spans a period of approximately thirty years, centers on the very different lives and the intense but uneasy relationship between Georgette George and Dooley Ann Drayton, two women who meet in the late 1960s when they are assigned as freshman roommates at Barnard College, an elite women’s school in New York City. The episodic structure of the novel reminded me in many respects of time lapse photography, as the considerable time lapses between sections produces what are almost snapshots of each woman’s life at a particular point in time. There are additional chronological shifts within each section, which give additional information about the characters, how each arrived at that particular juncture in her life and what’s going on in the world around her. This last is an important point; despite the heavy marketing emphasis on the relationship between the two women, anyone expecting this to be a straight “female friendship” read will be disappointed. Although I may be alone in this view, I regard Last as an almost sociological novel in the 19th century mold; like the novels of Dickens, Eliot and Trollope, Last says as much about contemporary society as it does about the exploits of its characters. Nunez tells her story retrospectively through the eyes of a middle-aged Georgette/George (at various times of her life she goes by either and her character is as mutable as her name). George is the primary point of view character and the first person narrator for most of the novel, which is an informal journal that George is compiling to be read, if at all, by her children after she’s gone (narrating events long after they occurred George freely admits that time may have altered or erased her memory of the facts). Although George is the story-teller, however, the story largely belongs to Ann, who quickly drops her given name “Dooley” for reasons I’ll explain below. While George’s consciousness shapes the narration, and determines what facts we do or don’t learn, it is Ann who propels the narration and it is the mystery of her character that keeps the reader hooked until the end.
The two first meet in the fall of 1968, “the year of Tet, the year of the highest number of American casualties in Vietnam,” of the Prague Spring, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the My Lai massacre and the bloody battle between police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The youth revolt of the 1960s was well underway, at least at elite schools such as Barnard (it would be two years before the Ohio National Guard gunned down students at Kent State). Nunez does a wonderful job of conveying the dangerous and heady atmosphere of those times. There’s hardly a significant counter culture event of 1960s America that the novel misses, particularly in the first two and longest of its sections. Woodstock; Altamont; the music and drug scenes; the increasingly radical student political movement; free love and the clinics dispensing free birth control; the fashions; the first stirrings of the Women’s Liberation movement; the growing student hostility towards police and parental authority — well, it’s all pretty much there in varying degrees. With a lesser writer this could have been a confused hodgepodge or a boring list of the era’s events (“Weather Underground? check. Acid trips? check. Student protests? Check. Visit to the free clinic?” I’m sure you get the idea). But this is Nunez, with the technical skill and observational powers to bring the era to life. Yes, the novel is stuffed with events, and dramatic ones at that, but the cities will soon be burning in this watershed era that reshaped many of the country’s cultural norms.
The story that begins in the Barnard College of 1968 subsequently expands to encompass much of the social upheaval of the contemporary American scene. In 1968, however, George and Ann are simply two new roommates meeting for the first time in a little room in the girls’ dorm. George (she’s George rather than Georgette during her college days) is a daughter of the underclass hailing from
Upstate: a small town way up north, near the Canadian border. Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows. Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight. Moneyless. A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars. People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb. * * * Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. * * * Statistically not a high crime area, but a world of everyday brutality: bar brawls, battered wives . . . acts of violent cruelty even among children. * * * The savage world of the North Country poor.
To complete this dismal picture, George’s father disappeared early (a blessing, really, as he was displaying far too much interest in his pubescent daughter’s physical development); her overworked mother vacillates between indifference and extreme physical violence; one battered sister runs away at the age of fourteen; an older brother returns from Viet Nam addicted to drugs and alcohol; and the two youngest siblings are farmed out to relatives when the family goes on welfare. George, in short, is only at college through luck, a scholarship and brains and does not possess the upperclass background of a typical Barnard girl.
Miss Dooley Ann Dalton of Connecticut, by contrast, is a golden child of the American aristocracy, gifted with money, lineage and great natural ability. For many generations her father’s family has owned and operated a surgical supply business and owns valuable medical patents as well; her mother’s family are even older and more distinguished if less financially successful (“Dooley” is a surname of her mother’s family, former owners of many southern plantations and their enslaved workers). While “Daddy” runs the family business and “Mummy” gives parties providing fodder for the local press, little Dooley Ann wins national essay contests, skips grades in school, writes a children’s book that will be illustrated by an artist friend of her family (and subsequently published) and is even cast as a bit player in a film, thanks to a famous movie director who’s another family friend (he has a summer house adjacent to her family’s on Martha’s Vineyard). She is also becoming slowing, steadily and irrevocably estranged from her family and her privileged background. Nunez is very skillful at depicting how that occurs; what sticks in my mind is a scene where Mummy uses role-playing to teach little Dooley the proper way to behave to the family’s servants (“Now let’s say you want to tell Retta [the family’s housekeeper] you’re having friends over after school and you’d like her to bake some brownies.”). Dooley, who doesn’t realize what’s going on, is heartbroken and humiliated when she gives orders to the family’s housekeeper in “Mummy’s voice” and sees the look of recognition in the woman’s eyes; Dooley “will never forgive herself for playing her mother, for not seeing through the game.” Long before she arrives at Barnard, Dooley has become “Ann” (using Dooley, a name associated with slave owners was “out of the question”) and is totally estranged from her parents, whom she now addresses as “Sophie” and “Turner.” Ann knows, despises and rejects every aspect of her parents’ world; she is “capable of loving only what was different from herself.” She sells her expensive new “college wardrobe” (selected by her mother and envied by George), gives the money to charity and embraces the radical politics then dominating the Barnard campus. Ann is regarded by her own class and race as a traitor, and is also rejected as an arrogant and ignorant outsider by Barnard’s Black students and the disadvantaged whom she tries to help. It is a pattern that will repeat itself throughout her life.
At this point, gentle reader, I imagine that you’re asking yourself, “hasn’t this been done before? Two young protagonists from dissimilar backgrounds, learning from their differences and bonding over common experiences, providing a lesson to us all?” While the theme of ill-assorted companions is admittedly a common one in literature, it’s rare indeed to see it used so skillfully to expose the almost unbridgeable class divides in American culture. Nunez has an astonishing eye for class differences. For all her efforts to embrace and achieve a new order of society Ann is both clueless and condescending with respect to the lives of others who have grown up under far less privileged conditions. Although she treats George with kindness, for example, Ann seems to regard her as more of a “type” than an individual. Totally oblivious of the implications, she informs George early in their relationship that she had specifically requested a roommate “from a world as different as possible from her own” and was disappointed on finding that George wasn’t Black. George’s reaction, other than rage, is a resolve to keep her distance, answer questions with silence or lies and thus force Ann “to find someone else to play out her fantasies.” It never occurs to Ann that the material advantages rejected by herself could be desired by less fortunate others. With respect to George, Nunez’s eye for class is even more unerring. George has internalized the idea of failure and her first reaction to any challenge is that success is beyond her reach. An outstanding student who won a scholarship to one of the country’s most prestigious schools, George literally becomes unable to speak in her classes because of “her fear of not belonging, of not speaking the same language as everyone else.”
For entirely different reasons, both women drop out of school at the end of their sophomore year. George goes to work as a secretary at a fashionable woman’s magazine and begins to work her way up the masthead. Ann moves into a communal apartment in Harlem and falls in love with an African-American poet and school teacher who’s also a former campus revolutionary. The fragile bridge that she and George have built over the chasm of class fails to hold and the two become completely estranged. One of the novel’s plot arcs is whether they will be able to reconnect and, if so, on what basis. As George later muses:
I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how much life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.
After that, dear reader, can there be any doubt on this issue? How this re-connection is accomplished, however, and the form that it takes, may very well be different from what you’d expect based on the novel’s beginnings.
My fear that the novel would prove too much of a period piece disappeared about halfway through, with the occurrence of an act of violence as topical as an account from this morning’s news. This act will drastically alter the lives of both women and expand the novel’s scope to include issues of racial justice, political activism and the morality of a penal system in which Lady Justice unfairly tilts the scales against certain offenders. The story of unequal friendship that began in the little college dorm room has morphed into a powerful examination of American society’s fault lines.
Despite the impression that I fear I’ve conveyed, Last is far from being an unrelentingly grim novel. George is a wry and cynical narrator with few illusions about her world, but who nevertheless views life with a sense of humor and a surprising amount of charity. I particularly enjoyed her stint at Visage, a woman’s magazine similar to the ones I devoured at a certain period in my life, replete with makeovers (“We thought Georgette’s long-haired waif look needed an update”), cosmetic tips, recipes for that “Candlelight Dinner for Two” and the occasional serious interview or poem by W.H. Auden. Even the novel’s darkest aspects are (with one exception) redeemed by humor and a sense of shared humanity.
As I noted near the beginning of this over-long ramble, the mystery (and power) of Ann’s personality provides much of the force and credibility in this powerful novel. Is Ann a crackpot or a secular saint? Do her good deeds actually benefit or harm others? Her rigidity and unwavering values undoubtedly damage herself and arguably others as well; her inability to imagine life through someone else’s eyes does much to wreck her friendship with George. Ann is a cause of discomfort and a source of irritation to many of those around her. Yet to a few (a former teacher; George; a defense attorney; a prison inmate serving a life sentence for a double murder) she’s an unforgettable figure whose touch has altered their lives. Although Nunez, like the good novelist she is, provides room for each reader to develop his own ideas on this point, she also gives plenty of hints in the form of literary allusions to guide any interpretation of Ann’s character. The novel is replete with references to The Great Gatsby, who, like Ann, stubornly clung to a perhaps mistaken idealism; Like Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, George both yearns after Ann’s idealism and serves as witness to Ann’s life. Another character in the novel compares Ann to Simone Weil and George herself sees a likeness between Ann and the Saint Teresa described by Eliot in her prelude to Middlemarch (although Nunez does not make this explicit, I also thought Ann was at least superficially similar to Middlemarch‘s Dorothea Brooks, the rich young lady who came to ill through her desire to do good in the world).
Like any lengthy novel with an episodic structure, particularly one dealing with multiple characters and several major themes, The Last of Her Kind can justly be criticized for sprawling a bit at times. Since I enjoyed the sprawl, I wasn’t unduly troubled by this feature. I was admittedly slightly impatient with the section concerning George’s runaway flower child sister who is seriously fixated on Mick Jagger, but even here I consoled myself with the hilarious (if a trifle too long) fan letter she writes to Sir Mick. My only serious criticism concerns the relatively short section that relates Ann’s affair with the main love of her life. Although it’s as well written as the rest of the novel, I thought the object of her affections (while psychologically believable) introduced an overly dramatic and unnecessary twist to the plot.
Although there’s a great deal more I could say about this work, I’ll take pity on myself as well as you and will conclude. If anyone’s read The Last of Her Kind, I’d love to hear your reaction.
Are you drawn to tales of English country house and theater life between the wars? Do you, like me, adore tales of dysfunctional families? Are you willing to forego a tight plot in favor of atmosphere, character and witty (frequently scathingly funny) dialogue? If your answer to these questions is “yes” dear reader, stop wasting your time on my post and immediately begin reading du Maurier’s The Parasites! Beware, however, if you expect a gothic-tinged mystery, need to identify with sympathetic and/or morally upright protagonists or require a tightly plotted, linear narrative in your fiction; if so you may well be happier with another book. Those who come to The Parasites with an open mind and a slightly cynical outlook will have the pleasure of enjoying a very fine novel. Those who come expecting another Rebecca or Jamaica Inn are bound to be disappointed unless they adjust their expectations, as Parasites is an outlier among du Maurier’s novels of suspense and historical fiction. Published in 1949, Parasites is a tale of “contemporary” life, albeit lived at a rather exalted level; although it has both a whiff of decadence and a touch of exotica, it contains no supernatural, mystery or suspense elements to speak of (well, maybe a teeny bit at the end) and its primary male romantic character resembles Noel Coward more than Maxim de Winter. That its popularity trails that of du Maurier’s better known works is due, I think, to the fact that The Parasites demonstrates a very different aspect of her genius, one that is less preferred by those many readers who more readily respond to the gothic, suspense and supernatural elements present in much of her other work.
I’ve hesitated to review The Parasites primarily because I read it last September and did not choose it specifically for Ali’s wonderful Daphne du Maurier reading week. But, really, is there a rule that reviews must be limited only to those books that have been completed within some arbitrary time period? Particularly when that book is as good as The Parasites? When I was recently mulling over which of DDM’s excellent novels to read for Ali’s event, I was unable to choose because nothing seemed quite right; every time I came close to making a selection The Parasites got in the way. Although I did mention The Parasites very favorably in my 2020 reading summary, my short blurb was a very inadequate acknowledgment of the very great pleasure the novel gave me in what was generally a rather dismal reading year. So — The Parasites it is! Since I’ve missed Ali’s DDM reading week (bad Janakay! never on time) please regard my tardy review as a homage to an event that I’ve enjoyed very much — the reviews I read have caused quite an addition to my TBR (I’ve deliberated refrained until now from reading Ali’s 2020 review of The Parasites but I’m clicking over to do so as soon as I finish this post).
The Parasites is the story of the Delaney family, particularly its younger members. Pappy is a world famous singer who’s generally believed to be based on du Maurier’s own flamboyant father, and Mama is an equally famous dancer, who strongly reminded me, at least, of Isadora Duncan. Their domestic ménage is completed by Niall, Maria and Celia, the three children they have produced in the course of their international careers. Although the outside world is baffled by the tangled Delaney relationships (Virago ed. at 11-12):
The truth was simple, once learnt and understood.
When Pappy was singing in Vienna, before the first war, he fell in love with a little Viennese actress who had no voice at all but was . . . very naughty and very lovely and everybody adored her . . . after they had been together a year Maria was born and the little Viennese actress died.
Meanwhile, Mama was dancing in London and Paris, already breaking away from the ballet in which she had been trained, and becoming that unique, unforgettable personality . . . who had no partner ever upon the dim-lit, eerie stage, but always danced alone. Someone was Niall’s father. A pianist . . . whom she permitted once to live with her in secret and make love to her for a few weeks only, and then sent away because someone told her that he had T.B. and it was catching.
And then they met in London, Pappy and Mama, when Pappy was singing at the Albert Hall, and Mama was dancing at Covent Garden. Their encounter was a thing of rapture that could only happen to those two, never to others . . . [t]hey … married, and the marriage brought ecstatic happiness to the pair of them, and possibly despair too . . . and it also brought Celia, the first legitimate offspring of both.
Although “the whole business” initially puzzles even the children, they quickly conclude that precise parentage “did not really matter very much because from the very beginning of time” each of them belonged to Pappy, Mama and each other (Virago, 11). The hermetically sealed domestic bubble of Pappy, Mama and the kids travels from one great European city to another. Pappy sings to popular acclaim, in a manner akin to a Pavarotti tour of the 1990s, and Mama “whose every movement was poetry” and ” every gesture a note in music” dances alone on her stage. While both fill every theater in whatever city they happen to visit, old Truda, Mama’s dresser, more or less minds the kids. These are the “dreadful Delaneys,” whom no one much likes and who routinely spread chaos and terror to hotel staff and theater management throughout the continent.
When the novel begins Pappy and Mama are long dead and Niall, Maria and Celia are adults pursuing their own careers and lives. Maria, now a celebrated actress, has made a “good” marriage to Charles, a conventional English squire whose main attraction is his wealth, social status and landed estate. Niall, too, is an artist, being a successful composer of popular tunes but without the application (and perhaps talent) to create “serious” music. Unlike her siblings, Celia has chosen to neglect her considerable artistic talent in favor of caring, first, for Pappy in his declining years, and later for Maria’s children, since Maria is more taken with her profession as actress than with the obligations of motherhood.
The Parasites’ opening scene occurs at Charles’ and Maria’s country house, where Maria, who maintains her own flat near the London theater scene, visits on weekends, almost always with Niall and Celia in tow. During the course of a “long, wet, Sunday afternoon” (Virago ed. at 1), with papers and gramophone cartons scattered on the floor and the little available light blocked by the “small, square panes” of the French windows, the usually stolid Charles directs an uncharacteristic outburst at Maria and her siblings (Virago ed.at 5):
[T]hat’s what you are, the three of you. Parasites. The whole bunch. You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you. You are doubly, triply parasitic; first because you’ve traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forebears; secondly, because you’ve none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy, which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or earth.
Charles’ accusation kicks off the “action” of the novel, such as it is, as the Delaneys, separately and in conjunction, ponder the merits of Charles’ accusation during the following days. As they do so in “real time,” the novel shifts chronologically between past and present to supply the reader with the backstory of the Delaney family, the siblings’ unusual childhood and chaotic adult lives and the dark, obsessive relationship between Niall and Maria (in her excellent introduction to the Virago edition Julie Myerson rather convincingly argues its similarities to that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).
Aside from its one-off position in the du Maurier oeuvre, there were several things about The Parasites that I found surprising. The most obvious was DDM’s sophisticated, almost experimental style. Aside from her very skillful use of chronological shifts in time and space that allow the reader to experience the story on several different levels, I was strongly impressed by DDM’s psychological acuity, both in how she developed her characters and the manner in which she demonstrated their psychology for the reader. I found it quite believable that three children of a similar age, thrown together by chance and living the isolated and peripatetic existence described in the novel, would have developed the intense psychological ties demonstrated by the adult Maria, Niall and Celia. Du Maurier’s deliberately ambiguous use of the plural pronouns “us” and “we” is another example of her rather daring style. Although the point of view frequently shifts among the three Delaney siblings, the plural pronouns make it unclear which of the three is narrating the story at any given time. This ambiguity produces a subtlety disorienting effect, beginning with the novel’s opening sentence that it “was Charles who called us the parasites.” Is the narrator of this statement Maria, Niall or Celia? Or some “Delaney entity” composed of all three? The ambiguity regarding the narrator’s identity at any given moment reinforces for the reader the siblings’ shared identity and lack of psychological boundaries. As I think this over a bit more, it occurs to me that this stylistic device may be the equivalent of one of those ambiguous or “surprise” endings that sometimes occur in DDM’s suspense and mystery novels.
Glancing back over what I’ve typed, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that The Parasites is a very serious, unsmiling novel. Although it does have psychological depths (and some of which are quite dark) nothing could be further from the reality. The novel is replete with humor, often verging on social satire, which I immensely enjoyed. Du Maurier makes good use of her theatrical background to flesh out several of her characters, particularly the actress Maria; as I previously mentioned, Pappy is also generally viewed as being modeled on du Maurier’s own extremely colorful father. One of the funniest sections of the novel IMO was Chapter 16, which describes the wedding reception of Maria and her very proper husband Charles, as well as the subsequent visit of the entire Delaney clan (including the very young Niall’s much older French mistress) to Coldhammer, the estate of Charles’ rigid parents, Lord and Lady Wyndham (Virago ed. at 200-201):
Dynamic and robust, Pappy mixed well with kings and queens — especially those in exile — and Italian noblemen and French countesses, and the more Bohemian of what was termed London intelligentsia; but with the English ‘county’ — and the Wyndhams were essentially ‘county’ — Pappy seemed out of place. He was unaware of the fact. It was his family that suffered.
‘But of course we will come to Coldhammer,’ said Pappy. . . . ‘But I insist on sleeping in a four-poster bed. Can you produce one for me? I must sleep in a four-poster bed.’
* * * * *
‘The Queen Anne suite has a four-poster, she [Lady Wyndham] said, ‘but the rooms face north, over the drive. The view from the south is so much better, especially when our Prunus floribunda is in flower.’
Pappy laid a finger against his nose. Then he bent down to Lady Wyndham’s ear.
‘Keep your Prunus floribunda for others,’ he said in a loud whisper. ‘When I visit Coldhammer I expect only my hostess to be in flower.’
Lady Wyndham remained unmoved. Not a flicker of understanding passed across her features.
‘I am afraid you are no gardener,’ she said.
It only gets better from there. If you enjoy this type of humor at all, you simply must not miss Pappy’s arrival at Coldhammer (Virago ed. at 203) for a weekend house party, wearing a tie that is far too red (“I must have color . . . color is all”) and with an excess of luggage, including a suitcase packed with medicines, syringes and home remedies (“‘When I pack’, said Pappy, ‘I pack for all eternity.'” )
Others far more knowledgeable than I about du Maurier’s ouevre have said that the Delaney siblings represent three aspects of DDM’s personality. Be that as it may, the siblings do seem to embody different facets of the artistic process. Maria’s studied stage performances are motivated by fame and applause; the more introspective Niall cares little for either and composes his music almost instinctively; and Celia, whose ego demands she be indispensable to others, is an artist manqué who chooses not to develop her considerable artistic skills. I also think the novel contains interesting hints that du Maurier may be questioning the primacy society accords the artist. Charles’ outburst (quoted earlier) accusing the Delaney’s of parasitism, goes beyond the personal to also attack “the fool public who allow you to exist.” I don’t think this aspect of the novel is really developed but I do think it’s at least an interesting suggestion, particularly in view of the subsequent discussion in which Niall and Charles dispute the value of the performing arts (Virago ed. at 7).
Before my blogging days I was only marginally aware of du Maurier’s work. I had, of course, read Rebecca (several times, actually. It only gets better with each re-read, doesn’t it?) and My Cousin Rachel as well as various short stories here and there. About a year ago, however, I re-watched the movie version of “Don’t Look Now” (with Sutherland/Christie), which sparked a re-reading of the novella; after that I went on to additional shorter works as well as The Parasites. As frequently happens when a particular book or author gets on one’s radar, I also began noticing the many blog postings on du Maurier’s works before learning, late in the day, about Ali’s reading week. In the course of all this, I’ve gone from a rather condescending view (forgive me, dear readers — we have all had our blind spots) of du Maurier as a popular period novelist with perhaps one great book under her belt to regarding her as a vastly talented stylist with the rare ability to connect with readers at all levels of sophistication. Although I’m not sure which of her novels I’ll go to next (I am overdue for another re-read of Rebecca), I’ll definitely be reading more of du Maurier’s work.