As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today: a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist. I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.
As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden. If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out. Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed) they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge. They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months. Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction. Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork. One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies. A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!
Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit. If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).
The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic. As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:
then, she came to me: Maud. She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies. But inside she was quite special. Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal! Even . . . a murderer. I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company. But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”
Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation. I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.
Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed. This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together. Maud’s habits are another connecting thread. She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone. When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone. Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished. Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.
Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories. Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building. As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:
I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy. I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is. I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell. In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery. At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging. It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!
When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor. What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home? I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way. The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining. Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?
An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same. Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two. Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory. Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good. I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.
Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud. As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month. They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan. Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.
Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.
In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject. As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other. I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense. By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events. In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:
Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;
Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;
Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;
Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.
And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:
So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks! Now on to the next adventure:
For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders. For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness! Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers. Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature (2014). It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English
Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual. Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy. In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company). Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.
Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad. Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir. The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008. In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels. And travels some more. From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris. The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small. These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.” (page 98)
I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s. Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals. Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me. In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book. Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops). Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships. Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?
Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.
Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty. But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed. I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up. In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it. It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:
I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you. Then rise up. Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature. You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.
Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language. What constitutes a family? Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy? If so, how can it be structured? What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it? How do we honor our history while moving to the future? Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally. If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you. But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.
Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month. Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City). Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution. Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.
I was absolutely delighted that Back to the Classics, one of my very favorite challenges, has returned for another year (thank you very much for hosting, Karen!). Although my completion rate is beyond dismal (this is my fourth year to participate and I’ve yet to read and review even a fraction of my twelve Challenge books) I always have a lot of fun picking my categories and reading at least some of my selections. Last year, in fact, I did quite well in the reading portion of the Challenge, finishing ten of my twelve selections. And what about the reviewing? Well . . . . not so good. My reviews were . . . non existent! Nada! zilch! zero! What can I say, except that 2021 was not a good writing year for me? Circumstances change, however; new houses become not-so-new; boxes get unpacked; dusting tchotckes gets forgotten about (these days I just throw them in the closet and call it a done deal) and a new year appears, bringing with it new opportunities and great new books! So I’m back to the Challenges, adding the Classics Challenge to my 2022 European Reading Tour. Never say, dear readers, that I don’t set my goals high.
Since Karen has explained her Challenge much better than I’m able to, I won’t repeat the details. Essentially, participants select classic works that fit into a series of defined categories; for 20th century works the selection must be at least fifty years old (i.e., published before 1972). Initial selections are thankfully non-binding, an important point for fickle old me, as I’m pretty quick to move along from a book that isn’t right for me at a particular time. To compete in the Challenge, a participant must read and review his/her selections between the beginning and end of 2022.
In making my selections, I’ve added a few of my own, idiosyncratic requirements. In the last few years I’ve engaged in massive, massive book acquisition binges, partly from pandemic stress and partly because y’all, fellow bloggers, write such great book reviews that I’m always discovering another novel or novella I simply must read! Because my TBR is now one of the largest piles of books on earth, I’ve largely limited my selections to what’s already on my shelves. In addition to selecting books that I already own, I’ve also tilted my selections towards the British end of the scale because I’ve already planned to read so much translated literature this year and I read U.S. works as a matter of course (I don’t need a challenge for them) Since my neglected mountain of Persephone books has now been joined by several very interesting publications from the wonderful British Library Women Writers series, I’ve also tried to select books from these publishers as much as possible. Finally, although I adore re-reading, as much as possible for the most part I’ve avoided selecting books I’ve already read. Each reader has her own goals in participating in a Challenge; for me, it’s to read new things, or discover new writers whenever I can.
Without more blathering, here are my choice for this year’s categories:
1. 19TH CENTURY CLASSIC (i.e., published from 1800-1899):
I know, I know, I’m only at the first category and already I’m veering away from my “Read British” year. Zola just seemed so perfect for this category, however, I couldn’t resist! I love Trollope and Henry James, but I’ve read a great deal of their works; Edith Wharton (another favorite) published mostly in the early 1900s and, well, I’ve just been intending for years to read something by Zola. The big uncertainty that has kept me from doing so, however, has been just where do you start with such a prolific novelist? Luckily for me, this issue was resolved last summer when I stumbled across Bookertalk’s excellent Zola reviews. While I don’t aspire to read the complete Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I do hope at least to become acquainted with the families.
2. 20TH CENTURY CLASSIC (any book first published from 1900 to 1972):
At this point in my bookish journey through Scandinavia, I decided to read a piece of crime fiction. Aside from the sheer pleasure of it, there’s good reason for including something a bit more on the popular side than my two previous selections (i.e., a trilogy of literary memoirs and a short but challenging piece of avant-garde fiction). After all, since it emerged in the 1990s, Nordi noir has been a dominant presence in both film and crime fiction. Although I did read some of the early authors (a fair amount of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and a Jo Nesbø or two), I drifted away and never quite drifted back. There’s been a lot of bodies left in the snow since that time, so to speak, and the emergence of a correspondingly large number of new and exciting writers to tell their tales. So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to explore this unfamiliar territory by adding a noir or two to my lists for Annabel’s #NordicFinds month and the European Reading Challenge.
After all, how can you take a literary journey through Scandinavia without including at least one tale of a brooding, angst-ridden protagonist who threads his/her way through murder and mayhem whilst musing dark existential thoughts? Do you, dear readers, have any favorites from this genre? If so, please share, as my TBR list always has room for more entries!
For my stopover in Finland, I chose Dark As My Heart, an early work by Antti Tuomainen, one of his country’s leading crime writers (Lola Rogers did the translation). The story begins in 1993, where in a few brief pages we experience the murder of Sonja Kivi, alone in a car with her killer on a rainy October night. Sonja is young (early thirties), attractive and, except for her thirteen-year-old son Aleksi, alone in the world. As we subsequently learn as the story develops, she was employed by one of the many companies owned by Henrik Saarinen, a ruthless and wealthy Helsinki businessman with an eye for the ladies. Because Sonja’s body is never found, the police regard hers as “a missing person” case. The mystery of her disappearance is never solved and Aleksi goes into foster care.
In the years that follow, Aleksi structures his life around one thing, and one thing only — solving the mystery of his mother’s disappearance. He ages out of foster care (unlike the U.S. system, the Finnish version seems relatively benevolent), declines college in favor of becoming a skilled carpenter and, all the time, he’s seeking the answer to his mother’s fate. Aleksi keeps his human contacts to a minimum, ultimately sacrificing even his relationship with a woman he genuinely loves to his quest for justice for his dead mother. Aleksi is the very epitome of a noir anti-hero; we see the story through his first-person narrative and we learn the facts as he learns them. In 2003, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, a second woman who bears a strong physical resemblance to Sonja is found murdered. She, too, was an employee of Henrik Saarinen. Her killer is never found and the police refuse to listen to Aleksi’s claim that the murder is linked to his mother’s disappearance.
Fast forward to 2013 and Aleksi, now in his early thirties, is convinced that Henrik Saarinen is his mother’s killer. Without disclosing his identity, he goes to work on the Saarinen estate outside Helsinki and sets out to unmask and confront Henrik. The bulk of the novel occurs in this time period and centers on the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Aleksi and Henrik, who clearly knows more than Aleksi gives him credit for knowing. A cast of secondary players support and complicate the plot, most notably Amanda, Saarinen’s beautiful daughter (doesn’t every good noir need a beautiful heiress?) and Ketomaa, the retired policeman who investigated the disappearance of Aleksi’s mother and who has never given up on the case. Needless to say, digging into the Saarinen family secrets is both difficult and dangerous; as he becomes more involved with the Saarinen family Aleksi’s emotional defenses begin to crumble.
Although I’ve recounted the essentials of the plot in a chronological way, this novel is quite structurally complex, with the action moving back and forth among 1993, 2003 & 2013; Tuomainen uses this device very skillfully to dole out information and maintain suspense. Despite finding some of the secondary characters a bit two dimensional, Aleksi himself was a believable and compelling narrator. The novel conveys a good sense of place, both of Helsinki itself and of Kalmela Manor, Henrik Saarinen’s secluded country estate. The language is terse, as befits a good noir, but with a streak of poetry here and there, as displayed in this passage where Aleksi describes his early impression of the estate:
I closed the door of the manor house and stood on the veranda. Two plump-breasted crows sat on the roof, utterly still. Against the grey sky they were like those black silhouettes cut from cardboard that people used to buy at amusement parks and hang on the wall to show others something that they already knew — what the people memorialised looked like in profile. Autumn wrapped the land in its groping embrace. I listened to the movement of the gusting wind through the tall spruce trees and the birches that bordered the yard. The air was thin and fresh, with a hint of sap in it, a sweet smell.
As much a psychological drama as a straight mystery, Dark As My Heart also raised issues regarding obsession, vengeance and the need sometimes to forget the past and move on with life. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon or two trying to guess who did it and why; that I couldn’t do so speaks volumes for the writer’s skill! With a caveat that none of the characters are warm and fuzzy, I’d definitely recommend Dark to readers with a taste for Scandi noir, damaged protagonists and mysteries with an ambiguous edge.
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.
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.
While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing. As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.
First Miscellany: Travel and Books
I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring. Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area. Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.
Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well. When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self. Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate. The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on. Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president. Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog). On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones. An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19). It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic. “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!
In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!) Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea! Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip). From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start. I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip. Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction). It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.
In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:
SECOND MISCELLANY: Museums
To my great disappointment, most of Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three! One’s an “attributed to”). I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed). I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums. It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art. Sixty-nine Cezannes! Fifty-Nine Matisses! One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many). In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well. Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art. The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder. If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.
In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence. Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.
THIRD MISCELLANY: Nature
For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space. It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway. I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.
Enough for tonight! Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?
As many of you are aware, Cathy is currently hosting a twelve-month read-along of the works of Brian Moore, Belfast native, resident of both Canada and the U.S. and prolific author of over twenty-five novels in several genres. I really welcomed Cathy’s event, since Moore is one of those interesting writers who’s vaguely hovered in my literary consciousness for many years without ever quite taking shape. Wasn’t he Irish? No, he must be a Canadian historical writer because he wrote that Black Robe thing set in 17th century New France. At least he’s definitely Catholic! (Judging from my unread copy of his novella, Catholics. Dear Readers, I never miss a clue.) But wait — wasn’t Catholics actually a sci-fi novel, since it’s set in an alternate reality? Or are there really two Brian Moores, one a literary novelist and one a writer of Hollywood screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock and friends? As you can see, dear readers, Cathy’s read-along didn’t come a minute too soon for Janakay! And while I’m not excusing my ignorance about a very fine writer, my rather facetious questions demonstrate the chameleon nature of Moore’s talent as well as the impossibility of pigeonholing his work.
Each month the read-along features a single novel chosen as a good introduction to Moore’s fiction. Since I’ve never read anything by Moore, I wanted to read at least a couple of the featured books in order to form my own opinion about his output. Although I missed the first few months for various reasons, I was determined that at the very least I’d get to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, sitting unread on my shelves for almost a decade and widely considered one of Moore’s best works. My review, however, is running (very) late and comes at the very tail end of this month’s discussion; because it will be posted at the end of the month, numerous other fine reviews (including one by Cathy herself) precede it. Although the timing of my post made me hesitant to weigh in on a novel that’s been so thoroughly discussed, I finally decided to do so on a idiosyncratic “this is what interested me” basis and not to attempt a comprehensive overview or repeat too many details of the novel’s plot.
Being a believer that art frequently reflects in some manner the life of the artist who created it, one of the things I always find interesting is a writer’s biography. Rather than repeat the details of Cathy’s fine overview of Moore’s life and output, however, I begin this portion of my discussion by asking whether any of you have read Stet, Diana Athill’s wonderful memoir of her career as an editor at André Deutsche Ltd.? (Bear with me, dear readers, this will link up.)
Athill gives a very frank, very funny and very insightful account of working with some of the 20th century’s best known writers (Naipaul, Roth and Mailer for example) as well as with numerous other fine albeit less well known artists, including Moore himself. Athill’s account of her editorial and personal relationship with Moore (the friendship included Moore’s first wife, the Canadian journalist Jackie Sirois) was the first time I begin to be aware of Moore as something other than a name attached to several novels I had never bothered to read. Because I read Stet many years ago and had largely forgotten any of the specifics relating to Moore, I couldn’t resist revisiting Athill’s account after I (finally) finished Judith Hearne, the first Moore novel I’ve actually read.
I usually dislike (and normally avoid) long quotes, but Athill’s such a marvelous writer I’m making an exception in her case. As she recalls (pages 138-139 of my print copy, issued by NYRB Classics):
It was Mordecai [the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler] who first introduced me to Brian Moore in that he told me that this friend of his had written an exceptionally good book which we ought to go after; but I must not deprive André [André Deutsche] of his discovery of Judith Hearne. As André remembers it, he was given the book by Brian’s agent in New York on the last day of one of his — André’s — visits there; he read it on the plane on the way home and decided at once that he must publish it. I think it likely that he asked to see it, being alerted, as I had been, by Mordecai. But whether or not he asked for it, he certainly recognized its quality at once; and when he handed it over to me, it came to me as something I was already hoping to read, and its excellence was doubly pleasing to me because Brian was a friend of Mordecai’s. The two got to know each other in Paris and in Canada, where Mordecai was a native and Brian, an Ulsterman, had chosen to live in common — although the Moores moved to New York soon after we met.
Before Brian wrote Judith Hearne * * * when he was scrabbling about to keep a roof over his head, he had written several thrillers for publication as pocketbooks, under a pseudonym, which he said had been a useful apprenticeship in story-telling because it was a law of the genre that something must happen on every page. But however useful, it came nowhere near explaining Judith. With his first serious book Brian was already in full possession of his technical accomplishment, his astounding ability to put himself into other people’s shoes, and his particular view of life: a tragic view, but one that does not make a fuss about tragedy, accepting it as part of the fabric with which we all have to make do. He was to prove incapable of writing a bad book, and his considerable output was to include several more that were outstandingly good; but to my mind he never wrote anything more moving and more true than Judith Hearne.
When [Moore] came to London in 1955 * * * [h]e was a slightly surprising figure, but instantly likable: a small, fat, round-headed, sharp-nosed man resembling a robin, whose flat Ulster accent was the first of its kind I had heard. He was fat because he had an ulcer and the recommended treatment in those days was large quantities of milk, and also because Jackie was a wonderful cook. (Her ham, liberally injected with brandy before she baked it — she kept a medical syringe for the purpose — was to become one of my most poignant food memories.) When I asked him home to supper on that first visit he was careful to explain to me that he was devoted to his wife — a precaution which pleased me because it was sensible as well as slightly comic.
Once he [Moore] was sure I was harboring no romantic or predatory fancies, the way was open for a relaxed friendship, and for as long as I knew him and Jackie as a couple there seemed to be nothing we couldn’t talk about. They were both great gossips — and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest lit by humour but above malice, in human behavior. We used often, of course, to talk about writing — his and other people’s, and, eventually mine — but much more often we would talk with glee, with awe, with amazement, with horror, with delight, about what people had done and why they had done it. And we munched up our own lives as greedily as we did everyone else’s.
Although Athill’s house published five of Moore’s books (beginning with Judith Hearne in 1955 and ending with TheEmperor of Ice Cream in 1966), neither the professional nor personal relationship between Athill and Moore was destined to last. For the details of their breakup, you can’t do better than to read Athill’s honest and generous account (pages 142-150).
Biography is all very well, I can hear you say, but this is a book blog and — what about the book itself? Hearne is what I’d consider a small canvas, interior novel; i.e., it has few characters, is strongly focused on the eponymous heroine and has a very, very simple plot. Moore sets his novel in his native Belfast in the 1950s and superbly portrays that city’s strongly traditional culture and its deep Roman Catholicism. It opens when Judith, an aging spinster who has come down in the world, is moving into the latest of a successive of shabby boardinghouses, each less genteel than the one before. Judith’s world values women almost entirely for their beauty, their material possessions and their activities as traditional wives and mothers; it barely tolerates unmarried women like Judith who have neither money nor good looks. During the course of the novel Judith primarily interacts with her landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice; Mrs. Rice’s monstrous son Bernard; James Madden, a fellow boarder and Mrs. Rice’s brother; a couple of priests and/or nuns; and the O’Neill family, whom Judith mistakenly regards as long-time friends from her youth. Madden, a sexual predator and conman newly returned from America, convinces himself that Judith has money, and cultivates her as an “investor” in his harebrained business scheme; Judith, desperate to grasp a last chance at marriage and a place in her world, in turn convinces herself that Madden wants her as a wife. Both are wrong, with tragic consequences for Judith, whose discovery of the truth causes her to give in to her alcoholism and to lose ultimately the little she had. Although Moore adopts the very interesting stylistic device of using a few short segments of the novel to narrate the viewpoints of a few secondary characters, his unrelenting focus remains on Judith Hearne and her inexorable downward spiral.
The astonishing technical ability noted by Athill is on display from the opening sentences of the novel, in which the “very first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt” and “the colored oleograph of the Sacred Heart.” Her aunt’s photograph, which goes on the mantel, and the Sacred Heart, placed on the wall at the head of her bed, tell us instantly everything important we need to know about Judith: she has come down in the world since her aunt’s days and she is guided by the dictates of her religion. Her notions of class and religion are the lodestars of her life, their symbols the talismans that establish her home. Moore ends his novel with a tragic repetition of the same scene, where Judith, now an inmate in a charity hospital that was also the scene of an earlier humiliation, unpacks the same two objects, which, she thinks to herself, make this “new place” her home. I differ a bit from Cathy’s fine review, which sees “a little seed of hope” in the ending in that Judith continues to make the best of an impossible and tragic situation. I’m afraid I do not. If you’re in doubt, however, I’d go with Cathy’s reading. Not only has she read the book twice to my once, but I also prefer her interpretation over mine, as otherwise Judith’s story in almost unbearable.
Since I’ve deliberately avoided reading most reviews until after I post this (I plan to start clicking away immediately thereafter), I don’t know if other readers felt that Moore threw them a curve ball with this novel (for those disinclined to sports and/or from countries other than the U.S. , this is a tricky pitch in which the baseball fools the batter by not taking a straight path). For the first half or so the novel reads like a straightforward, realistic rendition of a tragic life that is lived in an historically accurate time and place. As Judith begins her downward spiral, however, the novel becomes an existential quest in which Judith learns that romantic love, friendship and religion fail to provide any meaning to human existence or any comfort for some of those forced to endure it. Ultimately, the Judith Hearnes are alone in a world bereft of human comfort or religious succor.
There’s so very much to say about this novel — the unexpected humor; the beautiful economy of the style; the very great scene in which Judith concludes that that she’s been praying to “bread” rather than the consecrated body of Christ; any scene involving the monstrous Bernard — well, I could go on and on but that’s what a multiplicity of reviews is for, isn’t it? The only way to appreciate the richness of this brief novel is to read it and experience it for yourself.
Did I like this novel? No, I did not. Judith’s story and the universe in which she lived are both far too bleak for me; it was so tough emotionally to watch this lost soul disintegrate that I had to stop every chapter or two to give myself a break. Do I think it’s a masterpiece and am I glad I read it? Yes to both questions.
Not terribly relevant to Moore’s novel, but in writing this post it finally occurred to me that certain aspects of Judith’s character reminded me at least superficially of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois (“Streetcar Named Desire,” 1947 or thereabouts), the story of another formerly affluent woman who, unable to cope with the reality of her reduced circumstances and romantic disappointment, also ends up institutionalized. Of course, there’s the difference in nationality (Irish vs U.S.), lack of a religious element (very important to Moore) and genre (novel vs. play). As I said, superficial. Probably because I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Taylor’s 1954 short story “Hester Lily,” I was also reminded of her very observant portrayal of Miss Despenser, an aging spinster driven half-mad by loneliness, living in drastically reduced circumstances and who, like Judith, turns to alcohol to ward off despair. Lastly, at least according to Colm Toíbín as quoted by the great Wiki, Moore’s novel takes from Joyce’s short story “Clay” (Dubliners) the idea of a lonely spinster of a certain age visiting a family, an event which both comforts and confounds her. If you have any thoughts on my rather superficial comparisons, or have some different ones to offer, please do share.
Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence! Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog. However did the blogosphere survive my absence? (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!) Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs. You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books. I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews. But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked. Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).
Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.
A. MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)
Have you ever moved, dear reader? I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go! I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay. If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode. After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”
B. Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read
Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events. Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it? My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”). As my opening photo demonstrates, my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here). During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world. What can I say? You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer. Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:
Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust? If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:
Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time. Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color. Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus . . . exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner? Quelle horreur! Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.” Guess what, dear readers? The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!
There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions. It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of InSearch of Lost Time. After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two. After all, there are several different editions!
On a last Proustian note: The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907. Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed. The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.
What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J? Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery. Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.
If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end. I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.