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 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.
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.
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.
Isn’t it a relief, dear readers, to have 2020 behind us? Unlike so many in this year of the plague, my personal situation was relatively benign (I had tons of great books, good internet access & my near and dear remained healthy) but even we lucky ones can agree that it’s quite the relief to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. One of the more pleasant annual rituals for a book blogger is the annual summary of books read and enjoyed (or not); it’s especially pleasant this year, where there’s sometimes been little else to enjoy other than books. Being, as usual, just a tiny bit behind the curve in looking over the past year (if you’ve read my blog in the past you may recall that I was several weeks late for Margaret Atwood month), my tally is accordingly
coming somewhat after most of the others. This is partly because I didn’t post very much this year and didn’t formally review many books. The pandemic and a long-distance move took their toll; for much of the year my brain was in a state analogous to the slumber mode of a bad computer, making it almost impossible to read anything very long or demanding. I’m not a big numbers cruncher, especially when it comes to books, but I do keep an informal tally and I was shocked to discover that I had read large portions of, and subsequently abandoned, over eleven books. I’ve never been adverse to abandoning or postponing books that didn’t work for me at a particular moment but I’m certainly not quick to do so, especially when, as here, I was actually reading some pretty good things. It was a very odd experience — about halfway through one of the Abandoned Eleven, it was “Bing! I’m done” and off I’d go to another book, which usually met the same fate (if my binger went off in a particularly intriguing work, such as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, I’d skim the end. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother.) What can I say, dear readers? This was the year I just couldn’t focus.
This was also the year when I received several visits from the Ghost of Books Past (envision, dear readers, a bookish version of Dickens’ famous spectre, only in my case toting bags of gaudy mass market paperbacks and brandishing bookish gift cards — I believe these are called “book tokens” in the U.K.), who insisted that I re-visit various reading adventures of yesteryear. This apparition first appeared in September (here in the U.S., we start commercializing Christmas pretty early). Immediately after I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara (BTW many thanks, Dolce Bellezza, for that read-along, otherwise Samara would still be adorning Mount TBR) I became absolutely fixated on locating and re-reading books that I hadn’t thought about for literally decades. Seemingly out of the blue (but we know whose doing it was, right?) I suddenly remembered enough information to locate and obtain a yellowing, mass market paperback of Gwendoline Butler’s Sarsen Place, a novel I had read decades ago, as well as a copy of The Vesey Inheritance, another read by Butler from days gone by. Sarsen Place, now sadly out of print, was worth the effort. The Vesey Inheritance was slightly less so but still a fun read.
Through sheer force of will I resisted the compulsion to spend October re-reading my ten favorite Georgette Heyer novels (it helped that I already knew several of them by heart), but ah, the Ghost of Books Past was far from done with me. The high school I attended several lifetimes ago had a sort of hit or miss library, mostly dull old classics (Tolstoy isn’t terribly interesting to most fifteen year olds) and the librarian had the maddening habit of only ordering one or two books from a series. At that time in my life I had particularly enjoyed one such incomplete series; I won’t identify it except to say it didn’t concern the adventures of either Trixie Belden or Bomba the Jungle Boy. But my school library had only two books from the series, and odd numbered ones at that, so I never learned either the beginning or end of the saga! Imagine the frustration and grief of my little teenybopper self! It was high time, the Ghost whispered, to atone for The Wrong of Reading Only A Few Books From A Series! Heeding my supernatural warning, I started obsessively locating and reading the entire series, seven books total, following the adventures of the main guy, his brother (who pops up around the third book) and then, for gosh sakes, the main guy’s nephew, who’s born somewhere around book five and who carries the saga forward to a new century and a new place (this author clearly knew how to hook a kid in). Ah, dear readers, the joys of completion, all the sweeter for being so long delayed!
After reading/skimming seven books from a Young Adult series (comparatively well written but, let’s face it, with rather immature characters), I could feel the Ghost beginning to fade. In late November and December I really intended to make a final push to read a few more books from my “Back to the Classics Challenge;” I really did, but the past wasn’t yet past, so to speak. Are any of you, dear readers, fans of grimdark, described by N.K. Jemison as fantasy’s equivalent to sci-fi’s dystopia sub-genre? If so, you’ll understand why, when Logen Ninefingers (aka “the Bloody Nine”) summoned me for a re-read, I hastened to obey. In a bit of severe counter-programing to the holiday season, I spent half of December re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s magnificent First Law Trilogy (the Guardian has referred to Abercrombie’s work as “delightfully twisted and evil” and it’s been proclaimed by no less than Forbes as “fantasy at its finest”). Less pompous and far funnier than Martin’s Game of Thrones, and much more attuned to human frailty than Tolkien, Abercrombie’s realpolitik, double dealing and dark humor seemed perfectly attuned to this horrible year. If you liked GOT you’d probably like the First Law Trilogy, provided you aren’t adverse to (very) naughty language and more graphic depictions of the old ultraviolence than you’d find even in Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Don’t judge me too harshly, dear readers, we all have our moods; sometimes one longs to attend a jumble sale with Pym’s excellent women and at others simply to wander the Circle of the World with the Bloody Nine. Say one thing for Abercrombie’s morally ambiguous characters, say they’re most compelling.
Although I spent the last half of 2020 more or less successfully escaping the present, my reading year did in fact include some forward momentum. Two very bright spots indeed were my increased respect for shorter fiction and a growing interest in translated literature. Prior to this year, I had only occasionally read short fiction and then largely on the theory that it was “good for me,” a type of literary equivalent of “eat your broccoli.” I’ve noticed, however, that my fragmented attention span seems fairly widespread this year and that many of my fellow bloggers as well as myself have taken to reading short stories and novellas. Among several outstanding novellas that came my way, the following three, very different works particularly stand out:
Ah, I hear the murmur through cyber space, did she read no novels during 2020? I did, actually, and although there were far fewer in number than in prior years, they included some wonderful works. In ascending order, the three that have stayed with me the longest are:
Well, dear readers, that’s pretty much it for my 2020 reading year. How did yours go? Anyone else out there, haunted by comfort reads and cursed with fragmented attention spans?
One of my consolations in this strange and troubling year is discovering the pleasures of translated fiction. My pre-blog reading life (as I’ve noted before) was largely confined to the anglophone world, with a mild tilt towards British authors thanks to my devotion to The Guardian’s book section. Oh, I did read a translated novel here and there over the years, but when I did so it was almost always something from a European country; my two categories were either works that made a huge splash on my side of the Atlantic (Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Herman Koch’s The Dinner spring to mind) or one of those big, sprawling 19th century chunksters that so impress one’s colleagues during those stimulating Monday morning conversations around the water cooler. (“Did I happen to mention that I read War and Peace last weekend? Tolstoy has such a penetrating view of history, don’t you think?”) I very rarely read any contemporary fiction in translation and I almost never read anything, contemporary or classical, from a non-European country.
My, how things did change, once I started traveling through the blogosphere! It didn’t take long for me to see the riches I had been missing and to add a great many new titles to my ever expanding TBR mountain (thank you very much, dear Kaggsy, for your excellent recommendations!) And then, there was the fun of discovering new publishers, such as the Pushkin Press, the Fitzcarraldo and the Europa Editions (if any of you dear readers have other publisher recommendations, do please share). After dipping my toe into non-western waters last winter thanks to Dolce Bellezza Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided the time was ripe for a mild exploration of a few more translated works.
And what better time to start my adventure than in August, which is both Spanish literature and Women in Translation (WIT) month? In honor of both occasions, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading several works that fit into either category, with at least two novels (Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dreams and Maria Graina’s The Optic Nerve) that fit both. In addition to the thrill of discovering these new (to me) writers, I’m very much looking forward to reading all the great reviews that are currently popping up on some of my favorite blogs. Hopefully I’ll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on my discoveries in the upcoming weeks as well.
Because I’ve traveled fairly extensively in certain parts of Latin America (but have never, alas, visited Spain), I rather arbitrarily decided to focus on the former area in selecting my translated-from-Spanish novel. I also wanted to read a very contemporary writer who’s currently publishing rather than an established giant of the canon such as Borges, Llosa or Marquez. Earlier this summer I became interested in Andrés Neuman, an Argentinian novelist with strong ties to Spain, when I read a recent Guardian review of Fractures, his latest novel translated into English. In keeping with my general ignorance of international literature, I was amazed to discover just how much Neuman has written (he has over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt), the wide range of his talent (Neuman is a poet and essayist as well as a novelist) and just how highly he’s regarded by those who should know (Roberto Bolaño, no less, proclaimed that 21st century literature would belong to this guy and as if that wasn’t enough, Granta included him in Volume 113, its selection of the best young Spanish language writers). Despite this renown, however, only three of Neuman’s novels have currently been translated into English. A copy of the earliest of these, The Traveler of the Century, wasn’t readily available to me; between the two that were, I decided to begin with Talking To Ourselves based largely on whim (also, I must confess, I loved the cover photo, despite the insertion of those stupid conversation “balloons”).
Talking to Ourselves is one of those novels whose brevity is disproportionate to its impact. Clocking in at a mere 160 pages or so, it can be finished in an afternoon, but its reverberations continue long after you’ve read the last word. I found myself puzzling for days over various aspects of the story and finding new layers of (possible) meaning in various incidents or characters. I don’t want to suggest that Talking is a difficult read — it isn’t; there isn’t much external action and the number of characters is primarily limited to the eternal triangle of man, woman and child. Rather, like the great artist he is, Neuman works on many levels and leaves it up to to the reader to decide how deeply he or she wants to delve.
The novel opens with a quarrel between Mario and his wife Elena; Mario, it seems, wants to borrow his brother’s truck and take Lito, the couple’s ten year old son, on a road trip to deliver an unspecified cargo to a small, remote town far from the family home in Buenos Aires. Lito is very excited at the propect of this long-promised treat while Elena is very much opposed. We shortly learn that Mario is dying (almost certainly from cancer, although the cause is never specified); when the novel opens his disease is in (temporary) remission and he desperately wants to create a lasting memory for Lito to cherish after his father’s death. Mario and Lito embark on their journey while Elena, who remains behind, commences her own very different odyssey.
Lito, Mario and Elena each tell the unfolding story through his or her point of view (POV). This limited view point not only keeps the reader guessing but also deepens our understanding of certain incidents. Lito, for example, thinks his father reacts rudely to a “magician” they encounter on their road trip; Mario’s puzzling actions become clear later on when he narrates his own section and indicates his opinion that the “magician” is most probably a pedophile who’s hitting on his son. The shifting POV also imparts suspense into what might otherwise be a rather claustrophobic domestic drama by allowing the reader access to information Elena and Mario withhold from each other and from Lito (both parents, for example, lie to their son about the extent and nature of Mario’s illness and death).
Although Mario does the dying (he is, so to speak, the novel’s guest of honor), the novel really belongs to Elena, an academic manqué whose lack of conviction and desire to get married led her to abandon graduate study. Far more intellectual than Mario, Elena attempts to understand her grief by reading and reflecting on great works of literature. We know her thoughts through her journal entries, as we know Mario’s from the recordings he makes (after his death, these will ultimately be given to Lito) and Lito’s through his texts and stream of consciousness narration (it’s a mark of Neuman’s skill that he makes each character communicate in a way that reflects his or her personality). As Elena looks to literature to make sense of herself and her disintegrating world, the novel interweaves her thoughts about what she is reading with actual quotes from the works themselves. As Elena explains:
When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I was taking them back.
“She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow,” I was startled to read in a short story by Lorrie Moore, sometimes I do the same, using my photophobia as an excuse, so that Lito won’t see my eyes. “From where will her own strength come? From some philosophy? From some frigid little philosophy?” Actually, I don’t get my strength from reading, but I do understand my weakness.
Although Neuman overdoes this device a bit, it’s a very interesting stream of consciousness technique that gives a real sense of immediacy to Elena’s reading (the novel contains a bibliography listing the works that Elena cites, which range from César Aira and Margaret Atwood to Hebe Uhart and Justo Navarro).
A major portion of Elena’s journal entries deal with a clandestine affair that begins shortly after Mario and Lito depart on their road trip. Despite feeling increasingly guilty about her actions, Elena responds to her husband’s approaching death by engaging in an intense, very physical affair that has heavy sadomasochistic overtones. As Elena explains (Talking at 44-45) in her journal, the physical and psychological pain she gives, and receives, from this affair resurrects and awakens her; she and her lover (who is experiencing a loss of his own) “cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here.” I’m less morally repulsed than somewhat unconvinced by Elena’s actions, which strike me as a bit contrived (I found myself thinking that this novel was written by a man, after all, but then perhaps I’m being naive). It’s perhaps significant, perhaps not, that Elena’s lover is the one important character we see only from the outside; he alone has no voice. Although this may simply emphasize his relative unimportance vis-à-vis the bond between Elena and the dying Mario, for me at least his silence and the opacity of his emotions and motives increased my inclination to regard him as a rather artificial plot device.
Unsurprisingly for such a short novel, there’s a dearth of secondary characters. Elena’s parents and older sister, and Mario’s brothers, make brief, fleeting appearances or are referred to in passing. When they do appear, however, Neuman can bring them alive with a line or two. My favorite of these is Elena’s older sister. Never given a proper name, she quarrels with Elena and leaves her house in a huff after she learns of Elena’s affair; polite, dignified and insufferable, she informs Elena of her departure by text message. A subsequent exchange between the sisters conveys the essence of many sibling relationships:
Do you need money? my sister asked in that responsible tone my dad admires so much. No, I pretended, why do you ask? No reason, she replied, how much do you need? When I said the amount I felt odd, grateful, younger.
I’m afraid that my bare summary may leave you with the impression that the novel is melodramatic and emotionally bleak. If so, I’ve done a severe disservice to Neuman’s skill and subtlety. Talking is surprisingly funny in spots, an effect Neuman achieves in part by making Lito the narrator for part of the road trip with his father. I usually become pretty wary when a child protagonist appears, as all too often s/he is either too cute, unrealistically precocious or both. In Lito, however, Neuman finds the realistic (and very funny) balance between the awareness and the innocence of a ten year old, as this exchange between Lito and his father (Talking at 32) makes clear:
I send a text from Dad’s phone:
hi ma hw r u? we r awsm! saw ++s of grt plcs 2day dt worry dad nt drvg fst 🙂 xxxs luv u
Thank you my darling for your delicious message. Your mom is fine but she misses you loads. Be careful climbing in and out of Pedro [the truck]. I went swimming today. You are my angel, kiss Daddy for me.
Mom doesn’t know how to use the phone, I laugh. What do you mean? Dad says, she uses it every day. And she had one before you were born * * * Sure I say, but she doesn’t know. Her messages always have twenty or thirty letters too many. It’s more expensive. And she wastes about a hundred letters. * * * And you, I go on, don’t know how to use it either. Oh, heck, pardon me, he says, why? Let’s see, I say, where in the menu do you find the games? That’s unfair, he complains. Ask me about something I might have a use for. Okay, okay, I say. How do you copy your contacts list? He doesn’t say anything. You see? I say. Then I raise my arms and whoop like I’ve just scored a goal.