During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.

during the reign of the queen of persiaDuring the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:

“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”

The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):

We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.

We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.

“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.

She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.

Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.

Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:

Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”

For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.

There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?

“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.

Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”

“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.

It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.

 

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The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

Back in the late 90s, I watched a wonderful film called Dry Cleaning (Nettoyage à Sec). It’s the story of a hardworking middle-class French couple who own a small dry-cleaning shop. Their marriage is stagnant and boring; then they meet an attractive young man, one half of a nightclub act, and invite him into their lives. Dry Cleaning is a perfect example of bored and unhappy people looking for a solution to their problems, and instead of a solution, the addition of the third person, who acts as a catalyst for catastrophic events, only increases the turmoil.  The Cold Song by Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann, a story with the same premise, is set on a coastal area of Norway in a region of scattered holiday homes. It should be an idyllic, peaceful spot, but the various troubled moods of its discontented inhabitants creates an atmosphere of unease–not that we need the unease to grow as shortly after the book begins, a group of local children unearth a body while on the hunt for ‘treasure’ they buried a few months before.

cold songThe book opens in 2008 with 75-year-old family matriarch Jenny Brodal drinking before a birthday party she dreads. The party is to be held at Mailund “the big white mansion-like house where she had grown up,” and the event has been organised by daughter, chef and restaurateur Siri against Jenny’s strident objections. While the party is just one indicator of the toxicity of this family’s relationships, it’s also fitting that the party is the turning point of events.  Jenny doesn’t want to attend, but as the ‘guest-of-honor’ she has little choice, and her daughter Siri is determined that the party will go on–no matter how her mother feels about it.  Siri’s stubborn insistence on having a party is a reflection of the family dynamic at play–on the surface, everything appears normal and healthy, but underneath there’s a dysfunctional family with many hidden secrets.

Then the book moves forward to 2010 with the discovery of the remains of a young girl named Milla who disappeared on the night of Jenny’s birthday party two years before. Milla was employed as a nanny for Siri’s two children: Alma, a rather troubled, feral child and the younger girl, Liv.  Most of the plot centres on Siri and her philandering husband, writer, fifty-year-old Jon–a man who has written and published the first two books of a trilogy, “great successes,” but he’s now deep in a case of writer’s block. Hiding out in the attic, his resentment grows as he pretends to write while Siri monitors his so-called ‘progress.’ Milla is employed with the hope that she will solve both Siri and Jon’s problems. With Milla supervising the children, Siri can concentrate on her restaurant and Jon can, in theory, write the last book of the trilogy.  Heavily in debt, with his advance already spent, and painfully aware that he’s no longer attractive to young women, Jon has taken over the attic as his writing den. He even resorts to typing out entries from  Danish Literature: A Short Critical Survey, so that when Siri listens at the door, she’ll hear him typing and imagine that he’s working.

So day after day Jon sat at his laptop intending to write, either that or he lay on the floor next to his dog and tried to sleep, or he gazed out the window,. or he read the newspapers online and wrote text messages to women who might or might not reply, and after a lot of all that he ate peanuts and drank beer.

Milla, the daughter of a famous artist, who applied “to the ad on the internet for a summer job,” initially seems to be the perfect choice as a nanny. She’s young, carefree and happy to be away from home for the first time. This excursion into adulthood should be safe as she’s living with a family, but while she’s supposed to be looking after the children, an attraction grows between Jon and Milla–an attraction that Siri is all too aware of.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m willing to discuss, but I’ll add that as the summer progresses, relationships between the various characters grow increasingly toxic. The family members seem to harbor old resentments against each other, and Milla, while employed to solve problems, only magnifies them.

Milla isn’t a particularly compelling character, well to be honest, there’s no one here to like, but for this reader, Milla’s lack of appeal was a bit of a problem. The poor girl has no idea that she’s treading on the toxic quicksand of a rotten marriage,  and she becomes Jon and Siri’s scapegoat for an entire summer. If she were more appealing as a character, the story would have had added poignancy, but without that, she’s just another person thrown into this poisonous domestic scene. I felt as though I didn’t care about Milla as much as I was supposed to. That put me in the same pot as Siri and Jon, so perhaps Milla’s lack of appeal was deliberate.

The fallout of Milla’s disappearance and death examines everyone’s responsibility towards a young girl who was, after all, the least culpable person in Jon and Siri’s marriage. Under the surface, there’s the intriguing question as to exactly why Siri employed  a beautiful young girl and then left her alone with her philandering husband–a man whose infidelities are definitely directed against his wife and are a distracting excuse to not write. It’s one of those situations when human motivation seems so fascinating & complex. When Milla disappears without trace, of course, there’s an alarm raised and a hunt for the missing girl. But does anyone really care? Isn’t it easier with her gone?

And anyway, the whole house was a reminder of Milla. Siri imagined finding strands of dark hair along the baseboards and around the doorframes, in the annex, in the meadow behind the house, in the vegetable plot, under the maple tree, and in her white flower bed.

Translated from Norwegian by Barbara J Haveland. Review copy.

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The Deserted Woman by Balzac

In his short story, The Deserted Woman, Balzac is back on familiar ground writing about another unhappily married woman, but the twist here is that the woman had a lover, left her husband and was subsequently abandoned.  It’s 1822, and Mme de Beauseant, a woman with a soiled reputation, now lives a reclusive life in her high-walled estate, Courcelles, in Lower Normandy.

Wealthy, twenty-three-year-old (at another point we’re told he’s 22) Gaston de Nueil is sent from Paris to his cousin’s house in Lower Normandy to recover from “an inflammatory complaint, brought on by overstudy, or perhaps by excess of some other kind.” After we read a bit more about Gaston, the speculation about “overstudy” seems unlikely, and that leaves the other possibility at the root of his exile, “excess of some other kind.” And this last possibility seems increasingly likely as the story continues. Gaston is an obsessive and a Romantic–a dangerous combination. Unfortunately his temperament is not suited to the social climate at his cousin’s house, and he very soon meets and is bored by “the whole town.” Balzac can’t resist a dig at this provincial society and the stratification of the local aristocracy–big fish in a small pond:

First of all comes the family whose claims to nobility are regarded as incontestable, and of the highest antiquity in the department, though no one has so much as heard of them a bare fifty leagues away.

Balzac has so much fun with these provincials that he carries on poking fun at the locals for a few pages.

A couple of evenings spent at his cousin Mme de Sainte-Severe’s home and poor Gaston is bored to tears, enjoys a few days of “vegetable happiness,” is beginning to find that he has “sunk back into the lifeless life of the provinces,” and then he overhears a tantalizing conversation regarding a certain Mme de Beauseant:

The women appeared to take counsel of each other by a glance; there was a sudden silence in the room, and it was felt that their attitude was one of disapproval.

“Does this Mme de Beauseant happen to be the lady whose adventure with M. d’Ajuda-Pinto made so much noise?” asked Gaston of his neighbor.

“The very same,” he was told. “She came to Courcelles after the marriage of the Marquis d’Adjuda; nobody visits her. She has, besides, too much sense not to see that she is in a false position, so she has made no attempt to see any one. M. de Champignelles and a few gentlemen went to call upon her, but she would see no one but M. de Champignelles, perhaps because he is a connection with the family.

Mme de Beauseant is considered “quite mad,” and the argument for that is that she left her husband “a well-bred man of the world, who would have been quite ready to listen to reason.” So the implication here seems to be that the fact she had an affair is not why she is considered “quite mad,” but her sanity is in question because she left her husband–a man who, no doubt, has affairs of his own and would have turned a blind eye to those of his wife.

With a sense of “fatality,” (and just how fatal this is becomes apparent by the story’s end), Gaston feels drawn to Mme de Beauseant, and although she lives  a life of seclusion, he plots to gain access to her under false pretences. His youth may excuse part of his selfish drive, for he either fails to grasp or simply doesn’t care that he’s placing Mme de Beauseant in a very vulnerable position. He does, of course, eventually meet this woman, and it’s for the reader to decide if she is a femme fatale or if Gaston is the homme fatale in this story–a story which works with a stunning symmetry.

As always, Balzac’s great talent is his insight into human nature. Gaston, the obsessive romantic can’t help himself when faced with this tragic figure of Mme de Beauseant, a woman who’s already broken the rules of society and has staked all on the promises given to her by a lover. Gaston is captivated by Mme de Beauseant:

The triple aureole of beauty, nobleness, and misfortune dazzled him.

In one scene Mme de Beauseant echoes Julie from A Woman of Thirty with her tale of how she “endured the torture of a forced marriage of suitability.” Julie compares a loveless marriage to prostitution, and both Mme de Beauseant and Julie express the opinion that young girls are forced to make choices when they are too young to know what they want. In A Woman of Thirty, however, Julie’s father tried and failed to stop her from marrying a man he knew would make her unhappy. We don’t have that background information in The Deserted Woman. Balzac is generous to Gaston and chalks up his stubborn drive to wear down Mme de Beauseant’s defenses to the folly of youth, but youth passes …

Balzac argues that love between two people is something to be cherished and valued:

The pleasure of loving, like some rare flower, needs the most careful ingenuity of culture. Time alone, and two souls attuned each to each, can discover all its resources, and call into being all the tender and delicate delights for which we are steeped in a thousand superstitions, imagining them to be inherent in the heart that lavishes them upon us. It is this wonderful response on one nature to another, this religious belief, this certainty of finding peculiar or excessive happiness in the presence of one we love, that accounts in part for perdurable attachments and long-lived passion.

The Deserted Woman is a story of forbidden passion and the sacrifices we are willing to make for love, but it’s also an examination of human nature and motivation. While Balzac clearly has a lot to say about the choices facing women in the 19th century, he also brings in the issue of the pressures facing men. Gaston is the second son, but his elder brother is expected to die young and that places enormous pressure upon Gaston as the heir. If true love is a rare thing, how many people are willing to pay the price? Mme de Beauseant has proved that she’s sacrifice her reputation for love, but does Gaston have the staying power necessary to defy the rules of the society?

 

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Waiting for Wednesday by Nicci French

“We’re taught to beware of strangers,” she said. “It’s our friends most of us should worry about.”

Author Nicci French is an amalgamation of names for writing team, husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, and together they’ve written a number of books of domestic, psychological  suspense and crime. I first across “Nicci French” through film adaptations, and curious, I turned to the books and have read several. A few years ago, a new crime series was launched which featured a London based psychotherapist Frieda Klein. First came Blue Monday, then Tuesday’s  Gone, and this is number three in the series: Waiting for Wednesday. Given my interest in books featuring psychotherapists, naturally I’m in for the series.

Waiting for WednesdayWaiting for Wednesday finds Frieda Klein recovering from injuries she suffered in Tuesday’s Gone. She’s been replaced as a consultant for the police by her enemy, snide, pompous Hal Bradshaw. So while her professional life is in the toilet, in her personal life, she’s in a long-term, but long-distance relationship with New York based Sandy. The book begins with the brutal murder in the suburbs of Ruth Lennox, a middle-aged woman, a seemingly perfect person–an excellent wife and mother, a health visitor for the local authority, and the epitome of respectability. Clues at the scene hint that this is a burglary gone wrong, but Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson soon has reason to doubt the easiest solution.

While Karlsson and Detective Constable Yvette Long become embroiled in the murder of Ruth Lennox, another plot thread follows retired journalist Jim Fearby, a man who for years has relentlessly campaigned for the release of convicted murderer, George Conley. Conley was arrested near the body of a dead eighteen-year-old girl, and although he eventually confessed, Fearby is convinced that Conley is innocent. He believes that the dead girl was just one victim of a serial killer who operates by grabbing his pedestrian prey in lonely country roads.

The plot juggles the investigation behind the Lennox murder and Jim Fearby’s hunt for a serial killer. Also, of course, there’s also Frieda with a tarnished professional reputation, and now persona non gratis as far as Karlsson’s boss is concerned. Frieda becomes involved with the Lennox murder through a personal connection, and unfortunately that only serves to fuel Hal Bradshaw’s enmity.

As a series novel, Waiting for Wednesday shows the difficulties writers face when bringing readers up to speed. Initially synopses of past events cover an explanation for Frieda’s injuries and  exactly why she’s no longer paid by the police as a consultant. Readers have either read the earlier novels or not, and the explanatory passages are an annoyance if you’re read the other books.

The book’s title, Waiting for Wednesday, struck me as an interesting choice, because that’s just what the book seems to be–we’re waiting for something to happen, and the book seems, more than anything else, a breather novel in between catastrophes. For those who’ve read the earlier novels, the thing we’re waiting for  involves Dean Reeve, a major character in Blue Monday, a dangerous man who’s out there somewhere on the loose, watching Frieda, now acting like one psycho deranged guardian angel as he bides his time for some bigger agenda. While this novel includes a number of dead bodies and the hunt for a serial killer, somehow all the action seems overwhelmed by the evidence that Dean is still out there. The result is that when the solution to the serial killings arrives, it arrives with an anticlimactic whimper–not a bang.

Frieda was established as a recluse in Blue Monday, but now her life is chaotic and completely out-of-control. Her home, a former sanctuary, now gets more action than Grand Central Station, again with the result that the book seems to be waiting for something to happen… something to change. And then just how does Frieda make a living? It’s certainly not by seeing patients, although the odd one pops up occasionally. Again there’s the sense that a big storm is on the horizon but it doesn’t appear here in this novel; it’s brewing.

In the future, Frieda’s life must either get sorted or implode. Dean must either make a serious move in Frieda’s sphere or bugger off and forget his obsession. Frieda must decide whether or not to commit to Sandy and move to New York or else end this long distance romance and spare herself from his annoying e-mails. Many things have to happen, but none of them happened here.

When Frieda is finally allowed on the crime scene  (another problem with the book–after all, exploring the criminal mind, and not child-minding is what she does best), the novel lights up as she discusses her insights into the life of the murder victim, Ruth Lennox with Karlsson:

“There’s nothing here she wouldn’t want to be seen,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I always think that nobody’s life can tolerate a spotlight shone into its corners.”

“But?”

“But from everything you tell me and everything I’ve seen, hers seems entirely ready for the spotlight, don’t you think? As if this house were a stage.”

“A stage for what?”

“For a play about being good.”

“I’m supposed to be the cynical one. So you mean you think nobody can be that good?”

“I’m a therapist, Karlsson. Of course that’s what I think. Where are Ruth Lennox’s secrets?”

Another strength of the novel is character of Jim Fearby, a man so obsessed with finding a serial killer who may or who may not exist, that the rest of his life disintegrates without him even noticing. When Fearby meets Frieda, there’s a meeting of obsessives, and together their skills mesh to discover the truth. Waiting for Wednesday–the solution to the Lennox murder, and even the hunt for the serial killer (whose identity I guessed) seemed lethargic when compared to Blue Monday, but I’m hoping the quality improves for the next novel in the series.

 Review copy

 

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My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown

“It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there’s so many of us.”

My Biggest Lie, a humorous debut novel from British author Luke Brown is a tale of self-destruction, self-promotion, and the collision of both set against the unbridled hedonistic excesses of the publishing world. Thirty-year-old Liam Wilson was well on his way towards a good career–he lived with Sarah, the girlfriend he claims to love, moved from an indie publisher in Birmingham to a major publishing house is London, and was mentored by rockstar publishing director for fiction, the “flamboyant” James Cockburn.

my biggest lieWith Cockburn out of commission and in hospital under strange circumstances, Liam is entrusted with minding author Craig Bennett whose book Talking to Pedro won the Booker prize. Sarah has just broken up with Liam, and feeling lost and sorry for himself, all of Liam’s self-destructive urges emerge. Set on the task to babysit Bennett and make sure he doesn’t have access to drugs, Liam, as Bennett’s minder engages in a long-drug-fueled evening which ends with Bennett dead and Liam agreeing to “resign.” Now the scourge of the publishing industry, Liam heads to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to write that novel he’s always been talking about.

My Biggest Lie is a look at the life of that familiar character–the Affable Dickhead. That’s my term to describe Liam whose morally reprehensible behaviour is slightly ameliorated by his tarnished charm.  He’s not someone you’d want in your life–although I suspect we all know a Liam, and while as a friend his behaviour is intolerable, he’s great fun to read about. He’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but he’s definitely a dodgy one. He doesn’t initially tell us the whole story of exactly what he did with either his girlfriend or with Craig Bennett. He makes us wait as he parcels out details, hoping to win us over with that overworked charm of the bullshit artist. Once on the top of his world, with a bright future, he blew it all in a series of self-destructive moves, and now he hopes he can win it all back: the girlfriend, the career, and perhaps even the self-respect. Liam is an entertaining narrator–definitely obnoxious, but with just enough self-disgust to make his train wreck of a life well-worth following.

I’d arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That’s the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

The novel started off very strongly but wobbled a bit when Liam arrives in Buenos Aires. Liam doesn’t know what to do with himself, and the plot seems to reflect Liam’s uncertainty. Left to his own limited devices leads to some self-examination, and while Liam admits some ugly truths about himself, he’s not exactly a reformed character.

Becoming a vainglorious prick has never been fundamental to creating literary art. No, I did that because it was fun, because I was morally exhausted and it was easy to pretend my behaviour was separate from my essence. But if the man careening around town in my clothes wasn’t me, then why did I feel so bad, and so proud, about the way he talked to women.

Stuck in a youth hostel with only Bleak House to read, Liam wallows in self-pity and admits his failings, but he’s soon back to his obnoxious ways when he resorts to stalking his ex-girlfriend via Facebook, and even contacts her friend Lizzie, whose macho boyfriend, Arturo, triggers bisexual fantasies in Liam’s already confused brain. While trying to jumpstart his novel, and attempting to arrive at some resolution about his involvement in the death of Craig Bennett, Liam decides to contact the two most significant people in Bennett’s life: Amy Casares and Alejandro Montenegro.

The book is at its funniest when describing the mud-slinging antics of the publishing world–writers who are “needy little vultures,” who chart “line graphs of their Amazon rankings.” The novel sagged in spots, and the endless drug fueled odysseys across London and Buenos Aires felt a bit anachronistic. At one point there’s even a mention of Jay McInerney (a sure sign we’re in Excess territory), and I wondered for a moment if we were in the 80s, but no, it’s post 9-11, present times. Who knew that people in the publishing industry were such party animals? One of the book’s most interesting and subtle aspects is that Liam doesn’t seem to get that when you’re a Booker prize winner or high in the food chain in the publishing industry, self-destruction is a form of celebrity-style self-promotion, but when you’re lower in the food chain, then being drunk at a book fair only makes you a liability.  The same rules just don’t apply.

Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn’t for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

 I liked this novel in spite of its faults; I don’t think it’s easy to write something funny, but Luke Brown managed it first time out of the gate.

review copy

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Cécile by Theodor Fontane

“I fall in love with them, not because of their virtues, but because of their human qualities, that is to say, their weaknesses and sins.”  (Theodor Fontane in a letter in which he discusses his female characters.)

Cécile isn’t considered Theodor Fontane’s (1819-1898) best novel, and after reading it, it’s easy to see why. It’s a wonderful story, but there are initially many references to German culture, history and society, and unless you’re very familiar with the names and incidents, it’s easy to get distracted and become lost in the notes. My copy from Angel Books is translated by Stanley Radcliffe. If you want to read the book (and it is recommended), then I suggest this edition. The explanatory notes are essential, and the afterword is excellent.

cecilePeople who regularly read this blog know that I love to read books about people on holiday, and that’s exactly how Cécile opens. It’s late 19th century, and a husband and wife take a train to Thale–a tourist spa town in the Harz mountains. The story begins with the couple boarding the train, and Fontane shows us right away that there’s something a little off about this couple. Could it be the age difference? He’s late fifties and she’s much younger, elegant, and very beautiful, but this age difference isn’t the explanation–there seems to be something deeply buried between this husband and wife. These are the St. Arnauds. He’s a former colonel, and his years of military life show in the economy of his movements, and his attention to detail.  There’s a certain air of detachment from Cécile St. Arnaud towards both her husband and her life, and then they appear to be shunned by other military men who acknowledge the Colonel’s presence but “then immediately avoided coming anywhere” near them again.

The air of mystery surrounding the St. Arnauds continues and deepens throughout almost the entire novel. The St. Arnauds arrive at the wonderfully named Ten Pound Hotel (Hotel Zehnpfund), and another guest, civil engineer Herr von Gordon, is immediately fascinated by them. He’s enormously attracted to the beautiful, fragile Cécile, who seems to be an invalid with “nervous afflictions,” but there’s something about Cécile and her relationship with her husband that von Gordon can’t quite define. After learning the name of the couple he remembers hearing gossip in 1870 about the colonel fighting a duel and killing his opponent.  The St Arnauds seem out of place at the hotel:

“There goes Baden-Baden,” said the man who watched them from the balcony. “Baden-Baden or Brighton  or Biarritz, but not the Harz and the Ten Pound Hotel.” And as he talked to himself in this way his eye followed the couple with growing interest as they came closer and then went away again, while he sought deeper in his memory at the same time. “St Arnaud. In 1870 he was still unmarried, and she would scarcely have been eighteen at the time.” And as he calculated and pondered in this way he indulged further and further speculation as to the precise circumstances of this somewhat strange and surprising marriage. “There’s a novel in all this. He is more than twenty years older than her. Well, that could be all right, that doesn’t mean much in some cases. But to give up his commission, such a brilliant and effective officer! You can still see the dash about him: guards colonel comme il faut, every inch of him. And yet on the retired list. Could it be … But no, she’s no coquette, and his behaviour towards her is also completely proper. He is good-mannered and obliging, but not too assiduously, as though trying to conceal something. Oh well, I’ll find out in time.”

Fascinated by Cécile, and intrigued by signals about the odd relationship between the St. Arnauds, Herr von Gordon, strikes up an acquaintance and along with a few other tourists, including painter Rosa Malheur (named after Rosa Bonheur) accompanies the couple on various tourist excursions throughout the area. Fontane takes us on tour too, and these early sections are packed with references to German history. One of the trips takes them to Quedlinburg and specifically to its castle. These scenes are humorous as Fontane places the main drama between the characters on hold while he delivers a wonderful scene on the rip-off side of tourism. The St Arnauds, von Gordon and Rosa enter the castle expecting to see its treasures and magnificent art collection with the steward as a tour guide:

This man, a pleasant and friendly person, immediately won them over with his affability, but on the other hand, somewhat surprised them by a manner that betrayed a troubled and almost guilty conscience, like someone who offers lottery tickets for sale knowing them to be blanks. And indeed, his castle could throughout all its rooms truly be regarded as a prime example of a blank. Whatever treasures it had once possessed had long since gone and so it fell to him, the guardian of erstwhile splendor, to speak only of things no longer there. No easy task. He undertook it with however with great skill, transforming the traditional custodian’s lecture hinging upon tangible exhibits into a historical discourse that contrariwise occupied itself with what had vanished.

Fontane cleverly gives us a glimpse into the private regions of the St. Arnauds’ married life through a few discussions between husband and wife. In one scene, St. Arnaud admonishes his wife for her poor choice of reading material, choices that “shocked” St. Arnaud by their superficiality:

She nodded her agreement with a tired air, as nearly always when something was discussed closely that did not directly relate to her person or her inclinations. And so she rapidly changed the topic of conversation.

It’s through scenes such as these that we see how the St. Arnauds manage their marriage and each other. Cécile mentions that Herr von Gordon is a  “first-rate travel guide. Only he talks too much about things that don’t interest everybody.” St. Arnaud laughingly responds that he knows his wife wants von Gordon to be a “stylite” devoted only to her. He’s not threatened or jealous by her need for male attention and devotion. Subsequently, Gordon spends a great deal of time in the company of the St. Arnauds, but proximity only deepens the mystery for von Gordon. He knows that the St. Arnauds did not marry for love. Is Cécile a trophy wife for her husband? After days in their company, von Gordon only has more questions about Cécile. She is a beautiful ornament for her husband’s arm, but their tour excursions reveal a shocking ignorance on Cécile’s part. Why are the St. Arnauds shunned by some people? Why does Cécile blush when some subjects come up in conversation? What secret is she hiding?

The afterword to this edition states that Cécile was written in 1866 (p.186) , and this must be a typo as St Arnaud’s scandalous duel took place in 1870, and Herr von Gordon has to strain his memory to recall the details. Elsewhere in the afterword, it is mentioned that Cécile appeared initially in serial form and then was published as a book in 1887. Fontane travelled to Thale and actually stayed at the Hotel Zehnpfund in 1881 and 1882. He stayed in another hotel in the area in 1883 and 1884 and in a letter to a friend, he wrote of his plans to write a novel set in the Hotel Zehnpfund. It seems that he began work on the novel in 1884.

While Cécile is a marvelous story, as I mentioned, the downside for readers who are not versed in German culture, are the dense, frequent references to German culture and history. After all the novel begins with a story set in a tourist area, so we get the spiel of the area historical significance and major attractions: Rosstrappe, the Witches’ Dance Floor, Quedlinburg, and Altenbrak. You could probably take this book on a Fontane-inspired holiday and have quite a bit of fun tracing his characters’ steps.

Later in the novel when the action moves to Berlin, the history and culture references drop and we are left with just the drama of two people who feel an intense sexual attraction to each other, and Herr von Gordon, who has written to his sister enquiring about Cécile St. Arnaud’s past, finally discovers the truth. He should stay away, and while his common sense tells him to forget her, his passion dictates the opposite….Cécile is a very well structured novel, and the power of its structure becomes evident as the novel concludes.

This is an amazingly visual novel–no doubt the visuals are encouraged by the descriptions of the tourist attractions, but the visual qualities of the novel extend beyond promontories and magnificent views. We can see St Arnaud confidently strutting around with military precision, and although no monocle was mentioned, I gave him one. And then there’s Cécile, a flawed woman who seems to live and breathe in these pages as she walks slowly around the hotel grounds like some delicate, fragile and rare hot house flower, perfumed, exquisite and yet whose existence depends on the care and attentions of others.  The mystery that keeps von Gordon on edge is subtly addressed by Fontane by clues which are embedded in the story. It’s the novel’s denouement that lifts these clues to the fore, and then we realize that the truth was staring us in the face all along. Cécile is a fascinating heroine–a product of her time and circumstances, she’s flawed and superficial, and yet she’s not without feelings and neither is she unsympathetic. The novel’s conclusion leaves the reader with a deeply unsettling and unanswered question regarding the nature of Cécile’s unhappiness.

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Filed under Fiction, Fontane Theodor

Money: Emile Zola (translation comparison with spoilers)

Time, we are told, brings round its revenges, and the books burned by the common hangman in one age come to be honoured in the next.” Henry Vizetelly

]Zola’s magnificent 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series examines the history of two branches of a family founded by matriarch Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” First Adelaide shocks her neighbours in the rural town of Plassans by marrying a peasant named Rougon. Their son, Pierre begins the Rougon line, but when, after the death of her husband,  Adelaide shacks up with a drunken poacher, she later produces two illegitimate children: Antoine and Ursule Macquart. The Rougons claw their way up into French society while the Macquarts remain the poorer side of the family. While there’s the occasional character with just a tinge of derangement, mostly these are a motley bunch: “a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” which include scoundrels, adulterers, drunks, swindlers, a religious maniac turned arsonist and of course, one of the most infamous prostitutes of her time: Nana. If you’ve read the novels–the complete series or just a few of the more famous titles, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zola’s intent was to trace the hereditary influences of alcoholism and insanity through the two branches of the family set against the backdrop of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

Henry Vizetelly’s publishing house released translated versions of Zola’s novels and met a witchhunt led by The National Vigilant Association--a group of people I know I couldn’t stand just from the name of this whacko group. Henry Vizetelly was dragged into court, convicted twice of “obscene libel,” and went to prison for 3 months. Henry’s son Ernest reworked the translations and these are considered “bowdlerized.”  Given the subject matter of Zola’s novels, it only makes sense that the more salacious bits disappeared thanks to censorship. Many of the Rougon-Macquart novels have been freshly translated but oddly Money was not until 2014 by Oxford World Classics and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years and the first unabridged translation in English. Unbelievable really. And here’s a quote from Ernest Vizetelly which appears in the Translator’s Note in the new version of Money. How fitting that a new translation should give credit where it’s due: to the Vizetellys for having the courage to try and defy small-minded petty hypocrisy and censorship. The characters in Zola’s novels are flawed human beings, but who among us cannot recognize human nature here? The message, according to the censors, is people may act like this, but let’s not read about it…

Nobody can regret these changes more than I do myself, but before reviewers proceed to censure me… If they desire to have verbatim translations of M. Zola’s works, let them help to establish literary freedom. (Ernest Vizetelly)

So let’s see what those 19th century prudes didn’t want us to read:

MoneyHere’s a clip from the new translation of Money from Valerie Minogue: 

‘Terrible things happened yesterday,” the Princess went on, “a crime, in fact, that nothing can repair.”

And in her ice-cold manner she related an awful happening. For the last three days, Victor had got himself placed in the infirmary, claiming to have unbearable pains in his head. The doctor had certainly suspected that this might be merely the pretence of an idler, but the child really had suffered from frequent attacks of neuralgia. Now that afternoon, Alice de Beauvilliers was at the Foundation without her mother; she had gone to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine cupboard. This cupboard was in the room that separated the two dormitories, the girls’ dormitory from the boys’, in which, at that time, Victor was the only occupant; and the sister, who had gone out for a few minutes, had been very surprised on her return not to find Alice; indeed, after waiting a few minutes, she had started to look for her. Her astonishment had increased on observing that the door of the boys’ dormitory had been locked on the inside. What could be happening? She had had to go right round by the corridor, and had stood gaping in terror at the spectacle that presented itself: the young girl lay half-strangled, a towel tied over her face to stifle her screams, her skirts pulled up roughly, displaying the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality. On the floor lay an empty purse. Victor had disappeared. The scene could be reconstructed: Alice, perhaps answering a call, going in to give a cup of milk to that fifteen-year-old boy, already as hairy as a man, and then the monster’s sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes, and flight. But so many points remained obscure, so many baffling and insoluble questions! How was it no one heard anything, no sound of a struggle, no cry? How could such frightful things have happened so quickly, in barely ten minutes? and above all, how had Victor been able to escape, to vanish, as it were, leaving no trace?

Now the Vizetelly version:

“A terrible thing happened yesterday,” continued the Princess–” a crime which nothing can repair.”

And thereupon, in her frigid way, she began to relate a frightful story. There days previously, it seemed, Victor had obtained admission into the infirmary by complaining of insupportable headaches. The doctor of the Institute had suspected this to be the feigned illness of an idler, but in point of fact the lad was prey to frequent neuralgic attacks. Now on the afternoon in question it appeared that Alice de Beauvilliers had come to the Institute without her mother, in order to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine closet. Victor happened to be alone in the adjoining infirmary, and the sister, having been obliged to absent herself for a short time, was amazed on her return to find Alice missing. She had begun to search for her, and at last, to her horror and amazement, had found her lying in the infirmary most severely injured–in fact more dead than alive. Beside her, significantly enough lay her empty purse. She had been attacked by Victor, and, brief as had been the sister’s absence, the young miscreant had already contrived to flee. The astonishing part of the affair was that no sound of struggle, no cry for help, had been heard by anyone. In less than ten minutes the crime had been planned and perpetrated, and its author had taken to flight. How could Victor have thus managed to escape, vanish, as it were, without leaving any trace behind him?

The first translated passage (from Oxford World’s Classics: Valerie Minogue) makes it perfectly clear that Alice de Beauvilliers has been brutally raped. Here’s the revolting image of hairy Victor against ” the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality.  Defective Victor, Saccard’s bastard son feels  a “sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes.” She’s even gagged to muffle her screams. This is an important incident in the novel for Saccard raped Victor’s mother in a violent coupling on the stairs, so the repetition of rape across two generations emphasizes Zola’s examination of hereditary behaviour. Plus then there’s the victim herself–Alice de Beauvilliers. Alice and her mother, impoverished aristocrats, the last of an “ancient race,” have invested all they own with Saccard with the goal that they will finally be able to secure a dowry for Alice. The great irony here is that Saccard is ruined; there will be no dowry; there will be no marriage; and instead of a wedding, Alice is violently raped by Victor who seems to have inherited all of his father’s animal appetites but without inheriting his brain and social skills. Alice’s rape will scar the poor woman for life; if there was any hope of a bridegroom before, now those hopes are dashed forever,. So much for the de Beauvilliers line or …. will Alice bear a bastard child?

 The Vizetelly translation makes it sound as though Alice were pushed over during the course of a mugging and that Victor stole the contents of her purse and not her virginity–which sad to say, isn’t much coveted by the males of her class, but after all Alice and her mother have been dreaming of the “long-awaited” bridegroom, scrimping and saving twenty thousand francs for Alice’s dowry–even as Alice ages and her prospects wither. But this goal of a bridegroom for Alice, no matter, how slim the possibility, has kept Alice and her mother directed in sustained hope. Saccard comes along and scoops up their nestegg along with the proceeds from the sale of Les Aublets. Alice de Beauvilliers and her mother are but another couple of victims of  Saccard’s speculations, but the rape of Alice, while vile, violent and guaranteed to shatter the poor timid girl is also symbolic. There is no bridegroom; there never will be any bridegroom and Alice, the last of a long line of aristocrats will die unmarried, utterly ruined and without hope. Saccard loots them of their money and their hope, and his bastard son, Victor delivers the coup de grace, and through the rape, robs them of their pride. Not that their pride could ever feed them, but at least it give the two women some sort of purpose in life.  Saccard’s sins come home to roost, but who pays the price? And after all this is typically what happens with this family; they’re simply bad news.

The true meaning of this significant incident is lost in the censored Vizetelly version. Once again–no Vizetelly bashing here, but which version would you rather read?

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A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson

Moving from a non-fiction book by a French author about her mentally-ill mother, I read Danish author Jonas T. Bengtsson’s dark, compelling story of a father and his son, A Fairy Tale. While this is fiction, this first person story, which begins in 1986 when the narrator is 6 years old rings with painful authenticity in its examination of the destructive side of love and family. The narrator who is unnamed but uses the name Peter in a couple of instances (“‘Peter’ I think it’s a good name. I could easily be a Peter,”) leads a strange life with his father. Always living in wretched flats on the fringes of society, the narrator retells the story of his nomadic life of poverty with his father who works a series of menial jobs: making faux antiques for the German market, providing muscle as a bouncer in a nightclub, building a garden path for an isolated elderly lady, and working in a small theatre. All of these jobs are underpaid, on a cash basis, for the narrator’s father either lacks, or refuses to use, documentation–this even extends to “Peter” who, in this life of fringe anonymity, does not attend school and is not able to even borrow library books.  

a fairy taleLiving a hand to mouth existence, there are times when the boy, who is sometimes left alone for long periods of time, seems much more worried than his father about where the next meal is coming from. The father believes that “people who cling to their money become unhappy,” and there are several times the father manages to persuade people to forget about money as he gets free dental treatment for his son, or slips into the cinema without tickets while the cashier looks the other way.  At times, the boy and his father are relaxed and enjoy moments we would consider ‘normal,’–an ice cream, for example, but there’s also an edge of paranoia to their lives which becomes more pronounced when their anonymity is threatened or there’s the possibility of long-term relationships. “Peter” is told “You must always keep an eye out for the White Men,” and while the boy lacks formal education, his father gives him lessons in survival within the Black economy and also teaches him to be wary of other people. Some of these lessons are built around an ongoing fairy tale.

Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale.

The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.

The King and the Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only one who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft.

“Is she really called the White Queen?” I asked my dad.

“Peter” and his father are incredibly close, bound by adversity, their own rules of behaviour, and a life on the run. With each sudden, unexplained move, the boy notes that some of their few possessions are inevitably left behind. One night two men standing near the building where the boy and his father live cause yet another move.

I follow my dad’s finger with my eyes. Two men are standing in the archway leading to the courtyard of the building where we live. They’re both wearing jeans and windbreakers over their shirts. I nearly fall off when dad slams on the bike’s brakes.

“Look how they stand,” he whispers into my ear. “Notice how hard they try to look as if they just happen to be there. Far too relaxed. Smoking casually.”

I narrow my eyes, but struggle to see anything other than two men in an archway.

“Do you remember what I told you about the White Men?”

“The Queen’s helpers?”

“Yes, them.”

“Are they the White Men?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t think we should try to find out.”

We get back on the bicycle. We ride out of the city until the tarmac turns into gravel, which later turns into hardened earth. When we can no longer see the city lights, dad pulls over. He paces up and down, then he sits against a tree and smokes. I try to be quiet. I don’t want to disturb him while he’s thinking.

Two cigarettes later he gets up.

“I think we might have to move again.” 

We don’t know what the father is running from or why he feels the need to train his son to see the world in a very specific way. All these questions are resolved towards the end of the novel, but it’s enough to say that the father fabricates a very specific world for his son, and while some of that world is desirable, part of it is not. The father clearly loves his son, but at what point does love lead to damage? And of course, fairy tales can’t go on forever….

This is as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss, but I will say that the fairy tales that the father tells to his son are not the only fabrications going on here. A Fairy Tale, a very unusual novel, was not at all what I expected. Like the Grimm fairy stories, there’s some very very dark material here, and sometimes, perhaps the only way you can make sense of the world is by turning your life into some kind of fairy tale to explain good and evil. Most of us grow up with fairy tale touches to life: Father Xmas, the Tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Andrew Lang’s wonderful fairy stories, and those fairy stories, as we grow older can leave feelings of nostalgia and wonder–a magical time of innocence. But here, fairy tales are an explanation and a sort of protective element (protecting the boy from the truth) but also an element that makes the boy more compliant, damaged and isolated. Both sides of the mirror here–good and evil as with any fairy tale. With its wonderfully dark, bleak ending, I really liked this novel.

Translated by Charlotte Barslund

Review copy

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

Thanks to Emma, I was introduced to French author Delphine de Vigan’s novel  Underground Time, but Nothing Holds Back the Night is completely different.  This is a non-fiction book about the author’s mother, Lucile, who committed suicide at the age of 61; she died alone and was in her apartment for 5 days before her daughter found her. The book was written by Delphine de Vigan partly as a way of understanding her mother, a woman who was a bright, beautiful child model, whose life somehow took a wrong turn as she made a series of bad choices in men, plunged into madness and was institutionalized.

 

Nothing Holds back the nightThrough the process of writing this book, the author basically discovers it’s not so much a question of what went wrong, but more an issue of uncovering the incidents that shaped Lucile, nicknamed “Blue”  by one of her brothers “because of the sad expression on her face.” On the surface of Lucile’s family life, it would appear as though she was part of an incredibly rich, boisterous family with happy parents and nine children (one is adopted), and at one point in the book we discover that Lucile’s family was the subject of a television documentary filmed in 1968 and aired in 1969. Delphine de Vigan watched the film which “shows a happy united family in which priority is given to the children’s autonomy and the development of their personalities.” But reading about the film through the author’s eyes, we can glimpse that there is something terribly wrong with this seemingly perfect picture of family life. Scrape away the surface, and there’s something quite different underneath… .

While the book is about the life of the author’s mother, Lucile, it’s also a quest to understand this complex, very private woman. Part of the quest involves the author’s struggle to write the book and her doubts about where to start, what to include, what to leave out. She’s also very aware that as she peels back the layers of Lucile’s childhood and the “myth” at the heart of the family, she risks hurting people even as she wrestles with various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan describes her journey–the interviews she conducted with relatives, the family photos she pored through, and the tapes she listened to.

But the further I go, the deeper my conviction that it was something I had to do, not as an act of rehabilitation, nor to honour, prove, re-establish, reveal or repair something, solely to get closer. Both for myself and for my children–who, despite my efforts. feel the weight of distant fears and regrets–I wanted to go back to the source of things.

And I wanted some trace of this quest, however futile, to remain.

When the book begins, there’s a definite, curious emotional distance between the author and her mother, and this is one of the elements of the story that interested me so much. The book is obviously not only the author’s attempts to understand her mother but it’s also part of the grieving process and a legacy–an explanation for the author’s own children.

The book is a  little awkward at first as it describes Lucile’s childhood in the moments when the author places thoughts in Lucile’s head that quite obviously could not belong in the head of a small child–it’s the author’s words as we read Lucile thinking about a “nameless protean being,” for example. But as Lucile grows older and increasingly more withdrawn and remote, her daughters enter the picture, and then we read about Delphine’s childhood and her views of her mother. The author appears to become much more comfortable with her subject as the book builds, and she’s also very frank about the difficulties she faced during the composition of this book. As the years tick by in Lucile and the author’s lives, we slowly, as the tragedy of Lucile’s life is revealed,  begin to understand the emotional distancing between the author and her mother. ‘Dysfunctional families’ is a term that’s vastly overused these days. Most of us seem to have crawled out of the debris of some domestic disaster or another, but Lucile’s family is the epitome of the term for while a façade of normalcy and function is maintained, underneath there’s rot.

The author’s journey to understand her mother addresses the past, and that includes complex questions regarding memory and various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan’s journey to the heart of the past includes the idea that family pathology is so easily skirted and avoided in silence. The author also shows how versions of events can collide, tainted by fragmented memory, absence or even simple misinterpretation of events, but in spite the novel’s subject matter and its examination of the very damaged Lucile, there are triumphs here. Even though the darkness in Lucile’s life never completely left but seemed to lurk in the corners of her mind, she beat incredible odds, and later in life, battling her demons, she managed to overcome mental trauma and find a level of peace and happiness.

Lucile made friends everywhere she went in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life … She exerted an odd and eccentric form of attraction around her, mixed with a great spirit of seriousness. This brought her strange encounters and lasting friendships.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is at once an incredibly private and painful book, and one gradually feels, turning these pages, that its completion is also a triumph for Delphine de Vigan.

Thanks to Emma for pointing me towards this book.

Translated by George Miller. Review copy.

 

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Money: Emile Zola New Translation by Valerie Minogue

Regular readers of the blog know that it took me a few years to read my way through Zola’s phenomenal 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. To anyone out there even remotely interested in Zola or 19th century French literature, I urge you to read these novels–some of them became the best novels I’ve ever read.

One of the issues I encountered when reading the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle was an issue of translation. While the better known novels had been recently translated, the lesser known novels had not. That left readers with the Vizetelly “bowdlerized” translations, and I’m not going to launch into Vizetelly bashing as the Vizetelly family attempted to bring Zola to the British reading public and were subsequently dragged into court on obscenity charges; they paid dearly for their efforts, and Henry Vizetelly was even sent to prison for his ‘crime.’ So when I approached the RM cycle I read new translations when they were available and Vizetelly when they were not.

MoneyI was, then, delighted to hear that Money was finally receiving a new translation, thanks to Oxford University Press and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years, and the first unabridged translation in English. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on the plot, but for those who haven’t read this fantastic, prescient novel here’s a little background:  Money is the 18th novel in the cycle, and its main character is a financial speculator, Saccard. Saccard was also in The Kill, and in The Kill (the second novel in the series) Saccard was a married man and on his way to a meteoric rise in Parisian society. In Money, Saccard is widowed, and the novel opens with him a bankrupt, more or less a pariah, thanks to his wild speculations. In the book’s opening scenes, he has arranged to meet someone to discuss his future. Saccard, ever the optimist at all the wrong moments, expects his brother, a powerful political figure, Eugène Rougon (the main character in the sixth novel in the series, His Excellency, Eugène Rougon) to bail him out of his current situation. Rougon, who knows that Saccard is a dangerous loose cannon,  will help, but only if Saccard agrees to go abroad. That’s the deal. Saccard refuses the offer and remains in Paris; he can’t leave the Paris Stock Exchange, the Bourse. These initial scenes show Saccard’s relationship to the Bourse. He has an overwhelming obsession–addiction to making money through speculation, and he also desires to show other men of means that he will make a come-back. Here is a translation comparison for any potential readers out there:

For  a moment he stood quivering on the edge of the footway. It was that active hour when all the life of Paris seems to flow into that central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, those two teeming arteries that carry the crowd along. From the four crossways at the four corners of the Place, streams of vehicles poured in uninterruptedly, whisking across the pavement amid an eddying mob of foot passengers. The two rows of cabs at the stand, beside the railings, were continually breaking and reforming; while along the Rue Vivienne the Victorias of the remisiers stretched away in a compact line, above which towered the drivers, reins in hand and ready to whip up at the first signal. The steps and peristyle of the Bourse were quite black with swarming frock-coats; and from among the coulissiers, already installed under the clock and hard at work, there rose the clamour of bull and bear, the flood-tide roar of speculation dominating all the rumbling hubbub of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, curious and fearful as to what might be going on there–all those mysterious financial operations which few French brains can penetrate, all that sudden ruin and fortune brought about–how, none could understand–amid gesticulation and savage cries. And Saccard, standing on the kerb of the footway, deafened by the distant voices, elbowed by the jostling crowd, dreamed once more of becoming the Gold King, the sovereign of that fever-infested district, in the centre of which the Bourse, from one till three o’clock, beats as it were some like some enormous heart. (Vizetelly)

Now the new Valerie Minogue translation:

For a moment he stood tremulously on the edge of the pavement. It was the busy time when all the life of Paris seems to pour into this central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, the two congested arteries carrying the crowds.  From each of the four junctions at the four corners of the square flowed a constant, uninterrupted stream of vehicles, waving their way along the road through the bustling mass of pedestrians. The two lines of cabs at the cab-stand along the railings kept breaking up and the re-forming; whilst on the Rue Vivienne the dealers’ victorias stretched out in a close-packed line, with the coachmen on top, reins in hand, ready to whip the horses forward at the first command. The steps and the peristyle of the Bourse were overrun with swarming black overcoats; and from the kerb market, already set up and at work beneath the clock, came the clamour of buying and selling, the tidal surge of speculation, rising above the noisy rumble of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, impelled by both desire and fear of what was going on there, in that mysterious world of financial dealings into which the French brains but rarely penetrate, a world of ruin and bankruptcy and sudden inexplicable fortunes, in the midst of all that barbaric shouting and gesticulation. And Saccard, on the edge of the stream, deafened by the distant voices and elbowed by the jostling bustle of the crowd, was dreaming once more of the royalty of Gold in this home of every feverish passion, with the Bourse at its centre, beating, from one o’clock until three, like an enormous heart.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola