His Excellency Eugène Rougon: Zola (Brian Nelson Translation)

A few years ago I completed Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart Cycle. As I worked my way through the 20 books, I came to the conclusion that some would forever have a place on my-best books of all-time list: The Kill, Nana, L’Assommoir, Pot LuckMoney, Earth, The Ladies’ Paradise, Debacle,His ExcellencyThe Masterpiece, while others were bridge-books and not so memorable. At the time only some of the books were available in new or newish translations, and that left me with the 19th century Vizetelly translations. I don’t intend to knock the Vizetelly translations as the Vizetellys believed in these books, tried to publish them and were heavily penalized for their efforts.

When I discovered the shocking fact that many of the 20-volume cycle hadn’t been re-translated since the 19th century, I thought that the reason these books hadn’t been re-translated had to be because they were the minor novels in the series. But as it turns out, my theory wasn’t correct.

His excellency

That brings me to the new translation of His Excellency Eugène Rougon from Brian Nelson. Nelson has previously translated the following novels in the series:

The Fortunes of the Rougons

The Ladies’ Paradise

Earth

The Kill

Pot Luck

The Belly of Paris

I’m excited about this translation as His Excellency Eugène Rougon is due for a reread, and what better reason than a new translation. If you want to read my review of the book, it’s here, but this post is about translation.

The main character, power-hungry Eugène Rougon has a certain attitude towards women:

Vizetelly translation:

“Yes, beware of women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after each word so as to glance at his papers. “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”

Brian Nelson translation:

“Yes, be very careful with women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after every word as he peered in a file. “If they’re not putting a crown on your head, they’re slipping a noose round your neck… At our age, a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.”

Perhaps those two quotes don’t seem so different at first glance, but I read them both several times. In the first quote, the word “halter” evokes the imagery of a man being controlled whereas in the second quote, “noose” implies a much more terminal position. Plus then there’s that last line … “a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach,” versus “a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.” The matter of who is doing the care-taking of the heart is not in question in the Nelson version, as we would expect with Eugène Rougon, whereas the Vizetelly version implies that a woman could perhaps be taking care of the heart and the stomach which is in complete contradiction of Rougon’s speech.

But here’s a meatier quote:

Vizetelly translation:

“What had first attracted him in Clorinde was the mystery surrounding her, the story of a past-away life and the yearning for a new existence which he could read in the depths of her big goddess-like eyes. He had heard disgraceful scandal about her–an early love affair with a coachman, and a subsequent connection with a banker who had presented her with the little house in the Champs-Elysees. However, every now and then she seemed to him so child-like that he doubted the truth of what he had been told, and again and again essayed to find out the secret of this strange girl, who became to him a living enigma, the solution of which interested him as much as some intriguing political problem. Until then he had felt a scornful disdain for women, and the first one who excited his interest was certainly as singular and complicated a being as could be imagined.”

Nelson translation:

“What attracted him in Clorinde was the quality of the unknown, a mysterious past, and the ambition he thought he could read in her big, dark eyes. Frightful things were said about her–a first attachment to a coachman, then a deal with a banker, rumoured to have paid for her false virginity with the gift of a house on the Champs-Élysées. On the other hand, there were times when she seemed such a child that he doubted these stories. He swore he would get the truth out of her himself, and kept going back hoping to learn the truth from the strange girl’s own lips. Clorinde had become an enigma which began to obsess him as much as any delicate question of high politics. He had lived his life thus far in disdain of women, and the first woman to whom he was attracted was without doubt the most complicated creature imaginable.”  *(and there’s a note here that Clorinde was modeled on the real-life Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione)

Comparing the two, IMO, the Nelson version is much smoother and also much more effectively conveys Rougon’s fascination with Clorinde. Significantly, Clorinde’s sexuality is absent from the Vizetelly quote. Back to censorship and what the Vizetellys had to deal with. Zola’s incredible, unforgettable characters are human beings who experience great passions: whether is be the passion/obsession for power, money, revenge, or sex, and it’s a shame  crime against literature that the Vizetellys were forced to tone down their translations. Henry Vizetelly was convicted twice for obscenity when he published versions of Zola novels. But that was the 19th century, so I’m going to celebrate the 21st century with a re-read of His Excellency Eugène Rougon.

Review copy.

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The Master Key: Masako Togawa

“Fate! It can stab you in the back any time, upsetting the most carefully thought out activities. Fate doesn’t care what the upshot is.”

The Master Key from Japanese author Masako Togawa is another entry in the Pushkin Vertigo line. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read several books from this series, and that I’m a huge fan of the Frédéric Dard titles.

The Master Key is set in the bleak, dark K Apartments for Young Ladies. At one time, the rules and regulations regarding occupants and visitors were strict. Men were not allowed to stay overnight, and of course, all the occupants were female. The over 100 occupants are no longer “young ladies” but longtime tenants who are “old maids.” The apartment building is now rundown, and depressing, and its “one hundred and fifty rooms connected by dark corridors into which the sunshine never penetrates,” are representative of the lives of the residents. “The long years have wreaked havoc on both the building and its inhabitants.”  The lives of these women, who were once vibrant and successful, are sad and depressing, and there’s a horrible irony to the name of the building, along with the idea that the residents were once segregated from men in order for their virtue to remain intact.

Here are some of the residents:

Katsuko Tojo, one of the receptionists who has limited mobility.

Noriko Ishiyama, a former art teacher, a mad hoarder who roams the halls at night seeking fishbones to chew

Suwa Yatabe, a violinist whose career was cut short by the mysterious paralysis of a finger

Professor Toyoko Munekata who is devoting herself to completing her husband’s manuscripts.

The building is about to be moved, and this is an event that causes tremendous anxiety and upheaval in the lives of some of its residents. Plus the master key, which opens all 150 rooms is missing, and some of the residents harbour secrets that they are desperate to protect. …

I liked The Master Key, but unfortunately I guessed the central twist early on, so that took the fizz out of the novel’s Big Reveal. The creepy atmosphere of the building and its mostly forgotten residents is well created and the detailed lives of the residents are incredibly sad.

I’d rank it below the Dard novels, Boileau and Narcejac’s Vertigo & She Who Was No More, and Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, but above Resurrection Bay, and the Augusto de Angelis novels. So in other words, somewhere in the middle. But still, it’s wonderful to read some newly translated Japanese crime fiction, and Pushkin Vertigo has another Togawa title for publication: The Lady Killer

Review Copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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The Good Liar: Catherine McKenzie

In some ways, The Good Liar mirrors the all-too familiar headlines of our current times, but the back story explores the aftermath of grief through the lens of three women who all played a role in a horrific tragic event.

Triple Ten is the name given to the event: this was an explosion that ripped apart a Chicago building and left hundreds dead or missing. It’s now a year later, the anniversary of the event, and Cecily Grayson, who has, unwillingly, become the poster woman for the tragedy, is still unable to move on with her life. Then there’s Kate, a woman who’s working as a nanny for an affluent family in Canada. Finally, there’s  Franny, a young woman whose birth mother died in the fire.

The Good Liar

Through these three characters (with published articles and the transcripts of interviews from a documentary filmmaker thrown in) it gradually becomes clear that all three women are lying to one extent or another. Slowly, the real stories of the relationships lost in the fire emerge.

A shiver runs through me, because that is how I feel now all the time, that nervous feeling like something bad’s about to happen, something I could avoid if I knew which event to skip, which route not to take, which call not to answer. 

Cecily Grayson, now in therapy, a widow and mother of two, is the main character here, which is a good thing as she is sympathetic.  At first, all we know about Kate is that she fled Chicago and hasn’t returned. Franny, who had just managed to reconnect with her birth mother, has become a permanent fixture in the family her deceased birth mother left behind. While Cecily and Franny run a foundation which dispenses compensation to the victims of the tragedy, there’s a slippery unease between them which is hard to place.

Through the plot, the story explores how we grieve, and how guilt combined with lack of closure disrupt the healing process. But there’s also the thriller element here, a streak of danger, a stench of psycho running through the narrative, and while the plot takes a long time to get there, we know that explosive confrontations will occur.

Cecily is the most convincing character here, and it’s easy to identify with her conflicting feelings of anger and loss combined with the shattered sense of security and safety. As always with domestic thrillers, we are left pondering the choices our characters make. Some of these choices are foolish, some are downright illogical, but then we all know people who constantly make stupid mistakes. I guessed the big reveal, which was a shame. Glancing over reviews on Goodreads, the book seems to be a big hit with fans. While I liked the lack of closure/guilt elements, the thriller/psycho aspect of the book stretched credulity for this reader.

Review copy

 

 

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The Kremlin Ball: Curzio Malaparte

“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”

Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening.  Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.

The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:

I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.

Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:

They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility. 

Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire. 

Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:

All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.

On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb,  the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:

What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of  tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.

Review copy

Translated by Jenny McPhee

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The President’s Hat: Antoine Laurain

‘The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details.”

Last year I read Antoine Laurain’s delightful book: The Portrait, a story of a man whose life is transformed when he buys a painting of an 18th century nobleman. I’d passed over other books by this author before, and so I decided to read Laurain’s earlier books.

The President’s Hat is somewhat reminiscent of The Portrait in its premise that the possession of an object can change lives. Whereas in The Portrait, one man’s life is changed, The President’s Hat concerns a handful of people, serially, who come into possession of a hat that belongs to François Mitterrand.

the president's hat

This short novel begins with a somewhat despondent Parisian, Daniel Mercier treating himself to a fancy dinner. His wife and child are out of town, and Daniel has a new, unpleasant boss to deal with. Daniel hopes that the dinner, ostensibly, “a bachelor evening,”  will allow him to relax and forget his work troubles for a few hours anyway. Luck seems to favour Daniel that night. Another guest cancelled, so Daniel gets a table, and then, a few minutes later, to his shock, Mitterand sits at the adjacent table.

Daniel can’t help but eavesdrop on the topics of conversation between Mitterand and his dinner companions. Dinner over, Mitterand forgets his hat, Daniel grabs it, and from that moment, Daniel becomes a changed man. …

The hat passes through various hands and each time the life of its wearer alters for the better. Daniel, of course, knows who owned the hat, so it’s fairly easy, assuming that Daniel is an impressionable person, to accept that the hat grants a sense of confidence and power. But other people who find the hat are unaware of its origin, and the hat still manages to transform the lives of those who wear it. So in that sense, the story has a thread of magical whimsy.

In one section, a man imagines a “parallel life” in which he did not discover the hat:

In this ‘parallel life’ he was still wearing his old sheepskin jacket and had his beard, had never opened the door of his study and still went every Friday to his analyst. What Aslan, called a ‘parallel life’ was actuality a perfect illustration of quantum mechanics and of applied developments in probability theory, starting from the hypothesis that everything we do in our lives creates a new universe which does not in any way wipe out the previous universe. 

(Since I am fond of the Multiverse theory, I liked that quote)

I am not overly fond, in theory, of a novel centered on an object which passes through various hands. That said, however, The President’s Hat is a light, pleasant read.  I preferred The Portrait as the latter is a shade darker, moving from eccentricity to delusion or even possible madness. The President’s Hat is an optimistic tale which focuses on the ebullient nature of a handful of Parisians. It’s fun to speculate that an object would have the ability to cause reversals in fortunes. Would that it were so easy.

Translated by Gallic Books (review copy)

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The Last Stand: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

“You on your lunch break?”

Her eyebrows lifted. “If so, I’m drinking it.” 

Hard Case Crime continues to mine gems from some of the greatest names in detective fiction. March 2018 brought a two-fer: A Bullet for Satisfaction and The Last Stand. A Bullet for Satisfaction was edited and completed by Max Alan Collins, Spillane’s long-time friend, while The Last Stand is Spillane’s final novel.

A Bullet for Satisfaction‘s appropriate title follows disgraced, ex-cop Dexter as he digs deep into the dirt surrounding the  murder of a married politician in a hotel room.

Mayes Rogers was a big name in politics around here-he’d made it to the top, and on the way ruined quite a few. A lot of people would have liked to see him put underground, and maybe they had good reasons.

I pulled out a cigarette, stuck the flame of my lighter to it, and drew in the smoke.

We’re in solid Spillane territory here. Dexter meets the grieving widow and her shapely sister, and offends local politicians as he investigates a case that stinks of corruption. Spillane books, for fans of the hard-boiled detective fiction, are great fun but then there are also watershed moments of brief, sudden brutality: those instances when we are jerked from our enjoyment into the reality of the darker side of human nature.

The Last Stand, written at the end of Spillane’s long writing career, has a completely different pace, with an adventure-focused plot. Pilot Joe Gillian finds himself stranded in the desert when he’s forced to make an emergency landing in his ancient plane. The tale involves Native Americans, the FBI, with a few gangsters thrown into the mix. Naturally, there has to be a beautiful woman–in this instance it’s a Native American wincingly named,  Running Fox.

Of the two, I preferred A Bullet for Satisfaction. I’m much more comfortable with hard-boiled detective tales of the 40s and 50s, and perhaps a great deal of that enjoyment comes with the idea that Spillane’s pugnacious male characters drank hard liquor for lunch and breakfast, fought crime and corruption to the bitter, bloody end, and loved women with lingering regret and the knowledge that they’d already moved on. Maybe it’s a Bogart thing.

Review copy

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The Gioconda Smile: Aldous Huxley

I bought a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile some years ago, and it’s taken me this long to get to it. It’s brief: my copy of oversized print runs to 42 pages, so it’s a short story. This is the tale of married man, Mr Hutton, who fancies himself as dashing and handsome. The story opens with Mr Hutton visiting “poor” Janet Spence. She’s the one with the Gioconda smile, and all I could think of was that old song, ‘Mona Lisa.’

If there’s a mirror in a room, that’s where you will find Mr. Hutton admiring himself whenever he gets the chance. There’s “no sign of baldness ” yet  “only a certain elevation of the brow,” which Hutton thinks is “Shakespearean.” Hutton has money, an invalid wife, a perky, doting lower-class mistress, and yet, he still finds the time and energy to visit Janet Spence. Hutton never knows what to make of Janet. She’s so calm and self-contained–not like the other women in his life.

Hutton, like most womanizers, liberally drops hints about his unhappy married life (he sounds a lot like Grant in Christina Stead’s A Little Tea, a Little Chat):

Reality doesn’t always come up to the ideal, you know. But that doesn’t make me believe any less in the ideal. Indeed, I do believe in it passionately the ideal of a matrimony between two people in perfect accord, I think it’s realisable. I’m sure it is.

He paused significantly and looked at her with an arch expression.

Poor Hutton… making his unhappiness known. But the next scene shows Hutton rapidly switching gears as he joins his cockney mistress who’s waiting patiently for Hutton in the back of his chauffeur driven car.

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946The portrayal of Hutton is masterful–even if the story’s denouement is not. Hutton is very much a type, and yet still strongly individualistic. A man who thinks he owns the world, runs the world and yet is still basically clueless.

I’ve read a few Huxley stories/novellas now and enjoyed them all. Brave New World dominates Huxley’s work, and other than that book, he seems to have fallen out of fashion.

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Foreign Bodies: Martin Edwards ed.

“We want to murder someone. We haven’t the courage to walk up to him and attack him, or for that matter to strike him from behind. So we go to the corner drug store, buy a penny’s worth of rat poison, and give it to the son-in-law, the man across the street, the husband, the lover.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of The British Crime Classics series, published here in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The short story collection, Foreign Bodies, edited and introduced by Martin Edwards, contains a wide range of short stories from all over the globe. We readers often seek out books from other countries and chew over the customs, traditions and beliefs. Foreign Bodies shows that international flare aside, murder… occurs everywhere and for the same reasons: greed, rage, jealousy are all ingredients that, when explosive enough, can add up to murder.

Here’s the list of contents:

The Swedish Match: Anton Chekhov (Russia) Translated by Peter Sekerin

A Sensible Course of Action: Palle Rosenkrantz (Denmark)

Strange Tracks: Balduin Groller (Hungary: Romania after his death)

The Kennel: Maurice Level (France)

Footprints in the Snow: Maurice Leblanc (France)

The Return of Lord Kingwood: Ivans (Netherlands) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Stage Box Murder: Paul Rosenhayn  (Germany)

The Spider: Koga Saburo (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Venom of the Tarantula: Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (India) Translated by Sreejata Guha

Murder à la Carte: Jean-Toussaint Samat (France)

The Cold Night’s Clearing: Keikichi Osaka (Japan) Translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Mystery of the Green Room: Pierre Véry (France)

Kippers: John Flanders (Belgium) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Lipstick and the Teacup: Havank (Dutch) Translated by Josh Pachter

The Puzzle of the Broken Watch: Maria Elvira Bermudez (Mexico) Translated by Donald A. Yates

I’m not going to discuss all the stories in this wonderful collection–after all, the themes are murder and detection, but I will discuss some of my favourites. The Chekhov story, The Swedish Match seems to have fun with the detective genre, while The Kennel is short, vicious and horrific. Shades of Joseph Conrad linger in Kippers.

If spiders creep you out, then you will shiver over The Venom of the Tarantula and The Spider. In The Venom of the Tarantula, a man is asked to discover how a bedbound “foul-mouthed; mistrustful, crafty malicious” writer continues to get a supply of his favourite drug: the venom of tarantulas.

The Spider is eerie, unusual and gripping. In this tale, a young man is employed to enter the abandoned laboratory of Tsujikawa, a dead professor, who died of …  yes you guessed it … a bite from a poisonous spider.

At first sight, the laboratory resembled a misshapen lighthouse or a time-worn fire watchtower. I gazed up at the building in awe. 

The narrator is asked by the dead professor’s family to go into the building which is full of jars of “monstrous spiders.” He’s supposed to dispose of them, and after all … the one that killed the professor may still be loose.

I knew where The Return of Lord Kingwood was headed, but I enjoyed the character of Mr Monk (and his bribery of a local lad) so much that I didn’t care that the story’s trajectory was predictable.

Murder à la Carte deals with the subject of poisoning in an intriguing way:

Poisoning? What with? With anything you choose! Or nothing whatever! I mean just that. People don’t realize it, that’s all. They think they know; they really don’t know anything about it. They think that you have to use a poison. Strychnine? Obviously strychnine is a poison. A killer. But the symptoms of strychnine poisoning are too well know. And besides, you have to get strychnine. But why bother with strychnine? You talk about poisons. There are hundreds of effective poisons. Ah, but their symptoms, too, are all known? And even those whose symptoms aren’t known reveal themselves in the autopsy? Well there are things which are poison, and things which are not poison. Poison and nonpoison. There’s no trick about murdering with poison; any fool can do it, provided he has the killer instinct, or the desire, or the need. 

The Stage Box Murder is an epistolary between a young man and the girl he hopes to marry when his fortunes improve. A murder opens up a career opportunity for the young man, but the crime brings a famous American detective to the scene…

A Sensible Course of Action from Danish writer Palle Rosenkrantz is set right after the Russian civil war and concerns a beautiful Russian countess who claims that her vengeful brother-in-law, who is hot on her heels, intends to kill her. Lieutenant Holst is called in to investigate a situation that requires no small amount of diplomacy. Holst tends to dismiss the Countess’s claim (the fact that she’s female works against her), and yet … there’s always the thought of recent Russian political events:

The whole business mighty have come out of a Russian novel, but in Russia, as one knew from the newspapers, anything was possible. 

Included here is yet another new name for me: Maria Elvira Bermudez “One of the most prolific female detective fiction writers in the Spanish-speaking world,” and here I’d (shamefully) never heard of her, and that brings me back to the collection’s merit. I’d never heard of most of these writers, but according to the intro before each story, these authors were prolific, popular and important to the genre in their respective countries.

This is a wonderful collection for crime aficionados and it’s a great way to collect names that we may not have heard of before. Martin Edwards provides a brief, yet informative intro, focusing on literary careers, of each writer.

review copy.

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The Beauties: Essential Stories: Chekhov

“I realized how unnecessary, trivial and false everything had been that prevented us from loving each other. I realized that when you are in love, you must start your reflections about your love with what is highest, what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, or sin or virtue in their accepted senses–or you shouldn’t reflect at all.”

The Beauties, from Pushkin Press, is a splendid collection of Chekhov short stories. These 13 stories examine many facets of Russian life through the themes of love and loss, and that elusive, shimmering moment: when all that is important in life becomes crystal clear.

Here’s the contents:

The Beauties

The Man in a Box

A Day in the Country

A Blunder

About Love

Grief

The Bet

A Misfortune

Sergeant Prishibeyev

The Lady With the Little Dog

The Huntsman

The Privy Councillor

The Kiss

The Beauties is told by a man who recalls seeing two remarkably beautiful girls over the course of his life, and he notes how this beauty struck him on two different occasions: the desire to be near beauty, and also a sadness, a sense of longing.

Whether I envied her beauty, or whether I was sorry that this girl was not mine and never would be mine and that I was a stranger to her, or whether I had a vague feeling that her rare beauty was accidental , and like everything on earth, would not last; or whether my sadness was that special feeling aroused when a person contemplates real beauty-God only knows!

I loved The Man in a Box (a Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich story) for its intense character study of the neurotic teacher Belikov:

That man showed a constant, overpowering urge to surround himself with a sort of wrapping, to create an outer box for himself, which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences. Reality upset him, frightened him, kept him in a constant state of alarm; and perhaps it was to justify this timidity on his part, his aversion towards the present time, that he always praised the past, and things which had never been. 

Although Belikov is in many ways, an introvert, nonetheless he dominates his surroundings and manages, through his warped sense of duty, to make everyone in his circle miserable. Belikov’s downfall, his bête noire, if you like, is love which appears in the form of Varenka, the sister of another teacher.

The Beauties

About Love is another one of Chekhov’s Burkin/Ivan Ivanovich stories. The narrator, Aliokhin relates how he fell in love with a married woman, and how we question love too much, intellectualize it when in fact we should just act:

And we too, when we’re in love, never stop asking ourselves questions–whether this is honorable or dishonourable, sensible or stupid, where this love is leading, and so forth. Whether all that’s good or not, I don’t know, but I do know that it’s unsatisfying and upsetting and gets in the way. 

My favourite story in the entire collection is The Bet. This is a story that covers a fifteen year period and concerns a bet (19th century Russian bets always seem extreme) that takes place over the question of whether or not the death penalty is preferable to a long, solitary prison sentence. I can’t say much about this story without giving away some of its most delightful elements, but I will say that this story shows how well Chekhov understood human nature and why he is a master of the short story.

A couple of the short stories are a touch too sentimental for me, but overall, this is a magnificent collection. Of course, it includes The Lady With the Little Dog, which is arguably Chekhov’s most famous story–at least it seems to be the one that makes the anthologies so often. I’ve read this story many times, and yet I read it again, and this time I found it even more poignant than I remember. This collection is superb: either a great introduction of those new to Chekhov, or a great reminder of this writer’s phenomenal talent.

I wish Gooseberries had been included, but it isn’t, so now off to read it.

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Review copy

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Filed under Chekhov, Fiction

The Neighborhood: Mario Vargas Llosa

“You know very well they disappear people here and nothing happens because the terrorists are to blame for everything.”

Mario Vargas LLosa’s novel, The Neighborhood is a look at the dirty politics of Peru through the lives of a handful of characters. It’s the 1990s in Peru,  Alberto Fujimori is president, and two affluent couples,  Marisa and businessman Quique (Enrique), Chabela and lawyer Luciano are good friends. Cachito, who was also in Marisa and Chabela’s stratified circle, was kidnapped two months ago, and his release is currently being negotiated. But even though someone from their circle has been kidnapped, the darker, more terrifying aspects of Peru remain, more or less, a spectacle for these four people:

They were having a whiskey on the terrace, watching the sea of lights of Lima at their feet, and talking, naturally, about the subject that obsessed every household in those days, the attacks and kidnappings of the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the MRTA, the blackouts almost every night because electrical towers had been blown up, leaving entire districts of the city in darkness and the explosions the terrorists used to awaken Limeños at midnight and at dawn. They recalled having seen from this same terrace, a few months earlier, on one of the hills on the outskirts of the city, the torches light up in the shape of a hammer and sickle, a prophecy of what would happen if the Senderistas won this war. 

Wealth and status are protections against many of the dangerous aspects of society, but they are also magnets for opportunists, and not long after the book begins, Quique is approached by Rolando Garro, the owner of a sleazy tabloid known for its vicious, career-destroying attacks on various people involved in the entertainment industry. Garro, who has photographs in his possession of an orgy starring Quique, blackmails Quique who then turns to his lawyer and best friend, Luciano for advice.

the neighborhood

The meeting between Garro and Quique unleashes powerful, dark manipulative forces within the Peruvian government, and while a lot of the plot concentrates on the wealthy–Marisa, Quique, Chabela and Luciano, other characters enter the story, including the opportunistic Shorty and the shadowy figure of the Doctor. The character of Shorty (Julieta), a reporter “capable of killing her own mother for a scoop, especially if it was dirty and salacious,” is arguably the most interesting person in this story, and it’s through her that the question is posed: what makes one person corrupt and another take a stand?

Her idea of journalism came from the small yellow scandal sheets displayed in the newsstands in the center of town, which people stopped to read–or rather look at, because there was almost nothing to them beyond the large, glaring headlines–and to contemplate the naked women showing off their buttocks with fantastic vulgarity, and the panels in strident red letters denouncing the filthy things, the pestilential secrets, and the read or imagined vile acts, thefts, perversions, and trafficking that destroyed the reputations of the most apparently worthy and prestigious people in the country. 

The book begins with an extended sex scene and while it put me off the book, I pushed on. The sex sub plot is far less interesting than the novel’s political thread, and the somewhat lengthy descriptions of sex seem gratuitous especially since this subplot led nowhere. Ultimately, however, I decided that the trivial drama between these two bored, superficial, decadent society wives, juxtaposed with the reality of Peruvian politics, illuminated the contrast between the classes. Here’s Shorty dragging herself up from the grimiest poverty, doing anything to survive while Marisa and Chabela (in between Italian classes, society dinners and vacations) start an affair. It’s a “how-the-other 1% live” study in contrasts, but still the detailed sex didn’t add to the book’s merit.

Review copy

Translated by Edith Grossman

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Filed under Fiction, Llosa Mario Vargas