Mona Lisa: Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1937)

Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s playful novella Mona Lisa from Pushkin Press capitalizes on the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting by focusing on the facts and then cleverly blurring the details. The result is a delightful little tale centered on the alluring Mona Lisa smile, obsession, and the human desire to build a narrative around any mystery.

Mona Lisa

It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and we’re in the middle of the Second Italian War. King Louis XII sends one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille to Milan where he is supposed to raise an army, go to Naples and offer relief to the French governors who are fighting the Spanish.  There’s a big speech, full of pompous grandiosity from King Louis XII which boils down to the fact that the only thing Louis de la Trémoille is getting from the king is his blessing. The king stares “for a while into the indeterminate middle distance past the Marshal with the vacant expression of one who at all costs refuses to talk of money.” The Marshal is supposed to finance the campaign somehow:

“I trust that you will also take the opportunity of recouping the cost of this campaign. Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command. And so,” concluded the King, “goodbye and may god go with you!”

So Trémoille leaves for Italy with just a “few inconsequential counts and minor noblemen.” The First Italian War was a very lucrative affair, but the Second Italian War isn’t a booty-filled operation, and poor Trémoille  “was barely able to send to Paris anything of note.” He has to “content himself with fleecing the smaller towns” and decided to “concentrate on the purchase of objects of art.” This is how Da Vinci enters the picture.

Da Vinci is portrayed as a distracted genius, far more sophisticated and intelligent than Trémoille. While trying to catch a fly inside Da Vinci’s workshop, one of Trémoille’s entourage, a certain Monsieur de Bougainville, discovers the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. He falls in love with the woman depicted in the portrait and is determined to track her down….

The book plays into the mythology that’s grown around the painting, and at the same time, the narrative creates mystery and mythology of its own. Bougainville, dangerously obsessed and determined to discover the identity of the woman known as La Gioconda, takes Leonardo da Vinci’s words and builds a whole story around the woman who posed for the portrait. Da Vinci is frustratingly vague about his model:

“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth us, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.”

This is a very light, bubbly read, and although there are some very serious consequences to Bougainville’s obsession, the story never deviates from its comic stance. De Vinci seems mystified by the French soldiers, their desire for booty, and Bougainville’s determination to create a palatable narrative regarding the model for his painting. The novella is written in such a way that readers connect with the rather bemused and distracted Da Vinci. Why is this Frenchman so determined to ‘save’ the woman who may or who may not have been the model for painting? After all, according to Da Vinci, the portrait is of an idealized woman. What is all this fuss about?

Review copy

Translated by Ignat Avsey

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The Secret of High Eldersham: Miles Burton (1930)

Miles Burton’s novel The Secret of High Eldersham concerns a murder that takes place in a East Anglian village pub, the Rose and Crown. The pub has an unfortunate location–it stands in “an isolated spot,” outside of the village of High Eldershaw at the end of a side road.

It was about twenty miles from Gippingford, the county town, and stood upon the old coach road running northwards. At one time it had been a favourite spot for changing horses, but with the advent of the car its popularity had departed, since it was neither imposing or romantic enough the attract the attention of the passing motorist. Further, within recent years a new main road had been built, absorbing the through traffic and reducing the old coach road to little more than a country lane. The result was that few strangers entered the portal of the Rose and Crown.

That leaves the pub relying on local trade for business, and the nearby “struggling” village which sits on the banks of the River Elder only boasts 200-300 inhabitants, mostly labourers who don’t have much in the way of disposable income to take to the pub. When the book opens, the Rose and Crown’s long time publican transfers from the Rose and Crown to the much more lucrative business at the Tower of London pub in Gippingford. The head of the brewery advertises for a new publican and accepts retired policeman, Samuel Whitehead for the position.

The Secret of High Eldersham

In spite of the fact that Whitehead is an outsider, and that alone can be a death knoll for a business in East Anglia, a region where outsiders are regarded with “distrust,” the pub continues much the same until late one night, Constable Viney, the High Eldersham village policeman, riding home on his bicycle, stops by the pub and finds Whitehead dead–stabbed to death while sitting in his chair.

The case is very hastily passed along to Scotland Yard, and Detective Inspector Young arrives to head the investigation. Before long, he calls upon his good friend, Desmond Merrion, “a bachelor of independent and very considerable means,” a man he met during the war, for advice. At first Young dismisses the idea that High Eldersham is peculiar when it comes to the area’s attitude towards strangers, but he sees something that convinces him otherwise. By not revealing Young’s observations, Burton advances the story’s interest, and soon Merrion observes the same thing–we readers don’t know what they’ve both seen, and that kept me turning the pages.

The atmosphere in the village seems friendly enough, but it’s clear that outsiders will not penetrate the close knit community

I think it’s because all the people have married among themselves for so long that they’re all sort of related like. They settle things among themselves, you’ll never hear of one of them going to law with another, or anything like that. And they don’t like outsiders coming in and interfering with their affairs.

The initial set-up is strong, and the book begins very promisingly indeed  with the murder of the publican discovered by the intrepid Constable Viney. As much as I really liked the character of Desmond Merrion (and we do get to see quite a bit of him here), the murder investigation lost itself at times. I was disappointed when the topic of witchcraft arose, and the book, ultimately, seemed torn between being a police procedural and a thriller.

Some time ago, I read Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, so I looked forward to another novel by the same author. Of the two, I preferred Death in the Tunnel. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the author, real name, Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) and his very prolific career. It’s easy to guess that Burton’s series character, Desmond Merrion, is an alter ego.

For two more reviews:

Cross Examining Crime

Past Offences

review copy.

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Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum (1929)

“It is an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving door the same as when he came in.”

Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel is set in 1920s Berlin and portrays a varied cast of characters who take rooms, for a range of reasons, at the best hotel in town. The first notable guest is Kringelein, a middle-aged, dying bookkeeper whose illness has liberated him from a mediocre life of servitude. After receiving a diagnosis, he leaves his home town of Fredersdorf and heads to the Grand Hotel in Berlin, longing to experience the lifestyle enjoyed by his employer, company director, Preysing. Taking all the money he can gather, Kringelein intends to live a life of luxury for a few months and live as he imagines Preysing, a man about the same age, lives. Initially given one of the hotel’s worst rooms thanks to the snobbishness of the staff, Kringelein pitches a fit until he gets the sort of room he thinks Preysing would enjoy. Ironically Preysing also comes to stay at the hotel, and he balks at the extravagance of his room. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Preysing, who is not as affluent as he appears, is burdened with horrendous financial concerns.

Kringelein, “spending a month’s salary in two days,” strikes up an unlikely relationship with a fellow guest, the solitary, morphine addicted Doctor Otternschlag who guesses that Kringelein “wanted to seize one hour of crowded life before he died.” Dr Otternschlag, “a fossilized image of Loneliness and Death,” whose horribly disfigured face is a “Souvenir from Flanders,” sits in the lounge reading newspapers and asking daily for a letter which never arrives.

grand hotel

Another guest at the hotel is professional thief, Baron Gaigern, a very good-looking, charming man who lives lightly but expensively.

Gaigern was not a man of honor. He had stolen and swindled before now. And yet he was not a criminal, for the better instincts of his nature and upbringing too often made havoc of his evil designs. He was a dilettante amongst rogues.

It’s no accident that Gaigern is staying at the Grand Hotel. He’s not there for pleasure-he’s there for work, and it’s a job that causes him to cause between the two sides of his nature: self-interest or gallantry.

Another important guest is aging Russian dancer Grusinskaya who is accompanied by a coterie of faithful professionals who’ve sacrificed their lives to make hers easier. She possesses a valuable pearl necklace which she wears for every performance but now believes it brings bad luck. She’s already had plastic surgery, and is terrified of aging. Here she is looking at her reflection:

Grusinskaya fixed her eyes on her face as though on the face of an enemy. With horror she saw the telltale years, the wrinkles, the flabbiness, the fatigue, the withering; her temples were smooth no longer, the corners of her mouth were disfigured, her eyelids, under the blue makeup, were as creased as crumpled tissue paper.

In this novel, the guests represent a microcosm of Weimar Berlin society, and are all rather sad human beings. The war is in the not-so-distant past, and financial instability is glaringly present. Both Baron Gaigern and the doctor are veterans of WWI, but somehow the Baron remains a happy-go-lucky fellow, while the doctor is a shell of a man.

Since the focus is life in the hotel with its various comings and goings, Grand Hotel is not a traditional novel, but more a series of connected scenes as the guests meet and collide. There’s always a feel of the throw of the dice with a novel such as this; there’s no cohesive narrative which details the prior lives of our characters, but rather this is a group of diverse men and women thrown together by chance in a particular place, at a particular time. Each of the guests possesses some salient, unique, admirable, and achingly human quality: Grusinskaya possesses talent, Gaigern possesses a love of life, Kringelein possesses the will to pack a lifetime of living into a few weeks, and Preysing adores his family. All of these qualities are somehow or another challenged as the characters mingle in the hotel. The story dipped and lost its pace at a couple of points, but it’s well worth catching for the way the author bounces her characters off of one another, throwing them onto new pathways.

On a final note, while chewing over the idea that novels set in hotels capitalise on the idea that various types, who would not normally co-mingle. are thrown together, I began to count other, similar, scenarios: cruise ships, shipwrecks, people trapped by the elements, the work place.  Any others?

Here’s another review from The Bookbinder’s Daughter

Review copy.

Translated by Basil Creighton. Revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo.

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The Long View: Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, The Long View begins in London. It’s 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming (and I hesitate to call them Mr. and Mrs. as it makes them sound like some joint entity, which they are most definitely not)–Conrad and Antonia–have been married for 23 years. They have two children: Julian and Deirdre. Julian is on the brink of marriage to June Stoker and Daphne is in the throes of a love affair, which, even with an unexpected complication, is about to end.

It’s the evening of a dinner party for eight to celebrate Julian’s engagement to the very boring, very ordinary June Stoker. The dinner party is described in tedious, predictable detail before it occurs, and so we know that Mrs. Fleming isn’t looking forward to it but she “sank obediently to the occasion.” The big unknown of the upcoming evening is whether or not Conrad Fleming will bother to show up to the dinner party that he demanded and arranged.

Julian and Deirdre are total opposites. Whereas Julian is controlled. unemotional, doesn’t like fuss and has very distinct ideas about a wife’s ‘duty'( like his father), Deirdre is a mess. She’s constantly in the throes of some love affair or another and seems to always juggle two men at once:

one, dull, devoted creature whose only distinction was his determination to marry her, in the face of savage odds (the other, more attractive, but even more unsatisfactory young man).

In the build-up to the dinner party we also meet June Stoker, a young woman who’s marrying to escape a suffocating home life, and yet it’s also clear that marriage to Julian isn’t going to be an easy solution.

the long view

So the dinner party, with its awkward moments, takes place, and Mr. Fleming who has “constructed a personality as elaborate, mysterious and irrelevant, as a nineteenth-century folly” shows up. This is a man who doesn’t “care in the least about other people, […]. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself.” Thinking about his wife, he rues the fact that “he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. This indirectly had resulted in their children.” His son, Julian, bores him, and he thinks his soon-to-be daughter-in-law is an “exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman.” He expects the marriage to end badly for his son, with “two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour.”

Mr. Fleming, who is very smug about “trying not to be a father of any kind,”  echoes Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Bennet, but Mr. Fleming is a much more malevolent version, and whereas Mrs. Bennet is really a horrid creature, Mrs. Fleming, who after 23 years of marriage is “literally exhausted” by her husband, now lives her life in a strangely disconnected way. With her sad acceptance, she echoes Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt the upcoming dinner party was at least partially responsible for that. The dinner party is an event that we could expect the family to enjoy–at least on some level, but it only serves to reveal the pathology of the Flemings’ marriage, and leaves Antonia with the  acknowledgment that “after their first three years she had spent the remaining twenty fighting the battle of his boredom.”

Personally, I think the battle is long lost. We learn that Conrad Fleming is constantly unfaithful; the dramatics of his various mistresses amuse him (“During luncheon, a woman, nearly in tears, and with a Viennese accent, telephoned and asked for Mr. Fleming,”) and by the end of the evening, we see Antonia, at 43, contemplating “the skeleton of perhaps twenty-five years ahead of her on which she must graft some fabric of her life.”

While the pages of the Fleming’s lives move backwards in time, we are privy to Conrad Fleming’s thoughts, but always this is Antonia’s story. 1942 shows us the Flemings’ marriage in wartime, 1937–the Flemings are on a holiday in France, Conrad departs, unable to bear family intimacy for a moment longer, and he faces a crisis in his marriage. Then it’s back to 1927 to the Flemings’ wedding and a honeymoon in Paris. Finally it’s 1926, and a painfully shy 19-year-old Antonia is overshadowed by her aging beauty mother’s need to constantly criticize the daughter who possessing youth, is a potential rival.

The novel’s interesting structure begins by showing us a marriage in which both partners have reached some sort of toxic point in a relationship that is long past stagnation. But the glimpses of earlier years grant us a better view of the perennially unfaithful Conrad, a maddening character, who when he marries Antonia and sweeps her off to Paris, has very decided views:

“I’ve bought you a house, you know.”

“Have you? I wasn’t worrying. Why should I? Where is it?”

“Ah. I am not going to tell you tonight. If you don’t like it, we will get another. But I haven’t furnished it at all.”

“Then we shall not go straight back there?”

“Oh, no. The first step is to put you in it, and then choose things that will go with you.”

“Are they not to go with you also?”

“I am a chameleon,” he said, with a gentle sardonic gleam.

And so over the years, Antonia, now Mrs. Fleming “a great big beautiful doll” installed in the two beautiful homes the Flemings own, finds herself as she says “a sort of scene shifter for Conrad” a man who “likes an elaborate setting.”

By the time the book concludes, we have answers to how the Flemings’ marriage got to this point, and while I was very annoyed by Conrad and wished someone would puncture that insufferable ego, the book argued that we don’t arrive at any given moment in our lives by chance. We have walked certain pathways, turned at certain signposts; there are reasons why we are where we are.

Finally, I have to include this quote because I loved it. This is spoken by Antonia’s friend Leslie, who is a widow at the dinner party, but we also see her married and pregnant in France before the war. Here she is warning June, who isn’t even married yet, about what to expect when she’s pregnant.

Dreadful books about its age and weight at every conceivable moment, and ghastly yellow knitted matinee coats (what are they so often yellow?) and letters from hospitals, and photographs of other people’s babies so that you can see exactly how awful it’s going to look when it’s larger.

I liked this–didn’t love it. The novel slowed down at a few points, and the writing is very mannered. Still, I will definitely be reading more from this author. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s third marriage was to Kingsley Amis, and that makes her a stepmother to Martin Amis

Review copy

 

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Before the Fall: Noah Hawley

“Because what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave? What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop, where at least some part of our minds remains obsessed, even as our bodies move on?”

It’s evening in late August when a private plane leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York with 3 crew members and 8 passengers aboard. It should be a simple, short journey, but sixteen minutes into the flight, the plane crashes into the sea. Miraculously, the last minute passenger, Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who’s managed to overcome his drinking problem and is finally producing good, although deeply disturbing work, survives the crash. He swims ashore with the only other survivor–a four-year-old boy.

Noah Hawley’s powerful novel, Before the Fall looks at the aftermath of the crash. The plane carried some important passengers: the head of ALC media, multi-millionaire David Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their two children, Rachel and JJ. Also aboard was Ben Kipling, a partner at one of the largest Wall Street investment firms, and his wife, Sarah. Bateman and Kipling are two of the most powerful, wealthiest figures in New York, and the fact that they both die in the same crash, with Kipling about to be arrested for illegal trading sends the media into a feeding frenzy.

before the fall

Leading the charge for the media is Bateman’s ALC News. Bateman formed the 24 hour news station with the intention of “shaping the events of the day to fit the message of the network.” Morally unscrupulous Bill Cunningham is ALC’s rabid watchdog “an angry white guy with a withering wit.” Cunningham is ready to do whatever it takes to dig up the dirt he’s convinced will be found as the cause of the accident. He’s ready to exploit his relationship with the four-year old who survives the crash, and he’s happy to stir trouble between the boy’s aunt and her money-grubbing loser of a husband. Soon conspiracy theories about the downed plane morph into a sex scandal as Cunningham pulls out all the stops to create the story of the plane crash he wants to hear.

Cunningham was David’s gift to the world, the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world, to rail against a system that robbed us of everything we felt we deserved–the third-world countries that were taking our jobs. The politicians who were raising our taxes. Bill Cunningham, Mr. Straight Talk, Mr.Divine Righteousness, who sat in our living rooms and shared our pain, who told us what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out on life was not that we were losers, but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours.

Bill Cunningham was the voice of ALC News and he had gone insane. He was Kurtz in the jungle

Chapters go back and forth between the current investigation of the crash and the poignant back stories of the crew and passengers who died on the plane. Each chapter becomes part of the puzzle that will solve the mystery of the crash. No one is irrelevant here–from the pilot, to the security guard for the Bateman family, to the troubled, yet sadly-resolved Sarah Kipling–all these stores matter.

Scott Burroughs, whose Disaster Art labels him a suspect in the eyes of the media and the FBI works with Gus Franklin from the National Transportation Safety Board to try to piece together the mystery of just what went wrong on the flight. Scott, with shredded memories of the crash, emerges from the plane disaster as a hero, but instead of embracing this fame, Scott, still traumatized by the crash, makes the ‘error’ of disregarding the media. He becomes a ‘mystery man’ with something to hide, and once the media gets its teeth into his troubled private life, Scott’s  existence becomes a nightmare. In the eyes of the media, Scott morphs from hero to “notorious womanizer and recovering alcoholic, a struggling artist who’s never been able to keep a single lasting relationship.” And while that may all be true, it should be irrelevant. But when news is presented as a highly salacious gossip mag, sensation and speculation sell more seats than the truth.

Before the Fall is a sensitively written, beautifully constructed, moral powerhouse of a novel. The subject matter, grabbed from today’s headlines, is presented as a gripping story which examines fate, human nature and media hype. Scott Burroughs is an amazing, yet credible creation, and while the media viciously decries Scott and questions the crash, Scott’s backstory: inspiration by Jack LaLanne, reinvigoration for a damaged life through swimming, and the private tragedy that haunts his art, all piece together to place this man logically in the story. The scenes between the media, Cunningham and Scott are brilliant. Scott, an unlikely hero but a moral human being, comes across as a more intelligent, unstoned version of Jeff Bridges’s portrayal of ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowksi.

Author Noah Hawley is the creator of the television series Fargo. Someone rush and grab the film rights.

Review copy

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Villa Triste: Patrick Modiano

“I tell myself she was living in that moment of youth when everything’s going to be at the tipping point soon, when it’s going to be a little too late for everything. The boat’s still at the dock, all you have to do is walk up the gangway, you’ve got a few minutes left…”

Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste covers a short period in a man’s life that took place over one summer twelve years earlierAs he narrates the story, he recalls how in the early 60s, at age 18, he fled Paris “convinced the city was becoming dangerous for people” like him. Immediately there’s a sense of mystery which sets the tone for this languid, moody tale. He mentions the Algerian War, dislikes the “police-heavy” atmosphere of Paris, and considers there are “too many round-ups.” He seeks a “place of refuge” in a small French resort town, “just five kilometers from the Swiss border.”

The story opens with the narrator revisiting that long-ago summer when using the name Victor Chmara, he stayed at a third-rate boarding house, avoided any news, went to the cinema, and lingered at the casinos. Then one day, he met a glamorous couple: an auburn haired actress named Yvonne accompanied by her “melancholy” Great Dane Oswald, and a gay friend who squires her to social events, Dr René Meinthe–a flamboyant man with “agitated elegance” who occasionally refers to himself as “the Queen of the Belgians.”

villa triste

Victor becomes Yvonne’s lover, and he’s quickly swept up into the claustrophobic society world of this resort town. He attends dinners, social events and parties, some of which take a decadent turn:

I keep thinking of a colonial country, or one of the Caribbean islands. How else to explain that soft, corroding light, the midnight blue that turned eyes, skin, dresses, and alpaca suits phosphorescent. Those people were all surrounded by some mysterious electricity, and every time they made a move, you braced yourself for a short circuit. Their names-some of them have remained in my memory, and I regret not having written them all down at the time, I could have recited them at night before falling asleep, not knowing who their owners were, the sound of them would have been enough-their names brought to mind the little cosmopolitan societies of free ports and foreign bars.

The novel goes back in time twelve years earlier but also appears to jump to the present with the jump in time marked mainly by Victor’s remarks about the changes in the resort town. He sees a now older rather pathetic Dr Meinthe  and appears to follow him, but after concluding the novel, I don’t think he saw Dr Meinthe at all; he imagined him.

As in Modiano’s Young Once and After the Circus, the story in Villa Triste is concerned with an older man looking back at a time in his youth. All three novels contain Modiano’s favourite themes: youth, disillusionment, time, distance and memory, yet for this reader, Villa Triste is the best of the three. I liked Young Once and After the Circus, but more than anything else, I find myself fascinated by Modiano’s writing and the way he explores his themes. This is a writer who tackles the same themes, working over various plots, honing those themes through a shifting series of characters.  In Villa Triste, the characters of Yvonne and Meinthe are people you can’t forget, and while there’s some blurriness to their stories, it’s the blurriness of Victor’s youth and his inability to ask the right questions. The distance between Modiano and his narrative, apparent in Young Once and After the Circus morphs in Villa Triste to the fogs of time. The characters of Yvonne and Meinthe, with their air of tarnished glamour, are much stronger, and much more interesting.

There are some wonderfully memorable scenes here–a visit to Yvonne’s uncle’s home and a contest to pick the most stylish couple who will win the Houligant Cup for “beauty and elegance.” Through the course of the summer, various celebrity deaths occur: Ali Khan, Belinda Lee and Marilyn Monroe. These events, now moments of history for the modern reader, serve to place the book in its context but also add flavor and historical significance to the times. This is an era that won’t return but it will live as a memory:

Time has shrouded all those things in a mist of changing colors: sometimes a pale green, sometimes a slightly pink blue. A mist? No, an indestructible veil that smothers all sound and through which I can see Yvonne and Meinthe but not hear them. I’m afraid their silhouettes may blur and fade in the end

Villa Triste, in common with the other Modiano novels I’ve read, leaves lingering questions created by very deliberate plot holes: just who is the narrator? What happened to his father? What sort of shady deals is Meinthe, who “more or less” practices medicine, mixed up in, and of course, what happened to Yvonne–yet another beautiful would-be actress who has style but probably not enough talent to launch an international film career. Villa Triste isn’t a place–it’s a state of mind and the lingering sense of loss from one summer long ago.

Review copy

Translated by John Cullen

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Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

“And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea-or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Before you start reading Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, take a look at a map of Russia and Ukraine; it helps to track Teffi’s journey and to understand just how, in the wave of Bolshevik advances, she found herself with a startling lack of choices.

memories

In 1918 Teffi left Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) and moved to Moscow. Over the course of the book, she travels, after getting the necessary permits, to Kiev, and then to Odessa, Sebastopol and finally, Novorossiik.  By tracing her journey, it’s easy to grasp how she, along with many other desperate refugees, always trying to stay ahead of the Bolsheviks, found themselves with little choice but to escape by taking to the sea.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea is a non-fiction account of the author’s journey from Moscow to Ukraine. Teffi (1872-1952), whose real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was, like many Russian intellectuals, initially in favour of social change. She was a immensely popular writer in Russia, and according to the introduction from Edythe Haber, Teffi was a favourite writer of both tsar Nikolai II and Lenin. She “actively supported” the 1905 Revolution and while she wrote for various Bolshevik newspapers, later Teffi became a critic of the Bolshevik party. Memories finds Teffi post revolution in Moscow, and it’s a very scary place indeed. There are food shortages. People disappear and many of those who remain are “desperate” to get to Ukraine.

Those last Moscow days passed by in a turbid whirl. People appeared out of the mist, spun around and faded from sight; then new people appeared. It was like standing on a riverbank in the spring twilight and watching great blocks of ice float past: On one block is something that could be either a cart packed with straw or a Ukrainian peasant hut; on another block are scorched logs and something that looks like a wolf. Everything spins around a few times and the current sweeps it away forever.

Fueled by the knowledge that an actress was arrested for reading works written by Teffi (and a fellow Russian author, Averchenko,) it doesn’t take much persuading for Teffi, under the guidance of a “squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Gooskin,” to apply for permits to travel for a ‘reading tour’ to Ukraine. It’s a dangerous journey that takes them to the unpredictable violence of a village in the border zone, full of refugees, and ruled by the sadistic “deranged” commissar H-.

In German-occupied Kiev, Teffi can’t quite absorb some of the things she sees. It’s incredible to see Russian soldiers alive, standing in the sun, sitting in cafes, laughing and eating cake “instead of hiding away in basements like hunted animals, sick and hungry, wrapped in rags, knowing that their very existence threatens the lives of their loved ones.” At first, Kiev seems like a miraculous place, almost surreal when compared to the places Teffi has left:

But soon it begins to feel more like a station waiting room, just before the final whistle.

The hustle and bustle is too restless, too greedy to be a true festival. There is too much anxiety and fear in it. No one is giving any real thought either to their present or to their future. Everyone just grabs what they can, knowing they may have to drop it again at any moment.

The scenes in Kiev convey a desperate giddy gaiety which reminds me of the musicians  playing on the Titanic as it sinks slowly into the waves.

From Kiev, Teffi flees to Odessa with the plan to eventually return to Petrograd via Vladivostok, but fate decrees otherwise, and Teffi leaves never to return again. Throughout the book, Teffi meets people she thinks she’d lost and loses people she thought had reentered her life. She recounts atrocities on both sides–although her sympathies are clearly with the Whites.

In spite of the terrible things that Teffi witnesses, there’s a sense of humour accompanying these memories. This does not make the stories funny at all–rather, the things she witnesses and records are that more horrific. We see women grabbing the last piece of crepe de chine before it’s “confiscated” by Bolsheviks, women buying some old velvet curtain to be remade, optimistically, into a gown, while it’s still available, carpets sold in the shadow of retreat, and then there’s one resilient soul who insists on having her hair done before the Bolsheviks arrive.

Another aspect of the memoirs is the instant establishment of culture wherever the refugees land. Within a few hours of arrival, evenings and readings are arranged as if the establishment of a cultural life is vital. There are so many scenes here I’ll never forget: the looted and abandoned hotels, the frantic dash to the steamer, the man walked out onto the ice for execution, the general set on fire so that a bullet isn’t ‘wasted,’ the dogs chewing a human arm, the donkeys being beaten with sticks, and the French soldiers grabbing armfuls of their laundry right before they evacuate from Odessa.  And always there’s the sense that time is running out. Teffi stays in each oasis of safety for increasingly shorter times, or so it seems, with Bolshevik infiltration occurring right before a red surge. The Bolsheviks continue their relentless march, and Teffi jumps from one safe-White held zone to another–until there’s nowhere left.

My memories of those first days in Novorossiisk still lie behind a curtain of gray dust. They are still being whirled about by a stifling whirlwind–just as scraps of this and splinters of that, just as debris and rubbish of every kind, just as people themselves were whirled this way and that way, left and right, over the mountains or into the sea. Soulless and mindless, with the cruelty of an elemental force, this whirlwind determined our fate.

Finally…A quote I have to include for its pure, tragic beauty

I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me.

Review copy

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, Irina Steinberg.

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Steffan Green: Richmal Crompton

“Has life played any practical jokes on you?”

In Richmal Crompton’s Steffan Green,  a look at village life in the 30s,  freshly divorced Lettice Helston decides to escape the prying eyes of her London friends by fleeing to the countryside. A wrong turn leads her to the picturesque village of Steffan Green and she finds herself renting a village cottage on a whim. Although Lettice thinks she’ll live in quiet solitude, she quickly becomes embroiled in village life.

The problem with ‘village life’ books is that they can become too quaint, but Steffan Green contains darkness combined with strong characterization, and the result is an interesting tale of life right before WWII.

Steffan Green

One of the main characters in the book is former suffragette, Mrs. Fanshaw, now the vicar’s wife, who believes that reading the old testament gives one a “certain sense of proportion.” Mrs. Fanshaw, a marvelous character who understands what people need and who tries to ‘mend’ problems in the village as they occur, has an entire philosophy built around her metamorphosis from suffragette to vicar’s wife. She makes Lettice one of her ’causes’ and slowly and relentlessly involves the newcomer in village life.

“Things are never as bad as they seem to be when you’re right up against them,” she said.” You’ve got to get away and look at them from a distance with other things round them before you can see them in the right perspective. On the whole, life treats us better than we deserve.”

Lettice’s neighbours are a married couple, Lydia and Philip Morrice and their new baby. As outsiders they aren’t quite embraced by the locals and Lydia, who wears trousers, is considered “indelicate” by the local gentry, the impoverished Mrs. Ferring who lives up at the castle. Even though Mrs. Ferring, who keeps informed through gossip, doesn’t ‘descend’ into the village much, she still rules local society.

There’s a strict hierarchy of class within the village, and while Mrs. Ferring and her two granddaughters live in penury in the old castle, traditions have not yet melted away. Further down the ladder of class, there are two village widows who each live with a son. There’s the snobby, insufferable Mrs. Webb who rules her poor son Colin with a rod of iron, and the toothless Mrs. Turnberry who is beloved by all the villagers. Mrs. Turnberry lives with her son, Frank, who can’t hold a job, steals and gets drunk. There’s a rivalry between Mrs Webb and Mrs Turnberry which rears its head whenever there’s a social event:

Lettice’s thoughts went back over the afternoon. Mrs. Webb, a plump little woman with smooth unlined skin and fair frizzy hair, slightly overdressed in beige georgette and pearls, conveying in voice and manner the elusive suggestion of the second-rate, had talked incessantly about her son, enlarging on his devotion to her and by implication on her own perfection as a mother. Mrs. Turnberry was dressed in a shabby navy-blue costume and not over-clean striped blouse. She had a swarthy gipsy face, bright brown eyes alive with humour, and she poked fun demurely but incessantly at Mrs. Webb, deflating her pretensions one by one as she tried to impress Lettice, and making sly little digs that were yet devoid of ill-humour.

Mrs. Webb rules her son, Colin, as she once ruled her husband, and Colin is manipulated by his mother’s suffocating ‘concern,’ her headaches and coldness. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Turnberry should be social equals–after all Mrs. Turnberry’s other son, is a “respectable” solicitor. Mrs. Turnberry’s social position, however, has been assaulted by her wayward son, Frank’s behaviour, and this is one of the reasons the villagers love her–she’s chosen her son over class and status.

Further down the social scale, There’s also the “large, powerfully built”  Mrs. Skelton (who had ten children) who seems to clean for all of the village ladies.

Village life begins to shake up with the arrival of Mrs. Fanshaw’s “old school friend,” Miss Clare Lennare, a “fourth-rate Bloomsbury” writer who rents Honeysuckle Cottage in Steffan Green and stirs up all sorts of trouble while ferreting out her next plot. According to Mrs. Fanshaw:

She’s a novelist with quite a fair public. Her heroines are gentle helpless little women–stupid but appealing–the sort we meant to wipe off the face of the earth.

Miss Lennare employs Mrs. Skelton’s youngest child, Ivy to be her cleaner but instead makes the girl a ‘companion.’ Mrs. Fanshaw sniffs problems with the way Ivy is given expectations and promises that will not be met, and she makes a connection between Miss Lennare’s behaviour and Jane Austen’s Emma:

No, I think it’s just an Emma and Harriet Smith affair, except that Clare lacks the saving graces of Emma, and Ivy the saving graces of Harriet Smith. Clare’s stupid, and it’s the stupid people who do the most harm in the world.

The book’s touch of melodrama seems misplaced and mars the story overall–still I really enjoyed this (mostly) gentle tale of village life with its strict, stubborn societal gradations, and its not-so-disappointed suffragette turned vicar’s wife.

Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) is best known for her Just William books for children. She was a schoolmistress, and a suffragette. For health reasons, she left teaching and began writing full time.

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The Hotel of the Three Roses: Augusto De Angelis

Earlier this year I read The Murdered Banker, one of the new titles from Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo crime books. The book, written by Augusto De Angelis, featured series detective Inspector De Vincenzi. I was disappointed in the book as it didn’t match the quality of the earlier Vertigo titles I’d read: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, and The Disappearance of Signora Guilia. Those three titles all had something new to offer to the crime genre, and all three novels were disturbing reads for various reasons. The Murdered Banker was a standard police procedural, and although the set-up was good, the denouement was disappointing. This brings me to The Hotel of the Three Roses, with its rather promising title. I should add that I have a soft spot for books set in hotels (boarding houses and asylums)–primarily for the way the setting throws various types together in forced intimacy.

The hotel of the three roses

It’s Italy 1919. Someone sends the Inspector an anonymous letter complaining about the Hotel of the Three Roses, claiming that it’s a den of iniquity, a “gathering of addicts and degenerates” and that a “horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don’t intervene.” De Vincenzi takes the letter seriously, and requests a guest list. Immediately he senses that there’s something odd. Many of the guests are from London, and De Vincenzi wonders how all these foreigners know about the existence of this obscure third-rate hotel as “it’s not the kind you just stumble upon.” He decides to check the hotel that night. Just then he gets a call that a murder has occurred at the hotel, and this is the beginning of his investigation.

The murdered man was found hanging in his room, but according to the doctor called to the scene, the man was strung up after his death. Was this some sort of sick decision by the killer, or was the killer trying to hide the real cause of death? De Vincenzi begins questioning the strange assortment of guests and it becomes quite apparent that something peculiar is afoot at the hotel….

The Hotel of the Three Roses, a touch overly dramatic at timesis a good little mystery, and the police procedural is elevated by a cast composed of the strange, diverse assortment of guests, including a young gambler, heavily in debt and the doll-toting widow of a British army officer.  It’s clear that there’s a great secret between the guests, but De Vincenzi, driven by the desire to stop evil, must work hard to crack the silence.

With each step of the investigation, he found unexpected connections between all these people when it seemed there shouldn’t be any.

Italy seems to be a setting in which an author can capitalize on sun and glorious weather (thinking The Enchanted April and Where Angels Fear to Tread), but here Italy is portrayed rather differently, with incessant rain–a climate that matches the murky origins of a long-brewing crime:

The rain was coming down in long threads that looked silvery in the glare of the headlamps. A fog diffuse and smoky, needled the face. An unbroken line of umbrellas bobbed along the pavements.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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The Death of Bunny Munro: Nick Cave

What on earth can be done with a man who sneaks off from his wife’s funeral in order to have a quick wank in the bathroom? …

In Nick Cave’s novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, the perpetually libidinous travelling salesman Bunny doesn’t stop to mourn his wife when she tops herself in their small Brighton flat. Libby may be dead, and that may leave Bunny Munro in sole charge of his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, but it’s not going to cramp this Casanova’s lifestyle. He hits the road with his kid in tow “learning the ropes.”  You can’t help but feel sorry for Bunny Junior, a bright little boy who suffers from untreated blepharitis and who carries around an encyclopedia, a gift from the mother who “loved him to bits.”

the death of bunny monro

Bunny Monro is a ladies’ man–cocky, infused with “irrepressible optimism,” and happy in the knowledge that women “with no coercion step into the slipstream of his considerable sexual magnetism.” But is that strictly true? When we meet Bunny on page 1, he’s hired a prostitute and later he recalls a scene in which his wife Libby caught him with an unconscious girl. As Bunny, driving a battered Punto, hits the road with his son, he has encounter after encounter in which reality crashes into fantasy. With his life coming apart at the seams, Bunny, who fantasizes about various celebrity vaginas, continues to see women as “walking fuck-fest[s]” or available vaginas walking into his life. Somewhere deep inside there’s a recognition of what he’s become and what he’s done, but with a lifetime of avoidance, it’s easier for Bunny to carry on with business as usual. Rather than take any responsibility for his wife’s death, Bunny decides he’s “victimized ” by  circumstance.

He is afforded no insights, no illuminations, no great wisdoms but he can see immediately why the ladies dig him. He is not a toned, square-jawed lover boy or cumberbunded ladies’ man but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs. Look! There they are now! 

Banned from a number of McDonalds for life, Bunny hits the road with his “pomaded forelock” along with “new-found pulling power” and continues his job as a salesman while poor Bunny Junior is neglected in the process. Bunny claims he needs the work in order to deal with his grief, but the trip is really just an excuse to meet women and have as much sex as possible. As a mad horned killer stalks England, the killer’s continuing movement south seems to coincide with Bunny Monro’s misfortunes on his road trip which is peppered with a few ghostly visitations. Armed with a list of potential clients, Bunny tries to sell beauty products and his own questionable charms.

The first was a Mrs Elaine Bartlett, who lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Moulsecombe. Lying on the floor of its only working elevator was a bombed-out kid with a can of air freshener in one hand and a Tesco bag in the other and a Burberry cap on his head. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except the boy had emptied the contents of his bowels into his shorts and these were pulled down around his skinny, little ankles. The boy had managed, rather heroically, thought Bunny, to graffiti in green spray on the elevator wall, ‘I AM A SAD CUNT’. Bunny had stepped into the elevator, then stepped out and allowed its doors to judder shut. He contemplated momentarily climbing the four flights of stairs to Mrs Elaine Bartlett’s flat and realized, to his credit, that there was no way he was going to make it up them in his present condition, so he staggered back to the Punto.

The Death of Bunny Munro is a wickedly funny book with large dollops of the humour (often at Bunny’s expense) taking potshots at various societal taboos. One of the best scenes in the book (and it was hard to pick one) takes place as Bunny describes a girl in “gold hipster hotpants.” While reading through the oversexed sponge of Bunny’s brain is definitely raunchy, author Nick Cave never sinks to the puerile. Instead Bunny is a very real character, a retro male who deludes himself into thinking that his leering, drooling, drunken attentions are welcomed by every female on the planet.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Irvine Wells: “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton Seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with Bunny Monro.” I don’t agree, but the quote does make a point. Bunny is a morally reprehensible human being, and while he thinks he’s charming to all the ladies, the truth is that his limited appeal ensnares a certain type (comatose, mentally incompetent and/or indiscriminate are attributes that Bunny likes in his women). With this sort of character at the fore of the plot, it’s fun to just sit back and read about Bunny as he careens from disaster to disaster. But again, when a character lacks an iota of self-awareness, the plot usually aims in certain limited directions. I didn’t care for the book’s ending, but I’m not sure that the plot could have gone in any other direction.

For another take on the novel, see Lisa’s blog.

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