Tag Archives: family relationships

Friends and Family: Anita Brookner

Back to Anita Brookner, and with Friends and Family, this wonderful author gives us a look at a wealthy Jewish family who live in London. The book is set between the world wars and so there are hints of shadows in the past and in the future. The book begins and ends with someone looking at old photographs and identifying various family members–a rather poignant activity as there’s the feeling that all these people, whose images are captured at a moment in time, are now dead.

The family matriarch is the widow Sofka Dorn. Her husband is long out of the picture, and there are hints given about his “little weakness,” which was, of course, women. Sofka has four children, and “named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy.”  Frederick and Albert are the sons and Mireille (Mimi) and Babette (Betty) are the daughters.  The novel charts the fortunes of these four children, with Sofka in the background as the years pass, and since we begin with a photograph the prevailing undercurrent here is how character determines destiny.

friends and family

Frederick as the eldest son is the first one to come under scrutiny. He “is so charming and so attractive that women forgive him his little treacheries.” He’s surrounded by women who have marriage aspirations, and there’s a constant merry-go-round of females who visit Sofka’s house where Sofka makes it clear with barbed comments and marzipan cake that each woman is one of many. Some wonderful passages show how Sofka aids and abets her son’s bad behaviour–although she denies it strenuously.

When the telephone rings, and Frederick fears an importunate voice, he signals to his mother, and she gets up from her chair with the most extraordinary expression of girlish glee on her face. “I’m afraid Frederick is out,” she will say in her soft grave voice, one hand up to her mouth to subdue her smile. The voice continues in her ear, becoming plangent, and clearly audible to Frederick on the other side of the room, one hand wearily marking time to the reproaches. Sometimes when Sofka is unable to terminate the conversation as briefly as decency tells her is necessary, Frederick sets his metronome going and his mother is obliged to bring her handkerchief up to her mouth to stifle a little laugh.

Sofka imagines that her sons will marry “replicas” of their mother, and of course, one day a woman claims Frederick.

Youngest son Alfred is the polar opposite of Frederick. He’s serious–too serious, and devotes himself to the family business. He has a dream of owning a country house where he believes he will “find his true centre.”

Sometimes Alfred has a dream in which he is running through a dark wood; at his heels there are two beautiful golden dogs, his familiars, and with them he is running through the dark wood of his pilgrimage towards the golden dawn of his reward. It is this strange dream that has determined Alfred to look for his real home.

He launches on the quest to find the country house of his dreams, but when that fantasy proves impossible, he finally buys a house that does not fit his dream, installs grumpy housekeeper Muriel who rather takes advantage of her employer, and fills the place with furniture which “give[s] the place the look of a hotel.” Wren House is full of guests every weekend, and Alfred, who has denied himself for years, indulges in an affair with a married, spoiled “greedy woman of fickle appetites”

Now to the sisters: again polar opposites. Mimi is gentle and retiring whereas Betty, peaks at 16, fanangles her way to Paris and eventually moves to New York and then Hollywood. Both Frederick and Betty, who both seem to possess a ‘wild card’ are “stranded” and “adrift” in middle age. They were the most selfish of the four siblings and yet somehow they both become subsumed by the desires and destinies of others.

The novel shows how siblings do not grow up in a vacuum but are impacted by one another. Mimi, for example, is overshadowed by Betty’s selfishness and boldness and never recovers while Albert, left by Frederick to be the responsible son, dreams of escape to … somewhere … something.

I loved Friends and Family and marvel in the way Brookner created an elegant, lost world peopled with the extensive Dorn family and various hangers on and servants all neatly detailed in under 200 pages. Many of the Brookner novels set in the last decades of the 20th century felt as though they could have been set in the 50s. Family and Friends, set between the two world wars, had the feel of the late 19th century at times.

 

10 Comments

Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

Dolly: Anita Brookner

“I reflected how easy it is for a man to reduce women of a certain age to imbecility. All he has to do is give an impersonation of desire, or better still, of secret knowledge, for a woman to feel herself a source of power”

Anita Brookner’s novel Dolly is an introspective, quiet, beautifully written novel, placed squarely in the character-study category. The novel describes the minuscule world of our narrator, Jane, the only child of a very happy loving marriage between her two parents, Henrietta Ferber and Paul Manning. As the only, much loved child brought up in a happy home, the single cloud of discontent to appear on the horizon appears in the form of Jane’s rather exotic Aunt Dolly, who is married to Henrietta’s brother, Hugo. Dolly, at first, appears as a very minor, distant character in Jane’s life, but over the years her importance grows.

Dolly begins when Jane is a child, and one of the significant events in her childhood is the arrival of Aunt Dolly and Uncle Hugo from Brussels. Jane is fascinated by Dolly for her exoticism–her powerful perfume, her foreign mannerisms and her expensive clothing. Dolly, who is childless, isn’t exactly a doting aunt, however, and her entrances and exits into Jane’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood are punctuated with advice–mainly directed towards getting a man. These snippets of advice that could so easily wither a girl of weaker character serve only to intrigue Jane in their disconnect and frank absurdity. Wise, self-possessed Jane realises that Dolly’s barbed comments reveal more about the speaker than her intended target.

dolly

A great deal of the story goes back into the recent Ferber/Manning family history, and we see that Toni Ferber, Jane’s grandmother, who originally hailed from Vienna, is a spoiled, autocratic, selfish woman whose husband eventually gets the sense and courage to run off. Toni Ferber, left to her own affluent devices, dominates the life of her son, Hugo, and mostly ignores her daughter, Henrietta. When Toni Ferber and Hugo meet Dolly and her German mother at a seaside resort, Toni, fatally underestimating Dolly’s character and imagining that she will make a malleable daughter-in-law, pushes her son into Dolly’s arms. For his part, Hugo is content to exchange one domineering woman for another.

On the other side of the family, there’s Jane’s Manning grandmother:

My other grandmother I knew even less, a fact which I did not regret since she seemed, from what I heard of her, to be slightly mad, and may even have been so for all I know. She was a widow living in South Kensington with two small wire-haired terriers to whom she devoted all her leisure hours. She really should have been a dog breeder rather than a mother, for she felt for her son a mild affection only one degree warmer than indifference, whereas she would actually play games with the dogs, for whom she bought expensive rubber toys. The dogs were taken out morning and afternoon for an extensive run in Hyde Park, where my tireless grandmother, dressed winter and summer in trousers, a short-sleeved blouse, and an old tweed jacket belonging to her dead husband, threw balls and sticks, shouted instructions and encouragements, and scarcely noticed the seasons changing all around her. 

Jane’s observant eye records Dolly’s behaviour and mannerisms from her “meaningless smile” to her irritation and constant barbed comments about money. Dolly has a way of diminishing other women, and it’s that power that fascinates Jane. She records the trajectory of Dolly’s life, and quietly, in the background, Jane. alone but not lonely, evolves into an accomplished woman.

Not a great deal happens in the novel, and for its treacly-slow pace, some readers may not enjoy Dolly. Possibly because I once had an exotic aunt of my own, Dolly had great appeal. Anita Brookner creates some powerful characters here–the Manning grandmother, for example, who doesn’t actually appear except as a description. I like the way Brookner divided her characters into quiet people and those who dominate and take control. Jane’s parents are indeed “a haven to each other,” and their relationship, given their respective backgrounds, makes a great deal of sense.

I wasn’t quite sure about the ending which, while it rather nicely focuses on Jane’s career, extrapolates on the idea of Sleeping Beauty, and what women want. The novel covers many decades and slips in the idea of the shifting roles of women. This connects to Dolly and how a woman who has used her looks and her sex to get ahead in life adjusts to aging, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with that last chapter.

I have to send out a thank you to Jacqui for pointing me towards Brookner with her review of Providence. I thought, from reading the review that I’d like the book, but then at the same time I also thought I’d read an Anita Brookner book and disliked it. The title of the book I’d read eluded me (I initially thought it was Hotel du Lac), and then after some digging I realised I’d read a book by Anita Shreve NOT Anita Brookner and in all fairness to the latter, I had to read one.

18 Comments

Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor (1917-1994) was born in Trenton, a city in Tennessee that appears in A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel for 1987. There are a few autobiographical features to this story, but they are just trimmings in a slow-moving, eloquent novel about family dynamics and a crisis bad enough for siblings to gather to take action. There’s always a division of opinion when it comes to prize winners, and this also applies to Taylor’s novel, but for anyone out there who’d like to try some Southern American Literature (which is its own sub-genre), this is a great place to start, for while the ‘Southernness’ of the novel may seem foreign or even quaint, most of us will be able to identify with the toxic family dynamic, and perhaps, most importantly, there’s no Southern dialect to wrestle with.

a summons to memphisOur narrator is 49 year-old Phillip Carver, a man who escaped from his Memphis family years before and is now living in New York as a book editor. He was living with a much younger woman, but something has gone wrong with the relationship–nothing easily identifiable, but they’ve separated. Phillip was originally one of four children, but his older brother was killed in WWII–there’s the sense that at worst he got himself killed on purpose, and at best, threw his life away. Now there are the three siblings left–all unmarried, and that’s enough to make the reader sit up and take notice. Phillip keeps in contact with his family mainly through the newsy letters written by his two middle-aged, spinster sisters. Their mother died two years before, and that leaves their geriatric father on his own. Thanks to the letters, Phillip is aware that many elderly widows have been inviting the elderly Mr. Carver for dinner, but things have taken a more serious turn; he’s been seen at local night spots with much younger women, and now, he’s announced his imminent marriage:

The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved–especially when there are unmarried daughters. This seemed particularly true in the landlocked backwater city of Memphis some forty-odd years ago. At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or in Knoxville–or even in Chattanooga, for that matter.

That opening paragraph sets the scene and the tone of the book–along with the theme that life in Memphis is different from life in Nashville–a most important factor once we uncover the Carver family history. Phillip receives two separate phone calls–one from each sister, Betsy and Jo, demanding that he come back home (his summons to Memphis) and assist in thwarting their father’s plans for matrimony.  As Phillip sits in his Manhattan apartment he recalls various similar case histories in which family members banded together and had their elderly parents hauled off into hospitals, dragged into court, or held prisoner on their own plantations away from “any female predator in Memphis.”  All these stories caused Phillip discomfort and embarrassment when he first heard them, and he never expected this to occur in his own family.  Of course, these situations do occur frequently, and then many questions erupt regarding inheritance, mental competence and whether or not the bride to be is a gold-digger. The sense we get from Phillip is an overwhelming embarrassment and shame that his father’s nocturnal activities with a much younger woman have become the source of jokes in the community–mainly thanks to his sisters who hold court at various social events while they recall their father’s attempts to dance and how foolish he looks trying to keep up with people young enough to be his grandchildren.

At this point, A Summons to Memphis may sound like an old familiar story as the adult children gather for an ‘intervention,’ but here’s where the story is different–Phillip goes back into the family’s past, and a complex set of familial relationships are uncovered which reveal exactly why those sisters are unmarried. At one time the Carvers lived in a mansion in Nashville but the father was ruined by a Mr. Lewis Shackleford, who was also, unfortunately, their neighbour. More than forty years earlier, the family moved to Memphis in 1931 for a fresh start, and while the father’s law practice was successful, Phillip’s mother sank into “nearly thirty years of real or imagined invalidism,” and the scars from the Nashville move remained permanently damaging. Now the plump middle-aged sisters run a successful real estate company, and according to Alex Mercer, Phillip’s best friend and a professor at Memphis State University, they are “the laughingstock of Memphis.”

The awful fact was that with figures by no means any longer youthful they often got themselves up in the most extreme fashions that only the most sylphlike and dashing young girls should have worn in any given year–even the most daring fashions, one might say. If, for instance, low backs were favored for evening gowns, their backs would be bare down to the divide in their rather sizable buttocks. Or if particularly low necklines were in vogue, then theirs would plunge between mountainous breasts practically to the navel. If slit skirts were the fashion, then my sisters’ would be vented well above the knees, exposing fleshy thighs which by this time in my sisters’ lives were indeed of no inconsiderable size. Whenever I was at home I had ample opportunity to observe all Alex told me about them was true. They would sometimes come by father’s house before they went out of an evening to ask Father and me to inspect their ridiculous getups. If we were shocked, then they would laugh uproariously. Sometimes I felt their appearance was as big a joke to themselves as to everyone else. But laughingstock or not, I could seldom manage a smile even at the grotesquery of my sisters’ costumes or the awful incongruity of their figures with the alluring postures they assumed. Because I would always see in them still vestiges of the beautiful older sisters of my Nashville boyhood.

That quote gives a strong sense of the author’s languid style. This is a very slow-moving, eloquently constructed novel, and while the title, A Summons to Memphis may indicate that much of the tale takes place there, it’s more a signifier of a family in crisis, and most of the novel is devoted to Phillip’s memories and the telling of his family’s history. This really is a wonderful book, an exquisite example of Southern Literature, with its unhurried, placid style, and exposition of Memphis society. But even more than that, there’s the sense that the Carver family would seem quite strange to an outsider, but Phillip’s narration makes sense of it all, exposing the central paradox at the heart of the family dynamic. The lines of familial responsibility and intervention shift and alter with time. Some family wounds take a long time to heal, and in order for us to mature, we need to forgive, or at the very least, forget:

Forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. I kept repeating this to myself, as though it were a lesson I would at some future time be accountable for. A certain oblivion was what we must undergo in order to become adults and live peacefully with ourselves. Suddenly my sisters seemed no longer a mystery to me. I understood much of their past conduct as never before. They were still, while actually in their mid-fifties, two teenaged girls dressed up and playing roles. It was their way of not facing or accepting the facts of their adult life. They could not forget the old injuries. They wished to keep them alive. They were frozen forever in their roles as injured adolescents.

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Taylor Peter

Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

“She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her memory, to be replaced by this diminished present. If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.”

Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed Stewart O’Nan’s novel, The Odds. I particularly liked the insights into the power politics of the damaged marriage plagued with debt and infidelities, and although the novel wasn’t perfect (I didn’t like the ending), I knew that this was an author I’d ‘discovered’ and one I’d return to soon. So that brings me to Emily Alone (recommended by commenter Pris as her favourite Stewart O’Nan), a wonderful novel I picked up without realising that it is a sequel to Wish You Were Here. After finishing the novel, I hope there’s a third–a follow-up to Emily Alone as I want to read more about this character’s life.

This is the story of a woman who lives alone with an elderly Springer Spaniel for companionship, and of course, the woman in question is Emily–an elderly widow whose two children, daughter Margaret and son Kenneth live in other states, stay in touch mainly by the telephone, and return for the occasional holiday visit. Neither relationship is satisfying and each is fraught with its own difficulties. Emily’s life is still centered around her children, so she’s inevitably left feeling disappointed by the interactions.  Margaret, divorced & the single mother of two, is involved with a series of men and is continually wrestling with various financial problems that require bailout.

Too often she acted as if Emily’s calls were an inconvenience, as if she were keeping her from urgent business. As a teenager she’d been distant and secretive, then for years as an alcoholic, hiding her sickness from everyone. Emily expected her to change after rehab, for the two of them to admit their mistakes and become closer, yet she still held Emily off, mistrustful, as if her own mother’s interest in her life was suspect.

Kenneth is a good, devoted son, but his time and energy is mostly given to his wife, Lisa’s, side of the family. Emily and Lisa have no relationship to speak of, “they’d never gotten along,” and “over the years their mutual dislike had calcified, their relationship fixed and incomplete.” Subtle battlelines are drawn between Lisa and Emily and slights continue. This year, for example, Lisa invites Emily to join her family at the Cape for Thanksgiving “belatedly, knowing she wouldn’t have time to make arrangements.”

The story follows a period of less than a year in Emily’s life–from Thanksgiving to the following summer, and while not a great deal happens, the minutiae of life is recorded, and we get the sense of just who Emily is, her routine, and her disappointments. While Emily is a wonderfully drawn character, she is not without her faults, but more of that later.

The novel begins with Emily on a November Tuesday waiting for her sister-in-law Arlene to arrive. This is the day of their weekly outing to Eat’n Park armed with a coupon for the “two-for-one breakfast buffet.” The weekly trip is one of the highlights of Emily’s routine–even though she dreads Arlene’s driving.

It wasn’t far–a few miles through East Liberty and Point Breeze and Regent Square on broad streets they knew like old friends-but the trip was a test of Emily’s nerves. Arlene’s eyes weren’t the best, and her attention to the outside world was directly affected by whatever conversation they were engaged in. When she concentrated on a thought, she drove more slowly, making them the object of honking, and once, recently, from a middle-aged woman who looked surprisingly like Emily’s daughter Margaret, the finger.

Emily’s husband, Henry, used to do all the driving, and for several years after his death she negotiated a familiar geographical “triangle” composed of trips to the supermarket, the library and the bank. Now the car sits unused and “decommissioned”  in the garage, yet one more piece of evidence of the different sort of life she led. Emily’s life changes, however, when she’s forced by circumstance to begin driving again.

Over the course of the novel, the holiday season comes and goes, children and grandchildren swoop in to visit, and neighbourhood houses are sold. Also over this time period, a few of the elderly people in Emily’s circle die, and she’s left with memories of the relationships she had and the full, rich life she and her husband led in the once-vibrant neighbourhood. The days of energetic family barbeques and parties and over. Now when Emily meets up with old acquaintances, there’s  a running tally kept of those who still survive:

The talk turned to falls, a favorite topic, and timely, with winter coming on, ice their mortal enemy. Jean Daly had slipped in her kitchen and broken her hip and now her children were trying to move her to a home. The horror with which Lorraine delivered the story annoyed Emily. It was the ultimate cautionary tale, the moral being Don’t fall, as if they were made of glass. In a sense they were-their fragility was irrefutable, medically proven-and yet Emily detested the inevitable rundown of accidents and tragedies, the more fortunate clucking their tongues and counting their blessings, all the while knowing it was just a matter of time. She didn’t need to be reminded that she was a single misstep from disaster, especially here, without Henry, surrounded by the survivors of their earlier life.

Some of Emily’s memories focus on her best friend, Louise who died a few years before, and other memories recall her life with Henry. In one scene she’s listening to a record and remembering a trip she made with Henry to Britain and a day spent at Coventry cathedral.

Beneath the murky opening theme, church bells tolled, and she pictured the cathedral, the bare yews reaching over the chancel, the spire rising into the sky. Somewhere downstairs there were albums filled with Henry’s pictures of that day, and the next, when it had rained and the pub Louise had recommended was closed. As the horns and then the chorus entered, Emily looked up from her Land’s End catalog, squinting, as if trying to remember something elusive, but the music was just music now, recorded voices and tympani booming from the stereo. There was nothing she wanted to buy. The models all seemed too pleased with themselves, as if they’d discovered an easier way of life. She flipped through the pages, wondering when Margaret would call, if at all. 

Emily is not without her faults. She has a tendency to fuss, and it doesn’t take a great deal to upset the calm order of her world. In one scene, for example, she frets over a team of gardeners sent to prepare a house that’s up for sale. She notes the coffee cups brought by the workers and “wondered how many of the cups would find their way into her bushes.”  She frets over a number painted on the pavement outside of her house. She canvases the neighbourhood looking for other similar marks and then spends hours on the telephone with the city suspecting that a “public works project” is planned. Anticipating “a chaos she was powerless to stop, ” she becomes fixated on the number, obsessively checking on it as though “it might magically disappear.”

Although Emily’s routine may seem dull, she has a rich inner life (reads Thomas Hardy) and attends an art show and the annual flower show which heralds in spring:

They came every year, like pilgrims. Women of a certain age, her mother called them, a polite way of saying old bags. For months they’d been saving the date, the invitation to members stuck to the fridge, pinned to the kitchen bulletin board. This was the real beginning of spring, the gathering of the tribe. survivors, believers, they flocked from across the city, made the trek in to gritty Oakland from the tony suburbs, curling around the Gothic rocket ship of the Cathedral of Learning, back past the library and Flagstaff Hill to the edge of Schenley Park. There might be snow on the golf course, the trees bare, but inside the peaked glass palace of Phipps Conservatory, the world was in bloom.

Emily’s memories are her constant companions, and there are times when the past seems more vivid than the present. This of course raises one of the novel’s central questions: what do you make of life when the best of it seems to be over?

That was how time passed-waiting through everything else to do the things you wanted. How little fell into that category now; easter, her garden, Chautauqua. She thought there would be more to live for.

Ultimately Emily, Alone is an optimistic novel. Adversity gets Emily out of her rut and behind the wheel of a brand new Subaru, and surprised at her own extravagance, she hopes she’s not “like one of those middle-aged men who buys a Porsche.” With gentle humour, Stewart O’Nan details the inner life of this elderly woman, a woman who has sustained a substantial number of losses, and yet manages to find joy and hope in daily life.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, O'Nan Stewart

Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn

6 Comments

Filed under Dörrie Doris, Fiction

The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

The Ambassador from Icelandic author Bragi Olafsson follows on the heels of The Pets. The Pets is an incredibly funny story of a man whose home is invaded by a loony from his past, and the sort of humour prevalent in The Pets is also present in The Ambassador, so it’s no stretch to say that if you like one novel, you will like the other. The protagonist of The Pets is a thirty-something divorced male–whereas the protagonist of The Ambassador is Sturla Jon, a 50-something divorced father of 5.

When the novel begins, Sturla, a poet, has just seen the publication of his latest book of poems, and he’s in a shop buying a rather expensive overcoat. It’s an item he’s coveted for a long time, and now that he’s about to leave for a poetry festival in Lithuania, he’s decided to splurge and buy the coat for his trip. The unlined “Italian-made, English-style” overcoat is a somewhat impractical choice, but Sturla, who had to reorder the coat when they all sold out, is treating himself.

Sturla, who earns a living as a super in his apartment building, has resolved to stop writing poetry; he’s thinking of perhaps turning to fiction instead, and in an art-imitates-life-way of settling old grievances, he has an idea for a short story:

It was, he thought, basically about everything he’d done in his life in the past fifteen minutes: a middle-aged poet goes into a bookstore to see, for the first time, his newly-published book sitting with all the other newly-published books, tightly-wrapped  in glistening cellophane, on display with its price tag facing the literary minded folk and other customers of the bookstore. This book has become a commodity to be bought and sold, the value it acquires becomes destined to be measured not against a price tag stuck on a copy, but against each individual reader’s opinion as to whether it was a worthy item or not.

In Sturla’s opinion, there is an irony to this that results from a deception the poet himself perpetrates; when it comes down to it, his value is only ever evident from the price tag on the book, and every year will bring a new sticker and a lower price until, in the end, when the last copies of the book finally sell at the Icelandic Discount Book Fair, twenty or thirty years later, the price on the sticker will have dropped under 100 kronur, down as low as double-digits. Because of this, and in order to make the distance between the author and his subject matter clear–or else the reader might somehow start imagining he was describing his own experience–Sturla had come up with an idiosyncratic character, a poet, who gets very angry in the bookstore because his newly-published book isn’t on display at the front of the store with the other brand new books.  

The novel’s humour comes from the mild insanity of the slightly off-kilter events. It begins in the shop when the assistant tells Sturla that there’s a discount “with plastic” not with cash (which makes no sense whatsoever), and it continues from there. We see Sturla interacting with his divorced parents–father Jon Magnusson, a librarian/frustrated film maker who’s full of sage advice for his son: “Perhaps you shouldn’t get too close with womenfolk in general; it’s not worth taking the risk of ending up with a sixth little bastard,” and Fanny, Sturla’s alcoholic mother who is developing “new methods” to get booze, can’t stop showing off a topless photograph she had taken decades earlier to anyone who stops by.

Then there’s Sturla’s ex-wife and his 5 children. In adulthood the children have all gone their own ways, and Sturla really doesn’t understand or relate to any of them. One of his sons, in particular, seems to grown increasingly like his stepfather and another is addicted to exercise. And then everyone Sturla meets is an artist of some sort even as they work a variety of day jobs. Sturla finds this incredibly annoying, but there’s a subtlety here as while Sturla tells everyone he’s a poet, he makes his living as a building supervisor–a fact he fails to mention to most people. From the novel’s beginning something doesn’t seem quite right about Sturla and his poetry, and just what the problem is is revealed as the plot develops and Sturla’s ruminations of discontent continue.

Naturally since Sturla is dogged by such strange family relationships, you’d expect that he might find himself surrounded by like-minded people at the Lithuanian poetry festival, but once in Lithuania, things go downhill. He’s stuck in a shitty hotel, spends an evening at the Old Town Erotic Centre, turns to theft and has an encounter with a local prostitute. But in spite of all this, there’s even worse to come….

 This is very low-key, off-kilter humour. If you’ve ever had one of those days when every encounter you have has some sort of bizarre streak to it, and you find yourself wondering if it’s a full moon, then you know what I mean. The book’s title, by the way, could refer to three things:

Sturla’s grandfather was an ambassador

Sturla is an unofficial ambassador for Iceland at a poetry festival held in Lithuania

The name of Sturla’s shitty hotel is The Ambassador.

This should give a hint about the sorts of connections that run through the novel.

And here’s another quote just to give another taste of the book. Here’s Sturla wailing about the navel-gazing egos of poets and the poetry contest to be held during the conference:

And then, as a way of concluding this tragicomic presentation, all kinds of reading groups take over the program. We poor devils will be arranged into groups according to some rigid system one of the festival committee members  has been devoting months to, and I’m assuming that these groups will perform an autopsy on one of the poems.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up choosing a messy effort by one of the American house-wife poets, or by the Meierhof Phenomenon, it certainly won’t be a poem by that drunkard Bush or by me, who is from the back of beyond.

And finally, when we’ve all been over-stuffed with the art of words, the organizers will reveal to us who is the idiotic winner of the poetry contest they announced on the first day of the festival.

After this second title by Bragi Olafsson, I am now sold on trying more Icelandic fiction. I’ll have a go at Icelandic crime fiction and I also have 101 Rejkavick to read. Armann Valur, btw, who appeared in The Pets, also has a cameo appearance in The Ambassador.

Review copy from Open Letter Books read on my kindle.

Translated by Lytton Smith

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Olafsson Bragi

French Leave by Anna Gavalda

What we were experiencing at that moment–something all four of us were aware of–was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people …

For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hookey? To thumb our noses at it? Or make our little honorarium on the side? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair?

A few weeks ago, I watched a marvellous French film, Je L’Aimais, and on the closing credits, I caught that the film was based on a novel by Anna Gavalda. Off to Wikipedia to discover that Anna Gavalda is a big deal in France, and the good news is that a few of her books have been translated into English. There’s a short story collection: I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere, and novels too: Hunting and Gathering (made into the film Ensemble, C’est Tout), Consolation, and Someone I Loved. The latter was the basis for the film Je L’Aimais.

So I picked up French Leave which at 108 pages is a novella. The narrator of the story is twenty-something Garance, who is, as it turns out, one of four siblings–with brothers Simon & Vincent, and older sister Lola. French Leave is a seemingly simple tale which focuses on the events of just a single day. The day is supposed to be a trip to a wedding, and Simon and his wife, Carine give Garance and later Lola, a lift. In the first few pages, the strong characterisations and the bitchy undercurrent between Garance and Carine caught my attention. It seems that Garance and Lola were initially thrilled to welcome Carine, a pharmacist,  to the family:

When we heard about our stroke of luck–that we were about to have a purveyor of anti-wrinkle creams in our family, a licensed Clinique vendor and Guerlain reseller–my sister Lola and I jumped up on her like little puppies. Oh! What a warm welcome we had in store for her that day!

But the romance is over when Carine breaks the news that there will be no discounts for her new sisters-in-law, and from that moment on, Garance and Lola exploit Carine’s predictability by playing some nasty mind games aimed at rattling Carine’s sense of security:

Now we like to ride her about all that. Every time we see her, I tell about my friend, Sandrine who is a flight attendant and the discounts she can get us at the duty-free.

For example:

“Hey Carine … Give me a price for Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12.”

You should see our Carine, lost in thought. She concentrates, closes her eyes, thinks of her list, calculates her margin, deducts the taxes, and eventually goes: “forty-five?”

I turn to Lola: “Do you remember how much you paid?”

“Hmm … Sorry? What are you talking about?”

“Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12, the one Sandrine brought back for you the other day?”

“What about it?’

“How much did you pay?”

“Gosh, how do you expect me to remember … around twenty Euros, I think  …”

Carine repeats what she said, choking on her words: “Twenty Euros! Estée Lauder’s D-E-N-G with Vitamin B-12! Are you sure about that!”

The game continues… and it’s always so easy to set up Carine because, according to Garence, she’s so “predictable” and falls for it every time.

While Garance paints a beautifully, although simply detailed picture of her unpleasant sister-in-law (a worrying nag who sits with her knees tightly together), it’s also a reflection back on Garance that she and Lola join forces to pick on Carine. The siblings are very close, and even though circumstance created an entirely different childhood for the younger two siblings (Garence and Vincent) compared to the older two (Vincent & Lola), there are bonds here that newcomers to the family will never fully understand. Perhaps there’s even a faint antagonism towards in-laws in general.

Simon, Lola, & Garence run off to look up Vincent who’s working as a guide at an ancient French chateau, and the four siblings spend one enchanting day together. Author Gavalda argues that while siblings share impenetrable bonds, spouses share experiences and values that siblings cannot fathom. So while Garence and Lola pick at their sister-in-law and fail to understand why their brother tolerates Carine’s pettiness, the sisters are shut out of their brother’s relationship with his wife. Ultimately, French Leave is an exploration of both the depth and the narrowness of familial relationships.

The novella reminded me a great deal of the Bertrand Tavernier film, A Sunday in the Country–perhaps this is due to the emphasis on family relationships, the countryside setting, and the fact that the events take place over the course of a languid day. French Leave is written with a very light touch, and it would be easy to miss this novella’s depth amidst the dialogue. Parts of this seemed so real–the bitchy comments from relatives at the wedding, and the machinations between Lola and Garance. I hope French Leave makes it to film. It’s excellent raw material.

Translated by Alison Anderson

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gavalda Anna