Tag Archives: identity

The Buddha Returns: Gaito Gazdanov

“I knew that perhaps all it would take to draw me irresistibly towards her was one random twist of fate.”

After publishing Gaito Gazdanov’s marvelous novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Pushkin Press follows up with a second title from this underappreciated Russian émigré author: The Buddha’s Return. Gazdanov (1903-1971) was born in Saint Petersburg but of Ossetian background, he grew up in Siberia and the Ukraine. At 16, he joined the Whites during the civil war, eventually left Russia, and arrived in Paris in 1923. There he worked a range of jobs, but finally settled into driving a taxi by night, as the job, he argued, allowed him to write. Gazdanov has been compared to Nabokov, and that starts with the Russian émigré label but also continues into thematic content.  You’ll never do a writer a favour by drawing a comparison to Nabokov, and while there are definite similarities, it’s best to keep the comparisons to a minimum and appreciate Gazdanov for his own sake.

the buddha's returnIn The Buddha’s Return, Gazdanov takes his usual, idiosyncratic, seemingly discursive approach to the narrative, so initially the story seems to have a meandering, shapeless plot which focuses on the protagonist, a young, penniless student who suffers from fits and strange episodes of lucid dreaming in which he notes a “duality” where he is both a witness and a victim. He considers that “there had been years when my life somehow clearly didn’t belong to me,” and this sense of life as a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit is important as the novel continues. The beginning of the novel establishes the student’s aimless life, the futility of existence and the difficulties he has when it comes to differentiating between dreams and realities. In one Kafkaesque sequence, for example, he dreams that he’s arrested for a murder, and obviously this section of the novel carries a political undercurrent.

The novel shifts from a seemingly aimless narrative in which dreams of death and imprisonment pixelate into a strange parallel reality. The main story begins to take shape when the narrator gives ten francs to a beggar in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

It was in these distant and neurotic times that I met a man who seemed to have been summoned out of inexistence with the sole purpose of appearing before me at this precise stage in my life. Strictly speaking, he was not a man, but the unrecognizable, distorted spectre of someone who had once been alive. That man was no more, he had vanished but not without trace, as there yet remained what I saw when the figure first approached me.

The image of the beggar haunts the narrator’s imagination, which “is running a few minutes ahead of itself like a bad watch.” He “later recalled” that when he met the beggar, the light of the day reminds him of a painting– “light in which the last, just departed ray of sun seems to have left a subtle though unmistakeable trace of its unhurried dissolution in the air–in a number of paintings, in particular one of Correggio’s, although [he] is unable to remember which.”

He’s long troubled by visions of the beggar, but the memories morph into an “endless sequence of haunting visions.” It’s already been established that the narrator has difficulties unraveling dreams from reality, so when he sees the beggar again, two years later, but this time as a well-dressed, obviously wealthy man, the narrator is dumbfounded & confused.

To my utter disbelief, I recognized the man to whom I had given ten francs in the Jardin du Luxembourg, I could never have identified him solely on the basis of his eyes and his voice, though, for the man sitting here in the café seemed to have nothing in common with the beggar who had approached me two years ago, asking for money. Never before had it occurred to me that clothes could so change a man. There was something unnatural and implausible about his metamorphosis. It was as if time had fantastically regressed. Two years ago this man had been a mere shadow; now he had miraculously transformed back into the man he had once been, whose disappearance ought to have been irreversible. I was unable to come to my senses for genuine astonishment.

As it turns out, there’s a perfectly plausible explanation for the beggar’s reversal of fortune; his estranged brother died unexpectedly and the beggar, Pavel, inherited a fortune. But while the explanation is plausible, fate has clearly thrown Pavel and the narrator together….

The narrator’s relationship with the now wealthy Pavel Alexandrovich opens up a whole new world–but not all of it is pleasant. Some very shady characters, including a femme fatale, inhabit Pavel’s life, and soon, in a flash of deja vu, the narrator finds himself a murder suspect.

The Buddha’s Return is the most discursive of the three Gazdanov novels I’ve read so far. It’s easy to read Gazdanov and conclude that his narrative writing style suffers from a lack of discipline. But after reading the marvelous The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and the sublime An Evening with Claire, now after this third novel, I can only conclude that to read a Gazdanov novel, one must commit to the journey–a journey which tackles central themes of displacement, the double, identity and fate. Gazdanov’s eye never leaves the plot thread, but there are times, early in the novel,  when the plot seems formless. Not so–at the conclusion of The Buddha’s Return all the hypnotic, mystical threads tie together, and Gazdanov clearly saw the destination ahead, but just took his time arriving there.

Review copy

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

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All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

2014

Back to German Literature Month 2014 hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve mention already in my review of Silence that although I had a year to pick books to read for this event, I had no concrete plans other than to read something by Joseph Roth. As luck would have it, a blogging friend sent me an unwanted review copy of Swiss author Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night. I’d been meaning to read something by Peter Stamm, and since it’s German Literature Month, this was a perfect opportunity.

Titles can give a hint about content, and in the case of All Days Are Night–a book which landed on my doorstep, and a book I knew absolutely nothing about, I had the impression that I was going to read something about sad, lonely people. I was right.

All Days are nightAll Days Are Night is mainly the story of Gillian, a successful, beautiful television personality whose life, as she knew it, is wiped out in a moment by a drunk driving incident. Gillian survives with her face badly damaged while her husband Matthias, is killed. No one, except Gillian, knows the details of the fight or why Matthias was driving home from a party in a drunken rage, and when she wakes up from the accident in the hospital, moving back and forth in a semi-hallucinogenic, heavily medicated state,  she doesn’t initially remember what happened:

Gillian tries to concentrate. Everything depends on her reply. She wants to be herself, to get up, but she can’t. She can’t move her legs; it’s as though she has no legs. The radio stops, the nurse walks over to the window and draws the curtains. Gillian remembers; the rain, the low-pressure area. There must be a connection.

You should try and get some rest.

Rest from what? Something has happened. Gillian is hovering around it, the memory, she is moving closer and then getting farther away from it again. When she puts out her hand, the pictures disappear, and the blue water comes instead, the blue water and the empty space. But the other thing is there all the time, waiting for her. She knows there is a way out, and she will take it. Later.

After Gillian realizes what happened that night, she keeps the truth about the fight with Matthias to herself. She must go through a series of surgeries to repair her face, but her life in front of the cameras it is gone. Gradually the backstory about exactly what Matthias and Gillian were fighting about floats to the surface. She has a lot to feel guilty about….

That’s really as much of the plot as I’m willing to give away, but I will say that the second part of the book brings in artist Hubert to the central stage. Both Gillian and Hubert have breakdowns for different reasons, and the story follows the connections between these two characters and how they deal with their problems.

Veering away from the plot, I’ll focus on Hubert’s art–he’s known for his photos of naked women. That may sound salacious, and indeed many people try to make Hubert’s work sound salacious, but the photos are of women mostly performing everyday tasks … naked:

In the next tray were pictures of a small woman with wide hips and large, pendulous breasts. She had short blond hair and hairy armpits. Both her posture and her facial expression had something theatrical about them. She hung washing on a low rack in a tiny bathroom, baby things and men’s socks. She took a book from a shelf, hunkered down on the floor, and swept up with a small broom, maybe crumbs from biscuits she had given her child. The apartment was cluttered and untidy. In the last pictures, the woman looked close to tears.

She looks terribly lonely, said Gillian. Do you have any idea what you put these women through?

They agree to take part, said Hubert, switching the trays. Even in their nakedness they try not to reveal themselves. They hide behind their movements, their smiles, their way of exhibiting themselves.

Identity and authenticity are central themes in the book, and all of the main characters seem to be trying to find authenticity in their lives by various means. Gillian, with her badly damaged face, can no longer appear in front of the camera, so she loses her career, but even before the accident, she begins to feel that she’s “playing a part in a bad film” or “speaking lines from a script.” After the accident she looks in the mirror, sees a fragmented self and later realizes that her life “before the accident had been one long performance.”

It’s easy to see how an artist would constantly strive for authenticity, but in Hubert’s case, his drive is different. He feels like an “imposter” when he teaches, and when he asks his models to remove their clothes it’s as if in so doing, their nakedness will reveal an absolute truth–a tactic which fails, of course. Perhaps he’s driven to seek authenticity for another reason. His girlfriend (later in the book they’re married) is a seeker of some sort of deeper truth, but she’s hollow and superficial:

Astrid pursued her interest in energy and the body. Hubert wasn’t impressed by the esoteric life-help scene she started to move in. He passed occasional ironic remarks, to which she reacted so violently that he didn’t say anything the next time she registered for a weekend course in psychodrama or breathing therapy.

There’s also a terrific sense of emptiness and abandonment in this novel which is partly achieved through a complete absence of quotation marks (see the first and second quotes), but also Stamm’s spare style in this unpredictable, melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic story underscores a deep void which runs through the lives of his lonely, troubled characters.

Gillian clicked on “Gallery.” There were five pictures of unoccupied rooms: an office, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In all the pictures it was nighttime, and the rooms were dimly lit. Although not much could be seen, Gillian still had the sense that there was someone in all the rooms, hiding in a corner or else behind the onlooker.

Translated by Michael Hoffman. 182 pages.

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

Review copy

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I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

German literature monthAnother entry in German Literature month 2013, and this time it’s I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976), an Austrian writer.  The flap of my gorgeous Pushkin press edition states that the author’s “uneasy relationship with the National Socialist Party resulted in his fall from prominence in 1944.” Apparently Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, The Blue Hour was banned by the Nazis, but as a screenwriter he was connected to an agency which produced propaganda films.  He published numerous novels, and I Was Jack Mortimer (1933) is particularly loved by the translator, Ignat Avsey, who calls the book “the most magnificent thriller ever written.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I did enjoy the book, and am, once more, grateful to Pushkin Press for putting another obscure title into print.

I came across this title thanks to Tom from A Common Reader , and it sounded like a perfect read for German Literature month. Primarily this is a story of identity for our main character steps into the shoes of another man. It’s the sort of scenario tackled so well in Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. Sometimes our lives can be difficult and we daydream about running away and becoming an entirely new person, but what happens if the life we step in to is more problematic than the one we already have? Personally, I think it would be a crap shoot to assume someone’s identity; you’d be walking  into a minefield–one false step and everything blows up in your face.

I Was Jack MortimerViennese taxi driver Ferdinand Sponer picks up a fare and becomes instantly fascinated with the glamorous expensive young woman in the back seat. Her name is Marisabelle von Raschitz–obviously a young woman from the highest echelons of Viennese society, and the kind of woman who wouldn’t give Sponer the time of day.  In spite of the fact that Sponer has Marie, a wonderful, kind, loving and generous girlfriend, he becomes obsessed with the unattainable Marisabelle and hangs around outside of her apartment building, hoping to catch  a glimpse of this elegant young woman.

It’s interesting that Sponer makes such a pest of himself with Marisabelle as it reveals a lot about his character. He is confident enough to know that Marisabelle is attracted by his looks, and he hopes that means she’ll overlook his lowly status. Meanwhile, in spite of Marie’s devotion, or perhaps even because of it, his relationship with his long-standing girlfriend is stale:

They were planning to get married, but kept putting it off for various reasons: if the truth be known, only because they’d already known each other for too long. In the meantime she’d lost her job as a shop assistant, had then been unemployed for months at a stretch, and was now helping out here and there at a friend’s, taking in washing and doing mending and stitching jobs.

There’s a poignant scene between Sponer and Marie, as they sense “how unhappy they were,” and she seems to know and accept that the romance has gone. However, fate intervenes in Sponer’s life when he picks up a fare, a man about his own age, who wishes to be taken to the Hotel Bristol. Not long into the journey, Sponer discovers that his passenger is dead–shot through the throat. With an escalating sense of panic, Sponer makes a series of mistakes. He steps into his passenger, Jack Mortimer’s life, and finds himself in a mess….

The plot shows that even though Sponer’s life isn’t what he wants, at least it’s a life of his own making. When you step into the shoes of another, you find yourself dropped into unpredictable situations and unfathomable relationships that have nothing to do with you. Someone, after all, murdered Jack Mortimer, and that fact alone indicates that Sponer is stepping into a situation fraught with danger. But Sponer also discovers that a certain glamour opens previously closed doors, and wearing Mortimer’s clothes proves to be disorienting. A nightmarish sense of unreality sets in, and this is marvelously expressed even as Sponer begins to lose his sense of identity.

He paid with his own money what Jack Mortimer hadn’t. Or was it Jack Mortimer’s money he paid with? He didn’t know, the silver had got mixed up in his pocket

I Was Jack Mortimer,  with its street scenes of a slightly faded Vienna, is a good read. I particularly liked the way Sponer, as a lowly taxi driver, had a certain anonymity. He negotiates the street of Vienna with ease. This situation is transformed, however, when he assumes the dead man’s identity–suddenly he is recognized even as he wades through the unchartered waters of another man’s messy life. There’s a plot-driven anticlimactic feel to the resolution of the story, and while that is deliberate (you’ll know what I mean if you read it), nonetheless I felt a little deflated by the conclusion. While there’s a thriller aspect to the story, the underlying issue is arguably, identity. Sponer is a lowly character when we first see him, and in spite of the fact he’s handsome, the Viennese socialite doesn’t think he’s worth her time. Sponer discovers the hard way that sometimes it’s better to be an anonymous peon, for when you’re shabbily dressed and a taxi driver, people tend to ignore you. And that’s sometimes not a bad thing….

As a sort of addendum to the book, I found myself chewing over a statement I disagreed with:

She disarmed him by not making any secret of the fact that she no longer loved him. Jealousy can only exist when one hopes one has made a mistake.

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Great Granny Webster by British author Caroline Blackwood came recommended by commenter, Leroy. The novel also had the advantage of being from New York Review Books, and since I’ve had such good luck with their titles, I decided to read it. This is a largely autobiographical tale written by Blackwood, the heiress to the Guinness fortune. The introduction from Honor Moore notes that the book was a finalist for the Booker, but that it did not win thanks to “the decisive vote cast from Philip Larkin who reportedly insisted that a tale so autobiographical could not stand for fiction.” Well so much for the Booker. I always seem to prefer the losers anyway.

great granny websterAt a mere 108 pages, it’s a deceptively slim read, and it’s a story that you think is taking you in one direction, but then by the final page, you realize that the destination was rather unexpected, and instead of a coming-of-age story, Great Granny Webster is the story of a search for identity through one’s relatives.  The story starts in 1947 with a 14-year-old girl, our unnamed narrator, who following an operation, is sent to the home of the fearsome Great Granny Webster to convalesce after the doctor advised that she would benefit from sea air. Great Granny Webster, who lives preserved in strict Victorianism, is attended by the crippled-one-eyed maid, Richards, in her mausoleum of a house in Hove. Just a few miles away from the “staid and wealthy gentility” of Hove was the “gay and tempting paradise of” Brighton, “tantalizingly near” but considered common and vulgar by the joyless, unbending Great Granny Webster:

Great Granny Webster knew that I was meant to need sea air, and this suited her very well because apparently she needed it herself. At four o’clock every afternoon a hired Rolls-Royce from a Hove car firm appeared at her door with a uniformed, unctuous chauffeur, who would then drive both of us, as if he was driving two royalties, at a slow creep along the misty sea-front of Hove. To and fro, to and fro, we would drive for exactly an hour while one of the windows of the Rolls-Royce was wound down just enough to let in a very small sniff of salt and seaweed-smelling air. 

Marooned for several months with her implacable, pessimistic elderly relative, the narrator finds the “grim and fiercely joyless” Great Granny Webster a curiosity–a woman with a “passion for pointless suffering,” and yet in spite of the tedious days of stiff propriety, there’s some undefined bond between the narrator and her great-grandmother. For her part, Great Granny Webster finds that the girl is quiet and “retiring.” While the girl is “chilled” by the frightening thought that she “would turn out to be exactly like her,” nonetheless she feels an inexplicable sense of panic when she finally leaves Great Granny Webster and returns home.

Ultimately this stay with Great Granny Webster sparks the narrator’s curiosity about her dead father, Ivor, killed in WWII, and his insane mother (Great Granny Webster’s daughter) safely locked up in an asylum. The narrator learns that her father visited Great Granny Webster frequently when he was on leave, and this, initially seems puzzling since the narrator can’t imagine why her father chose to spend time with his dour grandmother during his all-too-precious leave.  Unfortunately  “Death had obscured him as a reality,” and the narrator seeks the answers through his history.

The narrator’s Aunt Lavinia, Ivor’s sister, is a brilliant, glittering butterfly of a woman who’s worked through several millionaire husbands, and she is perhaps the ‘missing link’–a human antidote to Great Granny Webster.

A play-girl in the style of the ‘twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancor, and although she was considered untrustworthy and wild and was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel, she managed to slip in and out of her many relationships, which she invariably described as “divine,” like an elegant and slippery eel.

Could there be two more diametrically opposed people: Aunt Lavinia–who surrounds herself with luxury in a life which is an endless, irresponsible party and a pursuit of pleasure, and her indomitable grandmother, Great Granny Webster, a woman who takes pride in a joyless life of deprivation? Through recollections from Tommy Redcliffe, a family friend, the family tree is completed with memories of Lavinia and Ivor’s parents. Tommy was an old school friend of Ivor’s and an unfortunate visitor to the ramshackle inhospitable eccentricities of the family home, Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. Eventually the layers of memory are peeled back to reveal three generations of bizarre women: the gothic misery of Great Granny Webster, fey, quite mad grandmother Dunmartin who’s sure that the “evil fairies”  have stolen her children and replaced them with changelings, and Aunt Lavinia, whose superficial, relentless pursuit of fun and pleasure masks a dark desperation.  Not the greatest legacy, then, if you are that next generation.

For its incredible depictions of decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Great Granny Webster serves as a wonderful companion piece to J.G. Farrell’s superb novel, Troubles, as the two novels could be describing the same family. Through Tommy Redcliffe’s recollections of his visits to Dunmartin Hall, “a gigantic monument to more prosperous and eternally lost times,” we see eccentricities cross the line into madness. Everyone in the Dunmartin family seems to have entered into a silent conspiracy that life there is ‘normal.’ The “grandiose and unwieldy” mansion comes with “crippling inherited debts,” so every year the house falls into deeper and deeper decay.

Having tried to exist by aping an English feudal system most unsuccessfully, it was only the scale of the diminishment of this enormous Ulster house that remained impressive in its period of retribution and impoverishment. Its vast stone-carved swimming pool, surrounded by busts of Roman emperors, still remained somehow imposing, though it rotted in a scum of dead leaves and insects. The same was true of Dunmartin Hall’s once valuable libraries, though many of the pages of their books had become glued together and blued with mildew.

Into this damp, rotting house with its leaky roof, rank, inedible food, and practically non-existent plumbing, Grandfather Dunmartin, in an insane effort to maintain standards hires an English butler and footmen. The result of this are horrifyingly, sadly hilarious.  And through it all, everyone pretends that daily life isn’t torturous despair.

When my grandmother spent most of the day shut up in her bedroom , she sat cross-legged on the floor and cut out coloured pictures of elves and fairies from her enormous collection of children’s books. What everyone found blood-curdling was that she herself had started to look very like the model fairies that you see on the top of Christmas trees. She had the same frozen blank expression, the agelessness that made her seem neither child or woman.

Through mordant and perceptive detail, the narrator exposes the deep, dark secrets of the generations that have gone before her. We are left wondering where the madness began, for while one woman is locked up in an asylum, arguably for violence more than anything else, is there anyone normal here–except possibly Ivor who died before he had time to prove his sanity. This deliciously wicked exposition of the grubbier side of the Webster/Dunmartin family argues that we cannot escape our pasts, and that we are more a product of past generations and our upbringing than we’d sometimes care to admit. Yet while our narrator learns about her family, there are many questions left unanswered, and Great Granny Webster manages to have the last word in her farewell to the world.

Thanks for the recommendation, Leroy.

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Filed under Blackwood Caroline, Fiction

The House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti

I couldn’t resist reading The House on Moon Lake from Italian author Francesca Duranti. The book’s protagonist, Fabrizio Garrone is an underemployed, “ill-paid” translator, hobbling together enough work to make a marginal living. Now living in Milan, once Fabrizio was an aristocrat, the much-valued son and heir of a noble estate in Genoa, but all that, apart from a couple of mementos, is now gone, and Fabrizio lives modestly, and not particularly happily, in a small apartment.  Living with “humiliation, a sense of injustice impotence and rage,” he sees himself as “the unhappy incarnation of all the historic defeats of the twentieth century.” He’s just finished translating a book by Fontane and is “hunting for a new project.”

the house on moon lakeIf Fabrizio could choose, he’d only work for Mario, a small-time publisher of translated work, who is also Fabrizio’s childhood friend and now his neighbour. Unfortunately, Mario cannot provide enough work for Fabrizio to make a living, so he has to hustle back and forth between several other publishers. Mario, who has for years worked as a one-man operation, recently hired Fabrizio’s luscious girlfriend, Fulvia, as an assistant. This is an interesting development as Mario, the son of the former groundskeeper of the Garrone estate, is madly in love with Fulvia, and sits in the sidelines while Fabrizio cannot commit to his long-suffering, supportive girlfriend

The usual dilemma of deciding what was the best approach to take with Fulvia, not only a few minutes from now, when he would see her at the office, but in the future as well–how to preserve the miraculous balance that he had managed to achieve in the last two years by keeping her as though poised on a single point, a point suitable to him but not to her, where she fretted and fidgeted dangerously, constantly threatening to bring them both tumbling down.

One day by pure chance, Fabrizio picks up a book of essays penned in 1913 by a famous literary critic which refers to an obscure novel, The House on Moon Lake (Das Haus am Mondsee), written by an Austrian author, Fritz Oberhofer. Oberhofer is one of those “totally unknown” writers considered third-rate, and even that’s a generous assessment. But according to the author of the essays, The House on Moon Lake, published in 1913 is a masterpiece, a novel which concerns a “profound, delicately conceived love affair,” with only 100 copies printed “for private circulation.” Fabrizio cannot contain his excitement:

Just when the wall of estrangement that separated him from others seemed to have surrounded him completely, lo and behold, a crack had suddenly appeared, affording him a chance to crawl through to the other side, to that happy world where people decanted the fluid transparence of their humanity into solid vessels. Fritz Oberhofer would make him a Germanist: every title, or almost every title, that ended in -ist conferred an unassailable status on its bearer, ensured his place within a given framework, gave him a recognizable physiognomy.

This ‘find’ represents a tremendous opportunity for Fabrizio. If he can track down a copy of the novel and translate it, then he will have made a major contribution to the world of literature and also will make translating history. Do all translators dream of doing such a thing? The problem is that the novel seems to have disappeared. Fabrizio even travels to the National Library of Vienna, an institution that he is sure will house a copy of this rare masterpiece, but his quest is fruitless. As the novel proves more and more elusive, Fabrizio becomes increasingly obsessed with finding one of the lost 100 copies. He becomes furtive, secretive and possessive of the novel which he’s yet to find.

And he was thrilled at the prospect that he, Fabrizio Garrone–whom fate had always taken delight in cheating, without ever bothering to compensate–would be the one to revive Fritz Oberhofer, to do him justice and win him the glory he deserved.

In his search, Fabrizio begins investigating the Oberhofer family, looking for clues regarding the existence of the book, The House on Moon Lake. Curiouser and curiouser, it seems that Fritz Oberhofer died in the same year as he self-published his book, in 1913–right on the eve of WWI. Through Fabrizio’s research as he reads letters, biographies and diaries of the times there are slight glimpses of Oberhofer and his “talent for living.” Oberhofer is universally acknowledged by his contemporaries to  be a “dreadful writer,” but a man of many love affairs. Each love affair spawned a novel, and this leads Fabrizio to conclude that a very special love affair must have been the seed for Oberhofer’s last missing novel, the “masterpiece,” The House on Moon Lake. Can Fabrizio find this book, and the big question: is it as good as he’s been led to believe?

Just how Fabrizio tracks down this mysterious novel and its impact on the publishing world and on Fabrizio himself is the substance of this novel. Clever and witty, there are also disturbing elements to this tale. Fabrizio stretches the truth at times and so we are left with the dodgy knowledge that when seaming together a background story from 100 years ago, those who write the story then weave hypotheticals into certainties. The novel also explores the subject of identity and how a translator can lose himself in the character of the original author–Fritz Oberhofer, in this case. After all, the relationship between the writer, the original source material, and the translator who brings the work to new readers is a strange one. How often do we glide over the translator’s names when we consider a translated book? Translators have a way of disappearing behind the author and into the text. Author Francesca Duranti explores this symbiotic relationship, initially with a mystery and a desperate hunt, and then injecting surrealism into the tale as desire becomes reality, reality becomes fabulous ‘truth,’ growing out of control until….

Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

review copy.

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A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro

When I read Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Thursday Night Widows, I knew I’d found an author that I wanted to follow. Then came All Yours with its deliciously bad unreliable narrator.  This brings me A Crack in the Wall, the latest novel from Claudia Piñeiro–a story of greed, murder, and identity. All three novels are highly recommended, and while the plots are dissimilar, there’s a common thread– class, the pathology of marriage and its link with crime–all set against the shifting economic backdrop of Buenos Aires society.

a crack in the wallIt’s 2007, Pablo Simó is an unhappily married middle-aged architect living in Buenos Aires. He’s in a strange position at work–although he’s worked there for over 20 years, he’s never been made an associate, and he’s the odd man out in the unhealthy triangle at the office. There’s a long-term affair between Pablo’s married boss Borla and the third person in the office, sexy architect Marta, and that leaves Pablo, who’s plagued with his own sexual fantasies of Marta, in a  somewhat awkward position. Even though the company name is Borla and Associates, the associate, in reality is singular. Pablo has the somewhat undignified position of being the employee who overhears intimacies between Borla and Marta, and he even occasionally acts as a liaison between the two long-term lovers. If Marta wants to call Borla at night, Marta will call Pablo with a message instead of talking to Borla directly, and then Pablo picks up the phone and runs the gauntlet of Borla’s wife in order to give Borla whatever message Marta has sent.

It’s a dead-end job in more ways than one. Not only is Pablo the lowest man on the totem pole, but he’s also destined to build generically designed, cheaply made, ugly highrise buildings. With land in short supply, Buenos Aires is in state of flux: beautiful old buildings are being destroyed and systematically replaced, and as Pablo acknowledges: “You can’t lay a single brick in Buenos Aires without first finding a building and condemning it to annihilation.” Pablo can only just remember the man he used to be–a man who had goals to design and build something unique, but all this is lost. Now he’s driven, like the rest of the herd, to tear down old beautiful buildings and pack in cheap, rapidly built, high-rise flats into every available square foot of Buenos Aires, always keeping the shifting “profit margin” in mind.

For years Pablo Simó has looked at Buenos Aires purely as a source of what Borla calls business opportunities: reasonably priced plots of land on which to build: public auctions; municipal land that comes up for sale and which is feasible to buy thanks to some friend or contact; complicated estates, where the heirs want a quick sale and end up settling for a pittance; divorces that require selling off property ridiculously cheaply so as to separate what can no longer be joined. That’s what he looks at these days, because that’s what he’s been told to look for. He tries to remember a time when he saw things differently, harking back to student days when he could stand in front of a newly discovered building and feel a current pass through his body, an almost sexual sensation, a tension that nowadays he never feels so fervidly, not even in bed.

But Pablo is a dreamer, so by day he scribbles plans for the building he’d like to build, and he also holds silent conversations in his head with his long-lost, equally idealistic friend and fellow architect, Tano, a man who loved the exotic, excessive splendors of Art Nouveau. Even though Pablo hasn’t seen Tano in years, the memory of his friend acts as Pablo’s conscience–the two men hold imaginary conversations with arguments about Pablo’s actions. The presence of this imaginary Tano also reminds Pablo just how far he’s veered from the path of his youth.

And speaking of Pablo’s conscience … well, he’s hiding a horrible secret. Partly due to his passivity and partly due to his susceptibility to hysterics, Pablo committed a crime, and while the crime seemed to be buried and forgotten, that recent past walks through the door of Pablo’s office in the form of a very attractive young woman who begins asking some awkward questions….

A Crack in the Wall is both literal and figurative. Pablo was involved in building yet another high rise when he’s approached by a rather strange man named Jara who contends that the new building is undermining the integrity of his apartment. Jara has a series of photos to show the progression of a sizeable crack in his wall that has opened and continues to grow as the building next door progresses. But the “crack” also exists in Pablo, and it’s a crack that separates the man he is and the man he’d like to be. As the story unfolds with Pablo going back over past events, the crack in Pablo’s psyche widens, making it much more difficult for Pablo to live with himself. While this is a very satisfying psychological crime novel, to say this is  just a crime novel negates the rest of the plot and its character driven elements which explore the issues of identity and moral compromise while also giving us fascinating glimpses of Argentinean culture and architecture. Claudia Piñeiro shows us that there’s a very definite connection between ideals and an inner moral compass. Lose one and the other is in jeopardy.

Tomorrow he’ll walk or take a bus–there must be a bus that follows a direct route across the city from his house to his work instead of describing the peculiar horseshoe around which he travels every day beneath the earth–he will make a journey overland, allowing him to look up and take stock of all that each street has to offer. He will roam from one side of town to the other, like a treasure seeker but with no map or coordinates, with no references or clues, leaving chance to do its work, letting an invisible hand carry him through the city, guiding his determination to rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost.

Translated by Miranda France.

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Filed under Fiction, Pineiro Claudia

Transit by Anna Seghers

“A tireless pack of officials was on the move night and day, like dogcatchers, intent on fishing suspicious people out of the crowds as they passed through, so as to put them into city jails from which they’d be dragged off to a concentration camp if they didn’t have the money to pay the ransom or to hire a crafty lawyer who would later split the outsize reward for freeing the prisoner with the dogcatcher himself. As a result, everyone, especially the foreigners, guarded their passports and identification papers as if they were their very salvation. I was amazed to see the authorities, in the midst of this chaos, inventing ever more intricate drawn-out procedures for sorting, classifying, registering, and stamping these people over whose emotions they had lost all power. It was like trying to register every Vandal, goth, hun, and langobard during the “Barbarian invasion.”  

Earlier this year, I read Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck, and Transit from German author Anna Seghers is the perfect companion read. While Diary of a Man in Despair is non-fiction, diary entries kept by Reck during the 30s and 40s, Transit is the fictional story of a German, a former prisoner who first escapes from a Nazi concentration camp, and then escapes from a camp in Rouen. He makes it to Paris, and there, while performing a favour for a friend, he becomes caught up by fate in a life that belongs to someone else.

TransitTransit is a novel that deserves a bit of grounding. Author Anna Seghers (1900-1983) came from an upper-middle-class Jewish family. She was a communist living in France when the Nazis invaded, and she was fortunate enough to escape from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 “on a ship that included among its passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.” This cliff-hanging experience of desperate exile found its way into Transit–a novel that could only have been written by someone who experienced trying to escape from the Nazis. According to the introduction written by Peter Conrad, Seghers was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and taking the hint, after her release, she moved on to Paris. After the Germans invaded France, she went to Marseille where most of the action of Transit is set. Conrad tell us that “Marseille was one of the few ports that offered an exit from a continent that was closing down. Here Seghers joined the harried strays she describes in her novel, scuttling from one consulate to the next in an attempt to assemble the visas and permits required for their onward journey. Not for the last time, modern life had turned into the enactment of a Kafka novel.” The introduction also explains the death, by suicide, of the author’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, one of a group of Jewish refugees, was in Portbou, a Spanish border town, trying to get a transit visa that would allow him to pass through Lisbon and eventually sail to America. The Franco government cancelled all transit visas and announced that all refugees would be returned to France. Benjamin took an overdose of morphine rather than face the alternative. There is some speculation about a missing manuscript that Benjamin kept in a briefcase. It’s impossible to read Transit and not make connections between Benjamin and the character of the writer, Weidel–a dead man whose very absence  is seminal to the plot of Transit.

Transit is narrated by a young German man who goes by the name of Siedler, currently stuck in Marseille. He escaped a German concentration camp in 1937 only to end up in a work camp in Rouen. News trickles down that the Germans will shortly arrive in the region, and this sparks panic amongst the prisoners who anticipate a grisly end when the Nazis arrive. A second escape and flight to Paris ensues with a handful of other men, including Heinz, who lost a leg in Spain. It seems as though the entire country is on the road:

a silent stream of refugees was still pouring south from the northern villages. Hay wagons piled high as farmhouses with furniture and poultry cages, with children and ancient grandparents, goats and calves, trucks carrying a convent of nuns, a little girl pulling her mother in a cart, cars with pretty women wearing the furs they had salvaged, the cars pulled by cows because there were no gas stations anymore; and women carrying their dying children, even dead ones.

This early scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s chaos– “the dissolution of our world order;” People are uprooted, “a silent stream of refugees” on the road and looking for an escape from the Nazis, and there’s a sense of futility here in the very disorganization of the displaced refugees when compared to the thorough mechanized progress of the German units. Luck is with Seidler who makes it to Paris and here the Nazi presence is both jarring and a little surreal:

I walked into Paris. A swastika flag was actually flying before the Hotel de Ville. And they were actually playing the Hohenfriedberg March in front of Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe it. I walked diagonally across Paris. And everywhere there were fleets of German cars and swastikas. I felt quite hollow, as if emptied of all emotion.

Seidler runs into Paul Strobel, a writer and an old acquaintance from the work camp who is the first character to introduce the topic of visas. Strobel is heading for Marseille as he has a “danger visa” which is a “special emergency visa for especially endangered people.” Strobel argues that he wrote a “book and countless articles against Hitler” and that has left him particularly vulnerable.

I thought of Heinz who had been beaten half to death by the Nazis in 1935, who was then put in a German concentration camp, escaping to Paris, only to end up in Spain with the International Brigade where he then lost a leg, and who, one-legged was then dragged through all of France’s concentration camps, ending up in ours. Where was he now? I also thought of flocks of birds being able to fly away. The whole earth was uncomfortable, and still I quite liked this kind of life; I didn’t envy Paul for that thing he had–what was it called?

This is an interesting scene, fully of irony that is only fully understood as the novel progresses, for Seidler is saying a couple of things here–1) he doesn’t yet grasp the importance of visas, and yet his life is shortly to become consumed by them and the inability to acquire all the necessary documentation to leave France, and 2) while Strobel sees himself as “especially endangered” Seidler clearly sees Heinz as physically a much more heroic type–a man of action rather than a man of ideas. This is ironic for Seidler soon finds himself donning the identity of a dead writer.

Strobel rather shiftily asks Seidler to go to a small hotel and deliver a letter to a writer, Wiedel, who’s registered there, and through a chain of events Seidler comes into possession of Weidel’s suitcase, a “forensic object,” and an unfinished manuscript. This incident marks the shift in Seidler’s life and also the emergence of meaningless bureaucracy. Learning that Weidel has a visa and travel funds waiting at the Mexican Embassy in Marseille, Seidler, who has no papers whatsoever, decides to don Weidel’s identity.

When Seidler/Weidel arrives in Marseille, he thinks it’ll be a fairly simple matter to collected Weidel’s papers and leave, but he discovers that he’s entered a bureaucratic labyrinth of almost insurmountable complexity. You need a “safe conduct” pass to travel to Marseille, a residence permit once there (only granted if you prove that you are actually planning on not staying,) an exit visa to leave,  and a transit visa to pass through various countries. It’s a puzzle, a sort of desperate scavenger hunt in bottle-necked Marseille with those desperate to leave required to pick up various visas to fulfill bureaucratic demands, and all this to be achieved in chaos as the borders of civilization melt down. Meanwhile rumours fly about ships that may or may not be arriving or leaving.

Throughout the novel, Seidler is submerged into Weidel, and Seidler is an intriguingly opaque character who should appeal to fans of Nabokov. We know that Seidler was sent to a concentration camp, but we don’t know why–although he states that he belongs to no political parties, it’s clear that he understands the Nazis and their “dirty tricks.” He’s a displaced German who doesn’t particularly want to leave France, and even the name he uses, Seidler, belongs to someone else. His total lack of identity makes becoming Weidel the natural choice, and yet it’s a choice, a trick of fate, that leads to a great deal of trouble. Once in Marseille, Seidler merges easily with all the other dispossessed refugees, flotsam and jetsam washed up in an unfriendly Marseille by the German invasion. Identity–any identity that can be claimed–suddenly becomes of paramount importance, and the drama that ensues as various characters struggle to claim their identity (and this includes Seidler/Weidel) would be a comedy of errors if those involved weren’t facing dreadful options. One man with Polish identity papers learns that the town he was born in is now considered Lithuania, and he is required to return to his place of birth, now under Nazi occupation, in order to gather papers certifying his birth from a town that no longer exists.

Naturally since Marseille has become refugee central, it’s full of desperate people who will do anything to get a ticket on an outward bound ship. One woman who cannot escape, eats her way through whatever time and money she has left; others give up in various ways. Another woman cossets and grooms two enormous Great Danes who are her visa “guarantors“–given to her for safekeeping by two Americans in exchange for an “incontestable affidavit” of her spotless morality. A group of Legionnaires of German extraction are travelling back to Germany for repatriation–only the healthy are accepted back, and those rejected are prosecuted by the French and sent to “work in the mines in Africa.” The refugees’ pitiful fate is decided by “bureaucratic goblins” who base their decisions on an endless stream of perfectly stamped papers. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to the circular bureaucracy placed on these desperate people, but there’s also a sense that the refugees almost seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

Transit is going to make my read-of-2013 list. This really is an incredible book with its cast of hopeless, desperate refugees, mostly anonymous who melt into the masses who simply disappeared during WWII. Author Anna Seghers has a unique perspective on events, events that shaped her life, and which in turn she shapes by being the author. The various bureaucratic personnel seem almost sadistic in their demands that these refugees produce impossible slips of documentation, but that is, of course, just the perspective of those on the other side of the desk. The bureaucratic institutions  in Transit aren’t malicious; they’re simply indifferent. This NYRB issue also includes a marvelous afterword by Heinrich Böll–not to be missed.

Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Review copy

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Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

This is what happens, she supposes to dramatic events: they create feelings that create other feelings, memories that give way to memories of having them. The 0lder you get, the more life seems like a tightening spiral of nostalgia and narcissism, and the actual palpable world recedes into insignificance, replaced by a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.

There are days when I despair about the future of American fiction, and then there are days when I discover something extraordinary, and that brings me to J. Robert Lennon’s enigmatic, thought-provoking book, Familiar.  Last year I read and was impressed by Castle–a disturbing book which follows the relocation of a strangely disaffected man to New York State. Familiar is equally disturbing, but for this reader, it’s a perfect, unsettling novel that surpasses genre and explores questions about identity, grief, parenthood, and the possibility of … a parallel universe. Is this science-fiction or is this a story of a woman so wracked with guilt and burdened with uncomfortable, deeply regretted decisions that she has a psychotic break?

Elisa Macalaster Brown is a middle-aged woman who’s returning home to Reevesport in New York State from her annual solitary trek to her son, Silas’s, grave in Wisconsin. Silas, the youngest son of two by just 11 months, was trouble from almost the moment he was born. He dominated his older, weaker sibling, Sam, and he grew from a difficult child into an alienated teen. Silas was killed in a senseless car accident; Elisa fell apart, “became obsessed with the past, with all the wrong turns their lives together had taken,” and she endured a meltdown. Eventually the family moved away from Wisconsin to Reevesport.

On the surface, Elisa appeared to heal, but she never fully recovered from Silas’s death. On the neurotic side and pencil thin, she’s employed as the manager of a lab while her husband, Derek is a lecturer at SUNY Reevesport. Their marriage is another casualty of grief, and Elisa has a hidden affair with a local man. As Elisa makes her contemplative, solitary drive back to New York to return to her unhappy life, something happens. The crack in the windshield of her battered old Honda disappears, and suddenly she’s in a different car, wearing different clothes….

Elisa looks up the road. Only a second, less than a second, has passed, and the road has grown. It’s wider, the sky is taller. And it’s cloudy now, partly cloudy, many small clouds, as though the single cloud has spawned. No–it isn’t the road that’s wider, it’s the windshield, the windshield is larger.

She glances around her, at the interior of her car, and it isn’t her car.

Elisa is still Elisa–except she’s called Lisa by her husband and work colleagues. She returns to her home, and while it is still the same house, she notices subtle changes:

Yews they tore out a few years ago are still there. The grass, to which she had always been indifferent, is healthy and trim, and the pink dogwood, the one that had seemed certain to die but then rallied and came back to life, that dogwood is gone and in its place stands a Japanese maple.

 But these are just cosmetic changes. The ‘new’ Elisa is plumper, dresses differently, she has a different job, and she’s in therapy. Also rather disturbingly her marriage with Derek is quite different:

There is something reassuring, isn’t there, about the absence of love. This is what she has often told herself. The only real marriage is the marriage of the body and the mind. Until death do us part; a romantic lie. People can indeed be parted. Love can end, and the body and mind soldier on. To pick up the phone and find that love is gone, that’s something a person can understand. That’s a thing that happens. To pick up the phone and find that love is here, where it doesn’t belong: well.

But the strangest, most disturbing new element to Elisa’s life is that Silas isn’t dead….

Has Elisa had a psychotic break or has she entered a parallel universe in which Silas’s death, a single moment that “interrupted” and altered the course of her life did not happen? If Elisa faces the former scenario, should she risk confiding in anyone? Dropped into an alien life, so like her “old” life, and yet so different, Elisa is drawn to investigating the possibilities: is she experiencing some sort of meltdown? Which life is ‘real’? In this new life, Silas is alive, but why is Elisa totally alienated from her sons? What happens if she suddenly finds herself back in her old, grief-wracked life?  

In the most imaginative, fascinatingly complex novel I’ve read since Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, author J. Robert Lennon plays with issues of identity, grief and memory through Elisa’s character. Elisa, of course, is driven to discover the truth behind the ‘splitting’ she experienced. Mentally, it’s a dangerous, disturbing journey, for she begins to unravel the delicate facade of stability and functionality she and Derek have built over the years. Increasingly she turns to yet another universe for the answers she seeks: the world of the internet–a world in which we can all be anything we want to be, and a world in which reality has no place.  Silas argues that “stories exist to make sense of life.” How much of Elisa’s two lives are ‘stories’ that try and make sense of what happened?

Most of us, I suspect have experiences that occurred due to some fluke, some incident. If we hadn’t crossed that road at the moment. If we hadn’t picked up the phone. If we hadn’t taken that trip. That’s the sort of collective experience that the author taps into here, so even though what happens to Elisa has its fantastic element, it’s easy to identify with her dilemma. What would we do if given an opportunity to enter a universe without the one terrible incident that marred our lives? Would that new life be better, worse, or just different? This intelligent novel does not seek to provide easy answers for the reader–instead the novel is a deeply engaging, intense exploration of complex ideas. Grief, guilt, mental illness and regret all create whispering imagined parallel universes, but has Elisa gone one step beyond?  Every word, every scene complements the mystery, the anomaly of Elisa’s experiences and memories. Incredible, intriguing, hypnotic, and troubling, this novel is one of my Best of 2012.

He saw himself in a strange city with his friend, except that the face of the friend was different.

Review copy

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The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine

“When you expect nothing more, life opens up to what is really important …”

Old and new Russia meet in the superb, elegiac novel The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. The story begins with fifty-year-old Russian exile, Shutov alone in his Paris flat remembering moments from his failed two-year-long relationship with his young lover, Léa. They met accidentally–she was a budding writer from the provinces with no place to live and was easily impressed with the cachet of living with a much-older published Russian émigré author. Shutov “is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter,” so he wallows in self-pity even as he performs a post-mortem of a relationship doomed to failure.

In spite of the fact that Shutov has published a few books in France, he remains a lonely émigré–still completely Russian–even though he left that country during the final years of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier.

“An exile’s only country is his country’s literature.” Who said that? Shutov cannot place the name in his confused thoughts. Some anonymous expatriate, no doubt, waking in the night and trying to recall the last line of a rhyme learned in childhood.

For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly, but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them. On a fine summer’s day in Moscow Tolstoy saw the figure of a woman through an open window, a bare shoulder, an arm with very white skin. All of Anna Karenina was born, if we are to believe him, from that woman’s arm.

As the story plays out, it becomes clear that as an émigré, Shutov is essentially lost in time and place. He doesn’t fit into his newly adopted country, and when it comes to his homeland, he is stuck in the Soviet past that no longer exists. Nabokov knew that he could never go home again as that ‘home,’ as he knew it, no longer existed. Shutov thinks otherwise. Faced with Léa’s arrival to pick up the last of her belongings, Shutov impulsively decides to return to Russia–ostensibly to seek out Yana, a woman he knew thirty years before in Leningrad.

Leningrad has, of course, reverted back into being St. Petersburg, and Shutov arrives  in the middle of the St Petersburg tercentenary celebrations and a “confusion of styles, the disappearance of a way of life and barely the first babblings of a new manner of being.” Street celebrations yield surreal exhibitions. Actors dressed as executioners and figures of terror have now become figures of fun:

“Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions. To deafen themselves with the noise of firecrackers so as to forget the sound of bombs. To unleash these merry executioners into the streets so as to blot out the shadowy figures that came knocking at doors in the night not so long ago, dragging men out, still half asleep, throwing them into black cars.”

Behind the Winter Palace a placard announces a “family portrait.” Seated on folding chairs, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, and, beyond an untoward gap, a Gorbachev, complete with birthmark painted on the middle of his bald head. Stalin, pipe in mouth, talks on his cellphone. A Nicholas II and a Brezhnev (the missing links) rejoin the group, laden with packs of beer. Laughter, camera flashes. The barker, a young woman in a miniskirt, moves among the crowd: “Now then, ladies and gentlemen, spare a coin for the losers of history. We accept dollars too …”

“They’ve managed to turn the page at last,” Shutov says to himself. And the thought of being left behind, like a dried flower, between the preceding pages, gives him the desire to hurry, to catch up on lost time.

There was a time when a visitor from Europe to the Soviet Union had a certain air of privilege, but now Shutov is shabby in comparison with his affluent Russian friends.

Having come as a nostalgic pilgrim, he finds himself surrounded by modernity gone mad, a mixture of American razzle-dazzle and Russian clowning.

 Almost as though he’s been locked in a time warp, Shutov cannot align his past with the excesses of New Russia, and instead of becoming soothed and reassured by his visit, he’s increasingly disturbed and alienated by what he sees. Shutov watches Russian television–that touchstone of culture:

On the screen is a thoroughbred dog, with a long, haughty, nervous muzzle. Hands with varnished nails fastening a glittering collar about the animal’s neck. A figure appears: 14,500. Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars, the presenter confirms, and specifies the precious stones that decorate this accoutrement. A sequence of other models: rubies, topazes, diamonds… The numbers lengthen to match the rarity of the gems. The next scene features a dog with clipped hair, whose body, sensitive to the cold, is to benefit from a distinctive garment. Fox fur, beaver, or sable capes … The same range of furs for its ankle boots … the program now moves on to a more difficult species to domesticate. A lynx, which must undergo a pedicure if you care about carpets and furniture. A vet is seen filing down the animal’s claws … For a dwarf hippopotamus, whose well-being depends on a good level of humidity, the installation of a hygrometer is essential. The brightness of the colors on your python’s skin can be enhanced by a wide range of food supplements …

Shutov is confused by New Russia and its “frenzied materialism.” With a growing sense of displacement he meets Volsky, an elderly man, survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s Purges, and years spent in a labour camp. Listening to the man telling his poignant story which begins in 1941, Shutov learns the value of a moment of compassion, hears how the human spirit soars over brutality, and how love endures despite monumental adversity….

The Life of an Unknown Man is split into roughly two parts–Shutov’s broken love affair and his visit to St Petersburg followed by Volsky’s story. Volsky is a living relic of Russian history, and it’s through Shutov’s meeting with this remarkable ‘unknown man’ that Shutov finally is able to come to terms with his own life. I cannot praise this extraordinarily moving novel enough, and it’s destined to make my ‘best of 2012’ list.   

The Life of an Unknown Man was originally published in French as La Vie d’Homme Inconnu. The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and has lived in France for over 20 years. My copy came courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

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