Tag Archives: Love affairs

Women: Mihail Sebastian (1933)

“September has arrived, lovely in its weakening light.”

Last year I read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years–a remarkable book which covers  several years in the life of a young Romanian man who faces antisemitism at university and struggles with what it means to be a Jew. The book had a refreshing energy in spite of its introspection, and that same energy is apparent in Women: a book comprised of four connected stories which explore the various phases and complications of male/female relationships.

The first story, Renée, Marthe and Odette is my favourite of the lot. Stefan Valeriu is on holiday in the Alps. He’s a student in Paris; he’s taken his final exams, and now he’s relaxing:

It’s not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue. He can sense it climbing through the wooden legs, feel it caressing his fingers, his hand, his naked arm, as warm as a shawl … More time will pass–five minutes, an hour, an eternity–and a flickering blue light with vague silver streaks will appear through his closed eyelids. Then it will be eight and perhaps time to start thinking about getting up. Just like yesterday, and the day before that. But he’ll remain lying there, smiling at the thought of this sundial he constructed on the first day, using a chaise longue and a patch of terrace. 

This is how the story opens. Its evocative sensuality draws us immediately into Stefan’s life, and it’s easy to imagine the sensations he enjoys: the light, the warmth and the sheer pleasure of leisure time. And then comes the voice of a woman. …

Stefan, as it turns out, is a bit of a player. Circumstances throw him into the company of several women–hence the title. Stefan meets a married couple: Monsieur Marcel Rey and his wife Renée who are on holiday with their small daughter. The Reys, who are both from “old colonial families,” own a plantation in Tunisia. It’s not exactly a life of ease; they sleep with a gun under the pillow.  Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey and seduces his wife.

The intriguing thing here is just what the husband knows or doesn’t know. Is Stefan one of the perks of the holiday? The night before the Reys depart, Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey:

When it is completely dark, the lights of the train station far beyond the lake can be seen, and the Paris train at midnight, like a thick articulated phosphorescent snake. They pause in the middle of their game and watch it disappear.

–We have a rough life, says Monsieur Rey, breaking the silence. I don’t regret it and wouldn’t change it. But it is tough. I’m sure Renée has tears in her eyes watching that same train, which she won’t be taking again for who knows how many years. Maybe never. That doesn’t scare me, but you see, there’s something in me, a kind of affliction, that gives me pause. I know it’ll pass. It will pass for her too. Work takes care of all that. The sun, the plantations, the desert, the breeze at night, the Arabs…. But you have to understand how different things are here, how appealing it is and how a woman in particular would find it all irresistible…

So that’s Renée, the unhappy plantation owner’s wife. Then there’s Marthe, a beautiful, calm “regal, cinematic, and eternally beautiful woman,” who is pursued by Stefan. The pursuit is flavoured by the presence of another young man who appears to be a competitor for Marthe’s affections. And then there’s Odette: a free-spirited young woman who is alone at the resort.

The best scene in this wonderful section concerns Monsieur Rey’s hobby of filming the guests, and one evening the guests sit down to watch Rey’s film. The film’s revelations make Stefan extremely uncomfortable. (I thought of Alda Alda in Crimes and Misdeamours. Alda Alda plays Lester, a television producer and Clifford, played by Woody Allen makes a documentary of Lester’s life.)

In the second story, Émilie, time has moved on. Stefan is the narrator who tells the tale of a young woman who is a virgin; Stefan is a witness to her sad tale. Renée, Marthe and Odette explored many aspects of male-female relationships (flirting, pursuit, high drama, adultery, adulation) but Émilie, is almost painful in its train-wreck bleakness.

The third section, Maria, takes the form of a letter to Stefan. Stefan declared his love and the letter is Maria’s response which, in essence details of her relationship with another man. In the final section, Arabela, Stefan once more is the narrator, but in this case he tells of his prolonged, ultimately anticlimactic, love affair with an acrobat.

The first story is superb, and the others, while good, cannot match its excellence. There’s something magnificent and timeless about Renée, Marthe and Odette and the way Stefan observes and loves each woman in his own way.

There haven’t been many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average attractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better-looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests.” Still, I’ve never met a woman–and I’ve been in love with some of them–who has ever given me the sense of cool sensuality that I found in Arabela’s arms, as I inhaled the smell of her warm, lazy, indifferent flesh.

Review copy

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh



Filed under Fiction, Sebastian Mihail

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

“It is a dreadful misfortune not to be loved when we are in love, but it is a very great one to be loved passionately when we have ceased to love.”

My Penguin Classics edition of Adolphe includes a long introduction from translator Leonard Tancock regarding the life of its author, Benjamin Constant and his relationships with three women: Mme de Charrière, Madame de Staël and Anna Lindsay. Tancock notes that Adolphe’s Ellenore is an “amalgam of Benjamin’s experience with women,” and no doubt that explains why this novella is so powerful.


Adolphe is not a particularly appealing protagonist, and this is in spite of, or perhaps even because, he has control of the narrative, so that we only see things from his one-sided view.  The story begins when Adolphe is 22 and has just concluded his university studies. He’s bored and in society, he feels that nothing is “worthy of attracting” his attention. Influenced by his father’s attitude towards women, and in a “state of vague emotional torment,” he longs for a love affair. He is invited by a friend of his father’s, Count P, to visit, and it’s here that Adolphe meets Ellenore, a Polish woman “whose family had been ruined.”  In spite of the fact that Ellenore is the Count’s mistress and they live openly together, she is socially accepted by the Count’s circle. Ellenore and the Count have two children together, and it’s mainly due to Ellenore’s persistence that the Count’s fortunes have been restored following a successful lawsuit. So Ellenore is an unusual prospect for Adolphe–a woman of high station who has risked everything for love.  Because of scandal and social stigma, Ellenore would normally have the sort of ignominious position that demands that she be stashed away from society, but no, she’s rather unusually not hidden–accepted yes but with a stain.  This makes Ellenore an intriguing and also a vulnerable prospect for seduction.

Adolphe lays siege to Ellenore. At first his attentions are pleasant:

I did not think I was in love with Ellenore, but already I could not endure the thought of not pleasing her. She was continually in my thoughts: I made countless plans and invented countless ways of winning her, with that callow fatuity which is so confident of success because it has never attempted anything.

When Adolphe is rejected, instead of taking the hint and cooling down, he doubles down on the pressure:

I was stunned. Inflamed by this setback, my imagination took possession of my whole life. Suddenly I found myself racked by the torments of love which but an hour before I had been simulating with such-self-congratulation.

Poor Ellenore, Adolphe is determined to have her and so he resorts to the ultimate threat. Ellenore is moved, gives in, and so the affair begins. It’s a relationship that’s doomed from the start, and the road towards that finality begins with a bump or two but then becomes tortured, troubled and loaded with self deceit. There are times when Adolphe deceives himself (not the reader) and there are times when he’s blisteringly honest. It becomes all too easy to see that one person is the root of all your problems. One person is holding you back from the brilliant career you know awaits you.

Nearly always , so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other. 

This wonderful novella explores the crucial issues of any relationship: where exactly the ME and the US begins and ends and how novelty adds glitter to an affair while routine and obligation bury the thrill.

And yet the affairs of ordinary life cannot be forced to fit in with all our desires. It was sometimes awkward to have my every step marked out for me in advance and all my moments counted. I was obliged to hurry through everything I did and break with most of my acquaintances. I did not know what to say to my friends when they invited me to take part in some social activity in normal circumstances I should have had no reason for declining. When I was with Ellenore I did not hanker after these pleasures of social life which had never appealed to me very strongly, but I would have liked her to leave me freer to give them up of my own accord. It would have been pleasanter to go back to her of my own free will, without telling myself that time was up and she was anxiously waiting, and without the thought of my happiness at rejoining her being mingled with that of her displeasure. Ellenore was a great joy in my life, of course, but she was no longer an objective, she had become a tie. 

For its focus on a turbulent dying relationship Adolphe reminded me of  Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maîtresse.


Filed under Constant Benjamin, Fiction

In the Distance With You: Carla Guelfenbein

“passion and what we’re prepared to do for its sake.”

80 year old Vera Sigall, a Chilean writer, lives a quiet solitary life in Santiago. Most of her contact is with her neighbour, architect Daniel. One day, Daniel finds Vera at the foot of her stairs, and it’s not clear if she fell or was attacked, and with a vagrant seen nearby, exactly what happened to Vera seems unclear. Certainly Detective Alvarez has his suspicions, and it doesn’t help Daniel’s case that he doesn’t tell the police the truth about several facts.

As Vera lies comatose in the hospital her story goes back to the 1950s, through the Pinochet dictatorship, and is revealed through several voices: Daniel, Emilia, a French-Chilean student, working on her thesis who has travelled to Santiago to read certain papers by Vera, and Horacio Infante, a famous poet who had a passionate affair with Vera decades earlier.

In the distance

Daniel is married to Gracia, but there’s a distance between them (back to the title). They live together, have a relationship, have sex, and yet there’s an undeniable distance in spite of the fact that Daniel acknowledges that Gracia “had the something I was missing.” Daniel wants to cancel a planned anniversary party, out of respect to Vera, and Gracia doesn’t understand how Daniel’s loyalty can be to an old woman in hospital. But there’s something unique between Daniel and Vera:

I remembered our conversations in your study, and how you’d made me see the stuff marital relationships are made of. Stuff whose composition possesses the ingredients for self-destruction. I always resisted believing you. In the end, it’s just a matter of will, I used to tell you. The will to love, and to be faithful to the object of your affection. But then you told me about the voraciousness of love, about its longing to swallow the beloved and ensure that he or she breathes only through us, But above all, you talked about love’s secret desire to be realized without transactions, without words, moved solely by its own essence, by its supposed unconventionality. 

Emilia starts lingering around the hospital and meets Daniel. Gradually through the three voices of Daniel, Emilia and Horacio, Vera’s story, is revealed, and at the same time, Daniel and Emilia discover things about themselves. It’s clear that Vera’s great love affair with poet Horacio was intense and inevitable. They met and circled one another for some time before falling into a long, sporadic affair. Vera, who is married when the affair begins,  knows Horacio better than he knows himself.

The book examines the disparity of love. One person in a relationship seems to love more than the other–which one would you prefer to be? Despite this disparity, relationships balance in a status quo for years, and then some event or some person can throw the delicate negotiation of an established relationship into chaos. But for this reader, the most fascinating area of any relationship is the ‘me/us’ negotiated spaces. When we enter into any relationship, this me/us space seems to be the most fraught, and often so difficult to establish. Chilean author’s Carla Guelfenbein’s characters must face this issue in their relationships–how much to share, how much to let someone in, the space to maintain. And it’s these, often unspoken negotiations, that make or break relationships.

I don’t want anyone or anything to stand between us, not distance, not time, nothing, nobody. I don’t know how to achieve that state, but it’s what I want. 

Daniel’s voice is the strongest–perhaps because he is the most interesting of the three characters. I’m not a fan stories of prolonged love affairs, so some of this book didn’t work for me. There’s also a prolonged masturbation scene that was a bit much.

(The character of Vera is loosely inspired by Clarice Lispector)

Translated by John Cullen

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Guelfenbein Carla

The Beauties: Essential Stories: Chekhov

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

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

Here’s the contents:

The Beauties

The Man in a Box

A Day in the Country

A Blunder

About Love


The Bet

A Misfortune

Sergeant Prishibeyev

The Lady With the Little Dog

The Huntsman

The Privy Councillor

The Kiss

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

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

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

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

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

The Beauties

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

Review copy


Filed under Chekhov, Fiction

Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard


Filed under Fiction, Maupassant, Guy de

Two or Three Graces: Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novella After the Fireworks concerns the love affair between a popular author and a young attractive female fan. Two or Three Graces, the second novella in this collection published by Harper Perennial also concerns love affairs–collectively these two novellas explore the nature and reality of love

The tale is told by Wilkes, a bachelor, and begins in Paris. I wasn’t sure where Huxley was leading as he describes two of Wilkes’s problematic relationships. One trying friendship is with the volatile, highly emotional writer Kingham and the second with former public schoolmate the plodding, boring Herbert Comfrey. Kingham, a man who “liked scenes” has an overreactive fit about Herbert and exits the frame, or so we think.


Wilkes returns to England in the company of “passive vegetable clinger” Herbert and lo and behold who do they meet on the Dover quayside but Herbert’s even more boring brother-in-law, solicitor, John Peddley. This man is so boring that he actually haunts railway stations and docks waiting to pounce on a “victim,” some weary traveller who he can then pontificate to at length, while this poor lost soul, too tired to fight, puts up little resistance. Peddley, like a typical bore, just needs an audience; to other people’s “feelings and thoughts he was utterly insensitive. It was this insensitiveness, coupled with his passionate sociability, that gave him his power. He could hunt down his victims and torture them without remorse.”

Peddley was an active bore, the most active, I think, that I ever met; and indefatigable piercer, a relentless stuffer and crammer. He talked incessantly, and his knowledge of uninteresting subjects was really enormous. All that I know of the Swiss banking system, of artificial manures, of the law relating to insurance companies, of pig-breeding, of the ex-sultan of Turkey, of sugar rationing during the war, and a hundred other similar subject , is due to Peddley. He was appalling, really appalling; there is no other word. I know no human being with whom I would less willingly pass an hour.

And yet the man was extremely amiable and full of good qualities. he had a kind heart. He was energetic and efficient. He was even intelligent.

And it’s in a state of weariness that Wilkes succumbs to an invitation to Peddley’s home. Here he meets Peddley’s wife, Herbert’s sister, Grace. She’s a lot like Herbert, but whereas Herbert annoys Wilkes, he’s charmed by Grace. She’s a sort of helpless, vague woman, and Wilkes finds her “graceful ineptitude” quite “enchanting.” After spending some time with the Peddleys, Wilkes concludes that the marriage ‘works’ but that Grace tunes out of her life most of the time.

It’s through Wilkes that Grace is introduced to two successive lovers. Each love affair defines Grace in some way–hence the title. With one lover she becomes a bohemian, and with another, she’s a heartless vampire who sucks the life out of men. At one point, Wilkes even begins to imagine that he’s in love with Grace.

With each of these men, Grace, however, doesn’t fundamentally change. She might dress differently, and she might carry around a cigarette, but she’s still vague, fuzzy at the edges, Grace. The men in her life make her what they want her to be–hence the title. Huxley shows us two different Graces through her love affairs, but he’s not sure if there even is a third Grace. There’s a lot of sympathy for this character who married Peddley when she was too young to know better.

In spite of this novella’s slow start, I loved it. It’s a character study, and Huxley analyses his handful of subjects quite unmercifully, giving them nowhere to hide. But then even Wilkes, our narrator, is sliced up and his faux feelings examined. Also under scrutiny here is the subject of love. Huxley acknowledges its realities but also subtly analyzes its shifting properties.  There’s a definite feeling that Huxley is writing about real people disguised by fiction.

Uncle Spencer is the third, and weakest novella in the book. It’s basically the reminiscences of holidays spent with an idiosyncratic uncle who runs a sugar factory in Belgium. These holidays are interrupted by WWI, and Uncle Spencer’s arrest and imprisonment.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Huxley Aldous

Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

“But the truth is, no matter how successful or happy you may consider yourself to be there is always a part of your life that is problematic, or deficient, or a letdown in some way.”

The blurb on the back cover of Five Days includes this:

Douglas Kennedy’s powerful new novel poignantly examines the death of hope, the limitless possibilities of love, and how the entire trajectory of a life can change through one brief encounter.

It’s interesting that the words ‘brief encounter’ appear as this is the film I thought of when I read Douglas Kennedy’s latest book, but while I’d class the 1945 film Brief Encounter as a romance, Five Days isn’t so easily pegged. Yes, there is romance in these pages, but primarily this is a story of how one very unhappy 41-year-old woman faces her unhappiness and decides to do something to change her life. five daysLaura is a married Radiology Technician who works at a hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, and here between the hours of 9-5, she performs scans on patients sent to her as part of the diagnostic  sequence. It’s my personal belief that you can’t work in this sort of job without it impacting your thoughts about life & death, and this is certainly true of Laura who sees people who are dying of cancer on a daily basis. Not that Laura is the one that breaks the news, of course, but she is, nonetheless part of the sequence of events. She’s always been able to handle her job, but lately the job has been getting to her, and she’s internalizing the results: euphoric when nothing is found, and tearful when the scans yield positive results. Peel back a few layers of Laura’s life, and it’s easy to see that her marriage is unhappy and unsatisfying. Add two troubled teenagers to the mix. Trouble then is on the horizon when Laura heads off solo to a conference in Boston where she meets Richard Copeland, a 50-something insurance salesman who is just as unhappy as she is…..

Five Days illustrates perfectly that affairs do not occur in the real world. They exist in a bubble–a very special, fabricated place that is not hampered by everyday concerns, and the novel does an excellent job of showing how very much easier it is for Laura to communicate with a brand-new person who shares a great deal of her interests instead of trying to discuss anything with Dan, her long-term unemployed, depressed husband of over 23 years.

So far so good.

As a protagonist, Laura is an irritating, insufferable human being–nothing wrong with reading about insufferable people, of course, as they can be a lot of fun (thinking Kingsley Amis here), but when they’re supposed to garner our sympathy and our subsequent interest in the character’s journey of self-discovery, it helps if that character is sympathetic, and if this transaction doesn’t occur, then something different happens.  The alarm bells initially went off for me with Laura’s character early in the novel when she described her competency at diagnosing cancers, and the alarms were loud and clear when she reveals the “shock” and “hurt” she feels after discovering that her now-deceased mother had an ectopic pregnancy years earlier. And this sums up in a nutshell Laura’s central issue as a character for this reader.; other people’s death sentences are her tragedy; her mother’s inability to have more children is somehow a personal betrayal. Laura is self-focused and egotistical even while she’s presented as suffering from a general lack of affection from an obtuse, depressive, dull and uninspiring spouse. Listening to Laura became a bit like listening to a work acquaintance complaining about her home life even as you, the audience, silently feel a bit sorry for the poor sod at home.

Laura is a RT but has long-buried dreams of being a doctor with long slow hints of why that didn’t happen. The first person narrative goes back and forth in time, and Laura’s story of just what went wrong with those dreams is gradually revealed. She ‘settled’ for Dan, and it seems that there’s no intellectual spark between them. No matter. When she meets Richard, the sparks fly in an egoistical word-play exchange. I’m not sure that people really talk like this, and if I’m wrong and then they do, they are obnoxious. Here’s Laura and Richard discovering their mutual love of synonyms

“He initially had a business partner–Jack Jones. A fellow Marine. Unlike my father, Jack actually liked people. Don’t know what he was doing in business with my father, as Jack was a genuinely happy-go-lucky guy and Dad was kind of dyspeptic about life.”

“I like that word: dyspeptic.”

” ‘Bilious’ would also be a good descriptive word as well. ‘Liverish’ might also fit the bill.”

“How about ‘disputative’?”

“A little too legal, I think. Dad was a misanthrope, but never litigious.”

I looked at him with a new interest. “You like words,” I said.

“You’re looking at the Kennebac County Spelling Bee champion of 1974, which is kind of Middle Ages now, right? But once you get hooked on words you don’t really ever lose the habit.”

This sort of thing goes on for a while–a sort of word-one-upmanship, and the mental/sexual sparks flying through the air which each new posturing.

“Okay, I give you that. How about ‘abrogatory’?”

“Now you’re getting too fancy. ‘Approbative.’ “

“That’s not fancy? Sounds downright florid to me.”

“Florid isn’t ‘aureate.’  “

“Or ‘Churrigueresque’? he asked.

Five Days certainly has its merits; it is a page turner and at its best when conveying the unreality of an affair when compared to the ever-present tensions of home and responsibility. Life can throw a lot of unexpected disasters at anyone, but two middle-aged people discussing their disappointments, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams of literary fame, and past glory of long-gone college days has never been exactly an up experience. Here it’s an angst-filled odyssey into some depressing territory. I’ve been meaning to read a Douglas Kennedy novel for some time as I have seen a few films based on his books: The Woman on the Fifth (disliked it), Welcome to Woop Woop (one of my favourite cult films), The Big Picture (excellent). Perhaps Five Days was the wrong place to start, and I may very well be the wrong reader for the book as my sob-o-meter isn’t exactly a sensitive instrument. So, if any Kennedy readers out there would like to recommend one of his titles, I’ll give it a go.


Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Douglas

Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s remarkable novel, Kafka in Love, largely drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries, bridges the lines between fiction and non-fiction in its pursuit of biography. The French title of the book is Kafka, L’éternel fiancé,  and what an excellent title that is, for in the book we see Kafka between the years 1912 until his death in 1924 through his rather odd relationships with four very different women. The shared ingredient of these relationships is that they were largely long-distance, and while Kafka appears to have primarily enjoyed the position of fiancé (no less than four times) in order to establish a prolific letter writing campaign, proximity–except perhaps for his last relationship with his intellectual equal, Dora, brought disaster.

indexKafka in Love begins by showing Franz Kafka as an energetic, intense, dapper young man. He met Max Brod “by chance” on November 23, 1903 in Prague at a talk in which Brod called Nietzsche a “charlatan.” Kafka publicly challenged Brod and thus began a lifelong friendship which lasted until Kafka’s death in 1924.

Max examined the young righter of wrongs, who was taller than he by a head. He noticed the young man’s elegance of dress, the tie and stand-up collar, the intensity of his gaze , his black eyes on fire. He was reminded of a Dostoevsky hero. The student’s high-cheekboned thinness and distinction made Max uncomfortable, and he regretted having overindulged in beer and fatty foods and neglected sports.

It’s at Max’s house that Kafka meets Felice Bauer, a relative of Max Brod’s “by marriage” on August 13, 1912. Felice, who lives in Berlin, is an unlikely candidate for Kafka’s interest. In spite of the fact that he doesn’t find her physically attractive (“no charm, no appeal“), a relationship begins which is maintained and fed by a torrent of letters and telegrams. Between October 23 (when Felice finally replies to Kafka’s increasingly insistent letters) until December 31st 1912, he writes and sends 100 letters to Felice “often two or three a day.” Kafka’s long-distance relationship with Felice appears to have satisfied a certain obsessive-compulsive component in Kafka’s nature, and it also allowed Kafka to write the most extraordinarily passionate letters (“Dearest, very dearest! Most cherished of my temptations,”), but, sadly, the passion failed to materialize when the couple finally met again in the flesh. Rather interestingly, neither Felice nor Kafka seemed particularly anxious to spend time together, and it’s almost as if they both sensed that this extraordinary on-and-off again relationship was superior on paper. They were annoyed by each other’s habits; Kafka was turned off by Felice’s teeth and eating of sugar cubes. Felice couldn’t stand Kafka’s eccentricities & asceticism. Kafka didn’t smoke, didn’t drink alcohol, tea or coffee and was a vegetarian. He “slept by an open window even in the heart of winter, [and] swam in icy rivers.” Perpetually late, he always set his watch one and a half hours ahead. All these habits grated on Felice’s nerves, and this didn’t bode well for any imagined future together. In one of his letters, he detailed more habits:

I eat three meals a day, but nothing between meals, literally nothing. In the morning stewed fruit, biscuits and milk. At 2:30, out of filial pity, the same as the others, a bit less than the others. Winter evenings at 9:30: yogurt, wholegrain bread, butter, walnuts and hazelnuts, chestnuts, dates, figs, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, apples, pears, oranges, and I never get my fill of lemonade. 

We could perhaps chalk up Kafka’s misadventures with Felice as a youthful, impulsive mistake–a relationship that he dove into too quickly and then had difficulties in the retreat, but then when Felice recruited her best friend, Grete Bloch in the campaign to patch things up with Kafka, his enthusiastic letter-writing shifted gears to his fiancée’s best friend, and naturally this culminated in disaster. Then there are Kafka’s other relationships, and while his relationships with the sad milliner, Julie Wohryzek and the glorious Milena are both quite different, they are still maintained at a distance and plagued with a certain reluctance on Kafka’s part. Milena, who “enters” Kafka’s life “like a hurricane,” has a tumultuous past, peppered with scandal. Their relationship lasted approximately 8 months, and “about 150” letters survive as a testament to their mostly long-distance relationship–Kafka in Prague and Milena with her husband “the man with forty mistresses,” in Vienna. Their letter exchanges “reach a feverish pitch, telegrams fly back and forth at a rapid rate.”

The book smoothly integrates extracts from Kafka’s diaries and letters so seamlessly that we don’t particularly notice where they begin and end, and at times, the author interjects the occasional speculative and rhetorical comment in the midst of recounting Kafka’s actions as in one spot when Kafka acknowledges that he will never have children.  There’s an aside “was Felice troubled by this warning?”

It’s impossible to separate Kafka the lover from Kafka the author since the two aspects of his character appear to be so closely intertwined. While Kafka tries romance numerous times and endures the life of an aesthetic, his Diaries reveal no small amount of struggle from the man who wrote The Hunger Artist:

In his Diaries, he lets loose and confesses his hankerings, real and imaginary: “This craving that I almost always have, if ever I feel my stomach empty, to heap up in me images of terrible feats of eating. I especially satisfy this craving in front of pork butchers. If I see a sausage labeled as an old, hard farmhouse sausage, I bite into it in my imagination with my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and mechanically. The despair that always follows this act, imaginary though it is, increases my haste. I shove long slabs of ribs into my mouth unchewed, then bring them out again the other end, pulling them through my stomach and intestines. I empty whole grocery stores, filthy ones, cram myself with herrings, pickles, and all the spicy, gamey unhealthy foods. Hard candies pour into my mouth like hail from the cast-iron pots.”

And while Kafka’s describes his first sexual experience to Milena, it’s in his diaries that he “confess[es] his taste for brothels,” along with the fact that “he is drawn to large and slightly older girls.”

While we see Kafka through four extraordinary relationships, the book Kafka in Love is ultimately a lot more than seeing Kafka through four strained engagements. We also see the process of Kafka maturing in an ever-increasing anti-Semitic society as he becomes interested in Zionism, learns Hebrew and returns to his Jewish roots–stirring once again, his father’s disapproval.  We also see Kafka in the contemporary cultural society of his times with Ernst Weiss and Franz Werfel as friends., and the touching details of how Kafka consoled a child who’d lost her doll. Haunted by the knowledge that he left so much work incomplete, Kafka despaired about this failure even as his life was cut tragically short by his excruciatingly cruel and painful death from Tuberculosis in 1924 at the Kierling Sanatorium.  At the end of the novel are notes explaining the fate of the letters written from Kafka–along with the fates of some of the significant people in his life., and a description of the battle over Kafka’s estate. The author, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval concludes this poignant, inspired and remarkable novel with an explanation of how she was drawn to her subject.

Translated by Willard Wood. Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Raoul-Duval Jacqueline