Tag Archives: memory

So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighborhood: Patrick Modiano

After reading several Modiano novels, I decided to take a break, but a recent foray into the TBR stacks led to me selecting So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. This is a short novel (my copy runs just over 150 pages) and it’s a typical Modiano novel concerned with memory and identity. The book opens with a strange phone call to the protagonist, Jean Daragane. We are dropped into Jean’s isolated life with no explanation, and the phone call (it’s the first time the phone has rung in months) is from a man who says he’s found an address book that belongs to Jean. The man, Gilles Ottolini, insists on meeting Jean to return the book, and there’s something here that makes Jean uncomfortable. Gilles has a slightly threatening manner, and he’s certainly pushy, but then again perhaps Jean, who isn’t used to human contact, feels that his space and privacy is invaded.

The two men meet and it soon becomes clear that Gilles wants something from Jean. Gilles begins asking about a name in the address book, a “certain” Guy Torsel, but Jean has no memory of the man that belongs to the name, and a glance at the outdated telephone number in the address book “means nothing.” Gradually over the course of a short time, Jean begins to recall, slowly, how he met Guy Torsel and the significance of the man and a circle of other long forgotten people.

Gilles and a young woman begin to penetrate (invade) Jean’s life. There’s a surreal quality here as Gilles hints that Jean knows more than he’s letting on, and Jean seems to have no idea what Gilles is talking about. Of course all the answers lie in the past, and the path to the past is through memory. As Jean’s memory gradually peels back time, details emerge from the forgotten recesses of his mind, and this is where the novel is strongest.

These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane. 

Jean has forgotten chunks of his past and along with those memories, he’s also let slip thoughts of people he once knew, people who inhabited Jean’s life, or perhaps passed through briefly. There’s a point at which Jean tries to search on the internet for people from his past, but he can’t find them.

The rare people whom he would have liked to trace had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of this machine. They had slipped through the net because they belonged to another age.

Modiano’s approach to memory is fascinating. He chews over this subject, noting every nuance, every angle, every sensation. Rather uncannily, I recently came across an old address book, and found a name or two I couldn’t tie to anyone I remembered. For a brief moment, I thought I was living in a Modiano novel. The author certainly nails the descriptions of memory, shards of memory, and how sometimes, in order to remember, we have to burrow into a time and a place that have long since been forgotten. Still at the end of the novel, I was left wanting a bit more plot.

On a final note, remember that Hemingway parody contest? 

Not to denigrate Modiano, but has anyone heard of a Modiano parody contest?

In the end we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful. We just lie back and allow ourselves to float along calmly over the deep waters, with our eyes closed.

Advertisements

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

The Bear and the Paving Stone: Toshiyuki Horie

“There is nothing more dangerous than a stupid friend. A wise enemy is far better.”

In The Bear and the Paving Stone Japanese author Toshiyuki Horie gives us three tales which explore friendship, the importance of shared memories and the elusiveness of human motivation.

The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Sandman is Coming

In the Old Castle

In The Bear and the Paving Stone, a young Japanese translator meets his friend Yann in Normandy. The two men haven’t seen each other in some time, and Yann, a “perpetual freelancer, unbound by a company schedule,” works part of the year and uses his wages to travel and take photographs. Yann has the tendency to drop out of sight, and this time the translator catches Yann, who is living in a remote cottage miles from the closest village, just before he leaves for Ireland. The two young men spend some time together reminiscing about their shared past, and discuss a range of topics including Bettelheim, Littré  and the holocaust. At one point, Yann puzzles over the question why people don’t flee when war moves close to their homes, and the narrator ponders on the subject:

In the limited reality that I knew, I’d never have to flee for my life, and it was unlikely to happen now. If I went somewhere, I always returned. I left Paris and came to this village; soon enough I would go back to Paris, then I would go back to Tokyo. But in a way I was always at home. If you were to make a contact sheet of all my journeys. and looked at them retrospectively, it would be clear that all my travels were return trips, and that I never drifted anywhere. In that sense, Yann and I were different. Even though there’s something about us that’s connected, we’re moving in different directions, and we’re never going to collide. 

The Bear and the Paving Stone is a philosophical novella which captures conversations between two men who share values. The talks not only reveal shared opinions but also reveal, possibly, the reasons behind Yann’s restlessness and his interest in war photography. In arguably the novella’s best scene, Yann offers his guest a photograph as a gift, but it’s a gift the translator doesn’t want. He would prefer “a quieter image.”

When Yann travels to Ireland, the translator spends time with Yann’s landlady,  and again a few casual conversations reveal a great deal of pain. By the conclusion of the story, the translator begins to understand why his friendship with Yann works so well.

The bear and the paving stone

In The Sandman is Coming, another very interior tale (even though it’s set on a beach), the narrator meets a woman walking on the beach with her daughter. The narrator used to be a friend of the woman’s brother, but 18 years have passed, and during that passage of time, the brother has died after a long illness. The woman, who once seemed to have the possibility of a good career, dropped out of school and married, but the marriage ended in divorce.

It’s the second anniversary of the death of the narrator’s friend, and he’s come to visit the family, and he finds himself taking a walk with his friend’s sister on the beach. There’s something melancholy about a deserted beach–especially if the day isn’t bright.

The third story: In the Old Castle, a translator takes a train to meet an old friend. The friend. “had always had trouble finding a girlfriend,” but now he supposedly has found “the one.” The new girlfriend isn’t quite what the translator expected. For one thing, she’s ten years older and rather shabbily dressed, but she’s also interesting. The friends decide to explore an old castle which is undergoing a restoration. Even though the place is overseen by a grumpy, antisocial groundskeeper and a Doberman, the narrator and his friend climb over a fence into the ruined castle, and of course, things don’t go well.

Of the three tales, The Bear and the Paving Stone was easily my favourite. It’s much deeper and stayed with me long after the conclusion. In this rich story, the author explores a range of subjects including how our choice of friends says a great deal about us, but it’s only in the best of friendships that we learn more about ourselves.

Translated by Geraint Howells

Review copy

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Horie Toshiyuki

Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lippman Laura

The Black Notebook: Patrick Modiano

Once again Patrick Modiano plays with the themes of time and memory in his book The Black Notebook. In this novel, a writer named Jean looks back on his past–partly by wandering over old familiar Paris turf and partly through thumbing through his black notebook and a report handed to him by a former police inspector. Once again there are embedded signs of France’s colonial past, and once again, the narrator recalls a brush with the criminal world.

And of course, there has to be a woman…

The woman in this case is Dannie, well, at least that’s the name she gave Jean. She has disappeared–literally and figuratively, and although the black notebook recalls some details of the narrator’s relationship with Dannie, now, years later, Jean finds himself asking questions he wished he’d asked at the time.

the-black-notebook

The Black Notebook is my fifth Modiano novel to date. Young Once is the story of an ex-soldier who gets mixed up with a criminal crowd, and After the Circus, which has a strange disembodied sense of placement in time, is the tale of an 18-year old who gets mixed up with a nomadic young woman. The words ‘tale’ and ‘story’ are to be used loosely with these Modiano novels, and both Young Once and After the Circus are not so much concerned with concrete plots–although free-floating plots exist in each book, but rather the concerns are memory and time. Through his characters, Modiano continually wrestles with these themes. Here for example is Jean mulling over the past through his notebook:

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse signal codes being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. 

Walking around Paris, through old familiar locations in which he spent time with Dannie, Jean plays with the idea that he “would slip into a parallel time where no one could ever reach me.” Modiano forms the idea that time isn’t sequential as much as a series of parallel universes:

Yesterday, I was alone in the street and a veil fell away. No more past, no more present–time stood still.

This idea of time is also worked through Jean’s fascination with a handful of historical characters: Tristan Corbière, Jeanne Duval, and Baroness Blanche. At one point, Jean is so convinced that a woman in a bookshop is Jeanne Duval, that he follows her. Interestingly, however, a shady group of people all acquainted with Dannie, known only to Jean through a series of names, remain far less real than these historical characters who people Jean’s mind.

Of the five Modiano novels I’ve read so far, Villa Triste remains my unchallenged favourite, for its solid plot and tarnished glamour while Little Jewel is at the bottom of the pile. After reading 5 novels, there’s the sense that Modiano’s themes–wrestled with in each of those novels–are as much for his puzzlement as for ours. While, with the exception of Villa Triste, I can’t say I love Modiano novels, I am fascinated by his portrayal of time and memory. The events experienced by his characters are secondary to their interpretation–both at the time and now with decades of murky perspective.

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Dinner: César Aira

César Aira’s Dinner is a delightfully strange, genre bending novella narrated by a bachelor in his sixties who lives in the Argentinean town of Pringles. We don’t know the details of what’s gone wrong in this man’s life, but he’s bankrupt, washed up and living with his elderly mother–a very undignified position to find oneself in at any age, but the narrator, with old age looming, cannot kid himself that life will ever improve.

I was dead broke, they’d repossessed my house and my car, I’d taken refuge in my mother’s apartment and was living off her retirement income (if you can call that living.)

The narrator and his mother spend an evening with an eccentric friend–a wealthy building contractor who owns a splendid large home which is stuffed full of bizarre, expensive collections. The narrator has sought this invitation as he hopes to hit up his last friend, a self-made man, for a business loan. While the host shows off his fantastic automatons, the conversation veers towards various residents of the town. For the host and for the narrator’s mother, it’s all about names, “the conformations and genealogies of all the town’s families.” And as the evening progresses “each name was a knot of meaning wherein converged many other chains of names.” These are discussions which do not interest the narrator. While he has “real memories, full-fledged memories,” there are also “inexplicable memories” from his childhood. The narrator’s memories don’t quite mesh with the memories of his mother, and while his mother jumps from memory to memory by the use of names, the narrator notes that for him, there are “pits” in his memories which symbolize  ” ‘holes’ in memory.”

The shifting nature of memory then morphs into a question of what is true and what isn’t. When the narrator and his mother return home, the conversation shifts to their host. The narrator sees their host as a wealthy man, but the mother argues, vehemently and with detail, about massive debt & failure. Soon the narrator begins to doubt the affluent version of his friend’s life.

dinnerAlone, and only with the television for company, the narrator channel surfs and finds himself spellbound over a programme on the Pringles channel in which news reporter Maria Rosa zooms around on her scooter tracking the nightlife of Pringles. The programme is supposed to seem, “improvised, informal, youthful,” but with a cameraman in pursuit of the intrepid Maria Rosa, instead each episode is amateurish and almost laughable. But the narrator finds himself glued to the set as Maria Rosa takes her scooter to the cemetery to confirm the story that “the dead were rising from their graves.”

At this point, the story shifts completely from the narrator watching the programme to the assault on Pringles from the Dead who exit their graves, descend upon the town and, in the pursuit of endorphins, suck the brains from the living….

Is this a nightmare brought on by the evening’s discussion of “pits” and the cemetery? Did the Dead rise and kill many of the inhabitants of Pringles or is the event a publicity stunt? Or is the event about something bigger–symbolic of memory, the truth and “representation“? You decide.

César Aira’s prose is poetic, smooth, and slides like honey. This is how the book begins:

My friend was home alone, but he invited us over for dinner anyway; he was a very sociable man, liked to talk and tell stories, though he wasn’t any good at it; he got the episodes mixed up, left effects without causes and causes without effects, skipped over important parts, and dropped anecdotes right in the middle. This didn’t bother my mother, who at her age had reached a level of mental confusion equivalent to what my friend had been born with; I think she didn’t even notice. In fact, she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation–and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening–because there was a constant mention of the name’s of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life. I listened to the names drop, as one listens to the falling rain, whereas for her, each was a treasure full of meanings and memories.

The dinner is an elegant occasion, leisurely in nature, with the host proudly showing his guests some delightful, intricate, miniature automatons. But the evening is a contrived event–a representation of the subtle unspoken politics of class, wealth and business acumen. While the evening appears to be composed of two old friends reconnecting over dinner, it’s an occasion in which the narrator cannot help but compare his failure to his friend’s phenomenal success. Perhaps this partially explains the narrator’s mother’s irritation. The narrator sees that his mother, who loves him, is in “complete denial” of the facts. “And her life was reduced to that denial; I had reduced her to that.”

Perhaps she sees the host displaying his expensive toys as more than the actions of an enthusiastic collector:

Her idée fixe was that I was not a failure, that I had no reason to be dissatisfied with my life, that I could be happy, and that in fact I was. According to her, I had always done the right thing, and I continued to do so; I was an exemplary man, a role model, and moreover, I was young, good-looking, and intelligent. The objective facts contradicted her categorically: I was approaching sixty; I was fat, wrinkled, stooped; I was alone. without any family (except her), money, work, or future. Mama overcame this discrepancy by closing her eyes to reality, and since this didn’t suffice, she blamed the rest on humanity.

Automatons, zombies, representations, perceived wealth and failure, slippery truths and memory holes–all very clever ways of asking that age-old question:  what is truth and what is reality?

Translated by Katherine Silver

Review copy

14 Comments

Filed under Aira César, Fiction

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

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

“And perhaps the reason I always briefly regretted leaving people and countries, perhaps this feeling of only very fleeting regret was evanescent precisely because nothing that I saw and loved–soldiers, officers, women, snow and war–will ever leave me, not until the time has come for my last deathly voyage, the slow fall into the black abyss, a million times more protracted than my earthly existence, so long that while I am falling I will have time to forget about everything that I have seen and remembered and felt and loved; and when I have forgotten everything that I have loved, then I will die.”

Far into Gaito Gazdanov’s novella, An Evening with Claire, the narrator, a young man named Kolya, discusses the Civil War with his renegade uncle Vitaly, a Russian dragoon captain who challenged his commanding officer to a duel. When the commanding officer refused, Vitaly slapped his face and ended up in prison for 5 years. A cuckold and a freethinker, Vitaly advises his nephew not to listen to his teachers or to priests because they are all “idiots” and tell lies. It’s Russia, 1919, and Vitaly learns that his soon-to-be-16-year-old nephew has enlisted in the White Army, not from any political ideology, but because he is on White territory and it’s “expected” of him. Vitaly tells Kolya:

“Russia,” he said, “is entering the zone of the peasant stage of history, the strength of the muzhik, and the muzhik serves in the Red Army. The Whites,” according to Vitaly’s contemptuous observation, “don’t even possess that romanticism of war which could seem attractive; the White Army is the army of the middle class and the semi-intelligentsia. It’s full of madmen, cocaine addicts, cavalry officers mincing like coquettes,” Vitaly said sharply. “Failed careerists and sergeant majors can be found in the ranks of the generals.” 

Vitaly sees the Whites “like dying coral, on the corpses of which new formations are growing. The Reds–they are what is growing.” Vitaly cannot dissuade his nephew–the situation is too far gone, so instead he offers a piece of advice:

“Listen to me,” Vitaly meanwhile said to me. “In the near future you will be witnessing many atrocities. You will see people killed, hung, shot. None of this is new, important, or very interesting, but here is what I advise you: Don’t ever become a man of conviction. Don’t reason or draw conclusions, but try to be as simple as possible. And remember that the greatest happiness on earth is to think that you’ve understood something about the life surrounding you. But you don’t understand and when, after some time, you look back on it you will see that you had not truly understood. And after another year or two has passed you will be convinced that you were mistaken the second time as well. And so it will go without end. And nonetheless this is the most important and most interesting thing in life.”

Vitaly’s advice is central to An Evening with Claire, and it’s also seminal to the novella’s style, for the tale passes through the narrator’s memories rather like a camera recording events, or a photograph album, in which the reader flips through the pages and discovers snapshots of the author’s amazing life.

My first Gazdanov novel came earlier this year with the splendid The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. An Evening with Claire, according to the excellent and informative introduction written by translator Jodi Daynard, was Gazdanov’s breakthrough work. It was published in Paris in 1930 by a 26-year-old Gazdanov who had, up to this point, written a handful of stories. An Evening with Claire touched a nerve within Europe’s émigré population as a whole,” and after reading the book, it’s easy to see why.

This is not a traditional novel with a plottable story line for the book mainly deals with the issue of memory. Critics thought An Evening with Claire was influenced by Proust and Bunin. According to the introduction, Gazdanov didn’t read Proust until after WWII, and while the connections are there, it’s best to approach Gazdanov not as a secondary Nabokov or a pale Proust, but as an important Russian émigré writer who reflected the displacement and loss experienced by those swept up the events of this remarkable time.

Gazdanov (1903-1971) was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the White army during the Russian Civil War, and some of those experiences are recorded in the novel. With the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, Gazdanov left the Crimea and eventually, in 1923, landed in Paris. All these dramatic twists and turns of fate appear in An Evening with Claire, and perhaps the role of memory is emphasised because for those displaced by the turmoil in Russia, memory was–after all–one of the very few things left for the émigré population, and the one thing that could not be taken away.

The novel begins with a very definite structure: the first person narrator, Kolya, in Paris, is visiting, as he does every evening, Claire, the married woman he loves. Her husband, rather conveniently, is in Ceylon. Claire, a tease whose eyes are “gifted with the power of so many metamorphoses–cruel one moment, shameless or laughing the next” has been ill. On this particular evening, Kolya finally possesses Claire–a moment he’s dreamed of for ten years.

I thought about Claire, about the evenings I had spent with her, and gradually I came to remember everything that went before them; and the impossibility of understanding and expressing all of it weighed heavily upon me. This evening it was even more apparent than usual that there was no way for me to embrace and feel that endless succession of ideas, impressions and sensations which, in their totality, rose up in my memory like a row of shadows reflected in the dim and fluid mirror of a seasoned imagination.

Kolya admits that throughout his life he “was far too indifferent to external events; my deaf inner existence remained incomparably more significant,” and from this point, he recalls certain moments–beginning with his earliest childhood memory. This leads to the memories of his robust, generous-hearted father, a chief forester in Siberia,  who wasted away and died when Kolya was eight. Kolya has a much more difficult time understanding his mother as “concealed within her was the danger of internal explosions and the continual conflict of selves.” After the death of his siblings, they grew closer but parted when he attended military school.

There are some incredible memories here as Kolya notes his ability to access a moment from his past and find himself there–a boy, a teenager, a young man, and then a soldier.

Usually much time would have to pass before I would understand the sense of a particular event, and only after it had completely lost and influence on my receptiveness would it acquire that meaning which it should have had when it took place. First it would migrate to a distant and illusory region to which my imagination descended only rarely, and where I would find, as it were, a geological stratification of my history.

Some memories are recalled by the sense of smell and then transmitted to us through Gazdanov’s language which effectively builds a snap-shot:

Just as, in order to remember clearly and distinctly my life in the military school and the incomparable, stony sorrow with which I left that tall building, I had only to imagine the taste of meatballs, the meat sauce and macaroni–so could I, as soon as I smelled coal, immediately picture the beginning of my service on the armoured train, the winter of 1919, snow-covered Sinelnikov, the bodies of the Makhnovites hanging from the telegraph poles, their frozen bodies swinging in the winter wind and striking the wood of the poles with a blunt, light sound, the blackening hamlets behind the station, the whistle of the engines sounding like distress signals, and the white summit of the rails, incomprehensible in their motionlessness.

Moments from the war comprise the most powerful passages in the book: a soldier goes insane–another soldier, Kopchik, is avoided by Kolya who feels that “there was something inhuman and evil about this soldier, something I would not have wanted to know,” and scenes of Sevastopol, the temporary, chaotic home of the remnants of the defeated White army. Claire also appears as an attractive child and as a seductive newlywed, and when the narrator is cast from Russia and becomes a “vagabond,” she rather romantically embodies the narrator’s sense of regret. Ten years later, in Paris, that regret would seem to be expunged in the night Kolya spent as her lover, but is regret ever dismissed? Or does it remain ephemeral, inaccessibly frozen in suspended time?

An Evening with Claire is not a quick read and is best read slowly. Gazdanov offers us a glimpse of a vanishing world, and his experiences of war are tempered with time and edged with sadness–yet there’s also an emotional distancing there. As translator Jodi Daynard notes, “it became a mark of his character to measure the value of experience subjectively, seeking to find its meaning, not to judge it.” Absolutely marvellous.

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gazdanov Gaito

Chapman’s Odyssey by Paul Bailey

Paul Bailey’s latest novel, Chapman’s Odyssey, is mostly set within the confines of a London hospital. The story plays with the idea of memory through the mind of one man, Harry Chapman, a writer aged 70, collapsed and whisked off to hospital where he remains undergoing numerous tests and awaiting a diagnosis. Naturally, he contemplates the possibility of death, and in the twilight moments of sleep and effected by drugs, he has numerous visitations and conversations with a wide range of ‘visitors’–mostly imagined. There’s his indomitable mother, Alice, who lived to the ripe old age of ninety–a reassuring thought when one is facing death at 70:

Was it courtesy of Dr Pereira’s wonder drug that he was hearing her now, her naturally harsh voice sharpened by hurt and disappointment?

During his quiet and lonely moments, sometimes tempered with sedatives and painkillers, Alice’s words return as arguments and recriminations are revived, and Harry recalls his mother’s favourite phrase:

–Get back in you pram, Harry Chapman.

That taunt for all his childhood; that lethal combination of five short words intended to diminish him; oh the terrible inference that he would never grow into the kind of manhood she might approve of–her it was, harshly expressed, unsettling him, angering him, in this hospital ward, in a changed London, on the eve of his seventieth birthday.

Fortunately, Alice is not the only memory to visit. There are many other visitors from Harry’s past, including a local homeless woman known as The Duchess of Bombay, but most curiously, fictional characters impose their equally real presence as they appear from the novels of Harry’s reading past:

–Who are you?

He was curious to identify the stranger.

–You don’t recognise me?

–I can scarcely hear you.

–I have not much to say. I have no reason to speak louder.

He thought he detected a subtle American twang, suggestive of a refined New England upbringing, perhaps.

–Then why are you bothering to talk to me?

–I am bothering to talk to you because I cannot–no, I must not–be bothered.

–Did I meet you in New York?

–You have met me in many places. We have been companions of a kind in London and in Rome and once, I believe, in Calcutta. I am unusually verbose tonight. I am, usually, a man of very few, necessary words. That is my customary condition.

And this is madness, Harry Chapman thought, to be communing with someone who never lived, except in the pages of a little book.

–Are you still there?

He was relieved that there was no answer. Of course Bartleby wasn’t there. It had been the purest lunacy to have imagined that he ever was.

That quote should give a taste of both the writer’s style and the sort of encounters Harry has throughout the novel as he lies in his hospital bed and waits for the results of his tests. Visits from Pip (Great Expectations) are every bit as real as Harry’s conversations with his dead lovers. It’s impossible to read Chapman’s Odyssey without wondering which literary characters would come and visit us in our hours of illness and loneliness, and yet even as I considered the possibilities, it seemed both fantastic and wonderfully reassuring that visits from some of the great fictional characters who have become… well… our treasured compansions in their adventures and adversities should come and visit in our hour of need. Unfortunately, this is a cleverly written novel which will appeal only to people who ‘get’ the frequent literary allusions as Bailey is writing for a literate audience who know their Austen and their Dostoevsky.

The book’s title, Chapman’s Odyssey, is in itself a play on words and a giveaway about the novel’s complexities. George Chapman translated the first complete Homer’s Odyssey in English in the 16th century and died in poverty and debt. Our modern-day protagonist, Harry Chapman, has his odyssey from the confines of his hospital bed where he recalls the highlights of his life, the people who meant a great deal to him, and the moments that shook his life to its foundations. These memories are mingled with his waking moments when he regales the nurses with poems he’d memorised, and then when he nods off to sleep, finally, he meets all the fictional characters who composed another part of his life: his reading life which is every bit as real as the great passions and that poisoned, tortured relationship with his mother.

Chapman’s Odyssey is a rather sad novel–not so much because of the direct subject matter–a man waiting to hear whether or not he’s going to die; instead the novel is sad because of its immense poignancy. Stuck in bed, surrounded by nurses, doctors and other patients, Harry is diminished, at first by his mother, and now at the end of his life to a set of symptoms and an elusive disease. Death and disease are the great levellers of humankind and no respecter of youth, circumstances or wealth. Harry struggles against this leveller not by the usual cliché ‘it isn’t fair,’; in Harry’s case he tries to assert his individuality by reciting poetry to the nurses and engaging in pedantic mental wordplay to assure himself of his individuality in the face of death. The figures from the past mingle equally with the figures of fictional characters as if there is little difference between the two, and perhaps, after all, this is the only level of immortality we will ever reach as we become visiting shades in the memories of those who loved us.

Had there ever been a golden age in the long life of Harry Chapman? He tried to recall it as he lay–dying, perhaps–in the room reserved for those poised on the very brink.

 Review copy from publisher

8 Comments

Filed under Bailey Paul, Fiction

More Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

German Literature month co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy continues, and after getting annoyed about one part of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, here’s a post regarding a wonderful quote. This passage is spoken by Ottilie–a veritable saint of a girl. In the novel, Ottilie leaves boarding school and comes to live with her guardian, Charlotte and Charlotte’s husband, Eduard. Charlotte and Eduard are middle-aged and this is the second marriage for each of them as they were both ‘strongly encouraged’ to marry others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who conveniently died. Charlotte also married, and after she was left a widow, she and Eduard finally married. A dream come true? Well it didn’t last long, and after Ottilie enters the picture, Eduard falls in love with Ottilie. Not only does this shatter any notion of domestic happiness Eduard  shared with Charlotte, but the situation also creates no small amount of awkwardness.

Anyway, according to the intro, Goethe married his long-time lover Christiane Vulpius in 1806 after living together for over 18 years. Goethe was 57, Christiane was 41, and they had 5 children together. Why did Goethe marry Christiane at this point? Translator R.J. Hollingdale argues that the marriage was generated by “new affection” for Christiane. She had bravely faced off marauding French soldiers after the battle of Jena. Goethe’s house was invaded, and Goethe was “saved from a manhandling” only by the efforts of Christiane. 5 days later Goethe married her.

Is this a happy ending?

During the winter of 1807-8, Hollingdale tells us that Goethe fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, Minna Herzlieb. This resulted in a contest of duelling poets: Goethe vs. Zacharias Werner, another poet who also loved Minna. Elective Affinities was published in 1809, and since it features an older married man who falls head-over-heels in love with a teenager, well it’s not difficult to see auto-biographical elements in the novel. And perhaps this explains why Goethe’s characterisation of Ottilie is idealised. So idealised, in fact, that at one point she ‘stars’ as the Virgin Mary–glowing face an’ all–in a tableaux designed for entertainment.

So here’s Ottilie, offered to us as an impossibly saintly young woman, wise beyond her years, industrious, graceful, kind, sweet, and yet also still living with Eduard (well he’s packed his bags and left at this point) and Charlotte–whose marriage is now wrecked. This is one of her journal entries written partly as a result of Charlotte’s decision to ‘improve’ the churchyard and partly due to an evening spent with an architect:

There are many kinds of memorial and memento which bring us closer to those who are far away and those who have departed, but none is more meaningful than the portrait. There is something exciting about being with a much-loved portrait, even if it is not a good likeness, just as there is sometimes something exciting about arguing with a friend. You have the pleasant feeling that you are divided, and yet can never be separated.

Sometimes you are with a real person in the same way as you are with a portrait. He does not have to speak, or look at you, or concern himself with you at all: you see him and feel what he means to you, indeed he can even come to mean more to you, without his doing anything about it, without his realizing in any way that his relationship with you is merely that of a portrait.

You are never satisfied with a portrait of people you know; which is why I have always felt sorry for portrait painters. You rarely ask the impossible, but that is what you ask of them. They are supposed to incorporate into their portrait everyone’s feelings towards the subject, everyone’s likes and dislikes; they are supposed to show, not merely how they see a particular person, but how everyone would see him. I am not surprised when such artists gradually grow insensitive, indifferent and self-willed. This would itself be a matter of indifference if it did not mean one would have to go without the likenesses of so many dearly-loved people.

It is indeed true: the architect’s collection of weapons and ancient utensils, which were, together with the body, covered with great mounds of earth and rock, testifies to us how vain is man’s provision for his personality after death. And how inconsistent we are! The architect admits he has himself opened these graves of our ancestors, and yet he continues to occupy himself with monuments for our prosperity.

But why take it all so seriously?Is everything we do done for eternity? Do we not dress in the morning so as to undress again at night? Do we not travel in order to return? And why should we not wish to repose beside our own people, even if it is only for a hundred years?

When you see all the gravestones which have sunk down and been worn away by the feet of the churchgoers, and even that the churches themselves have collapsed over their own tombs, you can still think of life after death as a second life, which you enter into as a portrait or an inscription, and in which you remain longer than you do in your actual living life. But sooner or later this portrait, this second existence, is also extinguished. And over men, so over memorials time will not let itself be deprived of its rights.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Goethe