Tag Archives: New York Review Books

Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

Novels about combat in WWI seem to have commonalities (trenches, lice, endless shell bombardment, and various body parts strewn across the ground). And, of course, there’s always the sense of terrible waste. Hans Herbert Grimm’s (1896-1950) novel, Schlump contains many of the usual WWI scenes we’ve come to expect, and its 17-year-old protagonist, who’s later called a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ while on his first leave back home, goes off to war, like many young men, with absolutely no idea of the horrors that await him.

He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded . Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end.

Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this.

Of course, Schlump enlists and at first he gets lucky. Training camp is “great fun,” and after that, Schlump’s ability to speak French lands him office work, and so at age 17 he is “responsible for the administration of three villages.” Men march in and men march out, and all the time, Schlump is “glad not to have been with them.” But of course, Schlump’s good luck can’t last forever, and eventually he ends up at the front lines.

schlump

Schlump is an interesting fictional character, and we immediately get that sense from his name alone. No hero would have that name, and while Schlump is not an anti-hero, rather he’s an observer, a participant by default and a largely optimistic fellow in spite of all the death that surrounds him. Over time and with horrendous experiences, he “had become smarter.” Yet in spite of everything there’s still an innocence about him, and a moment comes when he decides he must “distinguish himself.

During the course of the novel, Schlump is wounded and manages to get home on leave, and each subsequent leave reveals the deteriorating situation at home. At one point his mother starves herself beforehand so that there’s bread for Schlump when he returns. There are many memorable scenes here: the collecting of unexploded shells “because raw iron was needed back in Germany. The men were promised seven pfennigs for each piece,” and although the German soldiers risk their lives to collect these shells, they are never paid for their troubles. In another scene emblematic of the dearth of military strategy, an officer comes up with the plan to “bring back a British soldier, dead or alive, from the enemy trenches,” and Schlump goes along with another  German soldier to complete this mission.

In one quote, Grimm accentuates that enemies in life are levelled by that great denominator: death

Here lay a multitude of corpses–Germans and British, all mixed together. At one point they’d collected in a heap, as if in death they were trying to warm themselves. All were lying on their stomachs, heads turned to the side, revealing their greenish faces, teeth glinting faintly between pairs of black lips. Rifles, gas mask s everything in a muddle, soaked in blood and more blood.

My NYRB edition states, in the introduction, that Grimm met with East German authorities in 1950 and two days later committed suicide. I’ve been watching The Weissensee Saga on television, a wonderful series set in East Germany, so I have my ideas about what Grimm’s meeting was about and why he opted to commit suicide. Schlump was not a literary success. It’s not first-rate literature and the novel competed against All Quiet on the Western Front which was published around the same time. All Quiet on the Western Front is a seminal WWI novel, a book that can potentially profoundly impact the reader. Schlump doesn’t have that power, and yet it’s still disturbing, still manages to get under the skin.

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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Filed under Fiction, Grimm Hans Herbert

Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

loving

The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Green Henry

Back: Henry Green (1946)

“Have women gotten hold of you, Summers? Is that it?”

In Henry Green’s novel, Back, Charley Summers returns to England after years in a POW camp. It’s a rough homecoming as Charley is minus a leg and Rose, the woman he loved, died in his absence. Rose gave birth to a son while Charley was gone, and he’s half convinced the boy is his. One of the first things Charley, who is damaged and lost, does is visit the cemetery where Rose is buried, but there he bumps into her husband James, and this is the first of many unexpected twists in this ultimately optimistic gentle comedy of errors.

back

Charley seeks out Rose’s parents, the Grants, but it’s a strange welcome as Mrs. Grant, who appears to suffer from Alzheimer’s initially thinks Charley is her long-dead brother John, but then she realises the visitor isn’t John:

“What are you doing here?” Mrs. Grant demanded, looking at Charley between her fingers and cringing.

“He’s here to take a cup of tea with us, dear,” the husband said. This time he glared. She did not notice because she never took her eyes off Charley.

“I don’t like it,” she muttered.

“I’m very sorry,” Charley Summers said to Mr. Grant.

“Just pay no attention,” this man replied. But it was not as easy as all that. for Mrs. Grant took control by throwing herself back into the sofa to thrust her head into one of its soft corners, from which she began to shriek, muffled by upholstery.

In confidence, Mr. Grant tells Charley he has a “surprise” for him and gives him a London address, telling him to visit the woman who lives there, Nancy Whitmore, a young war widow. Charley isn’t interested in what he suspects to be a matchmaking attempt but circumstances lead him to the woman’s address and there he finds the widow who appears to be Rose’s “living image.” While Nancy denies she’s Rose, Charley isn’t convinced and he decides instead that Nancy/Rose is a prostitute, the ‘widow’ handle is a fiction, that she’s possibly a bigamist who’s run away from her husband and her child, and that it’s his job to ‘save’ her. In reality, it’s Charley who needs to be ‘saved.’

Gradually, the great love story that we first think existed between Rose and Charley vaporizes. What’s left is an image of Rose, full of life, and having a fling with Charley even as she wrapped him around her finger.

Throughout the story, Charley, one of those marvellously unworldy characters, floats through his life either clueless or labouring under misunderstandings. He thinks Rose was the love of his life, he thinks the child she had might be his, he invites his secretary, a woman he’s not attracted to, to the country for a weekend without really meaning to. In contrast, he’s surrounded by people who are savvy and even conniving. Take Rose’s husband, the widowed fat James who runs rings around Charley. Then there’s Charley’s landlady Mrs Frazier, what is she really after? And then there’s  the ubiquitous Middlewitch, an indefatigable Lothario whose “love life defied description,”  in spite of (or even aided by) a”chromium plated arm.” Middlewitch is turning tales of his war experiences into amorous opportunities, and here he is discoursing about women:

“Extraordinary meeting you like this,” Mr. Middlewitch replied. “No, it’s curiosity,” he went on, “they’re the same as cats, when you scratch with your finger under the newspaper, which have to come and see what you’re about. They’re like this. They know you’ve lived the most unnatural damned life through no fault of your own for years, so want to get under your skin. Because it wasn’t only Yvonne. Practically every girl I know had a go at me. Turned it to very good advantage, too, I did, on more than once occasion, I can tell you.”

The greatness of this novel can be found in its comic timing which mostly resides in Charley’s innocence. Conversations take place without Charley really understanding what is going on, sometimes he’s talking at cross-purposes or else he’s missing a beat. Many of the characters have vague, fuzzy connections (Mrs’ Frazier’s relationship to Mr. Grant, for example) and in Charley’s mind, a great conspiracy emerges, and at one point, he wonders if it’s a case of “white slave trading.”

This is my first, but it won’t be my last, Henry Green novel; I’m currently reading Loving. Back is highly recommended especially if you enjoyed  A Month in the CountryWhile in Back the war is still waging, it’s mostly in the background here (there’s one wonderful scene where the sky is full of planes “drone after drone” flying to Germany) and the emphasis instead is on optimism: healing, surviving and moving on.

“Yes,” he said, “we all of us came back to what we didn’t expect. There’s a number of people dropped out in everyone’s lives. I’m not sure but they do seem a long time over our soup.”

review copy

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His Only Son: Leopoldo Alas

Miserable marriages exist both in real life and in fiction, but with fictional miserable marriages, readers have the opportunity to chuckle at the domestic enslavement of others. The author, Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901) in this case, presents just the right blend of unhappiness and characters who either asked for it or who juggle their marital discord with some sort of coping mechanism.

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Emma Valcárcel, we are told, is a “spoiled only child,” who at age 15 kidnaps her father’s handsome, poor, and stupid clerk, Bonifacio Reyes, and strong arms him into an elopement. Emma ends up in a convent, and Bonifacio, in Mexico, tries “earning his living as the rather inept editor of a newspaper, whose main purpose was to insult others.”  In time, Emma, a wealthy heiress, and with her Uncle Juan Nepomuceno as her guardian, marries a sickly older man, and is a widow within a year. Emma, who rules the Valcárcel family like some sort of benevolent despot, arranges for Bonifacio to be given a job that will bring him back into her orbit. The plan works and they are married.

It’s not a happy marriage, and Emma turns to her family for adoration (most of her male relatives are infatuated with her–but her fortune may have something to do with that). Bonifacio, finding a flute that belonged to Emma’s father, learns how to play. Since Bonifacio is a handsome man, Emma delights in dressing him up in expensive clothes, and showing him off on social occasions, but he never has any money of his own.

Following a miscarriage, Emma’s health and temperament, are in decline, and Bonifacio, who tries to pursue a separate life through the more bohemian crew at the local opera house, becomes a nursemaid/slave to Emma’s petulant demands for massages given with various lotions. She “despised her husband more with each day that passed, considering him useful only as a handsome physical presence,” and “telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation.”

His willingness to submit to all the intimate tasks of the bedroom, to his patient’s many complicated whims, to the sad, tender voluptuousness of convalescence, seemed to Bonifacio viewed from outside, not the natural aptitude of some saintly, fussy hermaphrodite but the romantic excesses of a Quixotic love applied to the minutiae of married life.

Juggling Emma’s tyrannical demands for domestic servitude, Bonafacio begins an affair with a third rate opera singer Serafina, even as he is slowly bled for money by her other lover, Mochi, the opera company impressario and lead tenor. Since Bonafacio has no money of his own, he turns to Emma’s uncle for a loan.

The book’s introduction, written by translator Margaret Jull Costa, mentions that one of the criticisms of Leopoldo Alas’s best known work, La Regenta, is that  “Alas had stolen the plot of Madame Bovary.” That being the case, then of course, it becomes significant that the dominant female character of His Only Son is named Emma. While Madame Bovary’s doom was driven by debt, Emma Valcárcel also has problems with money management.

Her one talent was for spending money. Kindly Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma’s legal guardian and now her administrator, would happily have shooed away all the flies–in the form of her relatives–who buzzed around the rather shrunken honeycomb of her inheritance, but this simply wasn’t practicable because his niece had grown so fond of all the members of the Valcárcel family, past, present, and future, that she demanded they be treated with the utmost generosity.

Emma knows that her uncle is ripping off her estate, but she doesn’t care. She glories in it. While Emma Bovary had romantic ideals that led to her destruction, Emma Valcárcel romanticizes the portraits of her deceased ancestors.

No wonder His Only Son was banned. The novel portrays a hypocritical society rife with adultery and corruption. After Emma’s father’s death, it was discovered that he left behind “a whole tribe of bastard children,” and that “the lawyer’s chastity had not been quite as perfect as everyone thought; his real virtue had consisted largely in prudence and stealth.”  

Even though this tale of adultery and money-grubbing has all the earmarks of tragedy, Alas turns his scenes into domestic farce. While adultery has drastic results in Madame Bovary, here adultery acts as an aphrodisiac in Bonifacio’s marriage. The women in His Only Son are very strong characters with the men weak and led by the nose, but it’s still the men who somehow or another have the power.

The excellent introduction explores the subversive nature of His Only Son, and the way the novel exemplifies the “clash between romanticism and realism.” It’s in this clash between the two schools of thought–Romanticism and Realism, that most of the novel’s humour is to be found. This New York Review Books edition also includes the novella Dona Berta.

Review copy

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Filed under Alas Leopoldo, Fiction

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
Review copy

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Filed under Babitz Eve, Non Fiction

Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum (1929)

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

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

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

grand hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another review from The Bookbinder’s Daughter

Review copy.

Translated by Basil Creighton. Revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo.

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Filed under Baum Vicki, Fiction

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

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

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

memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Young Once: Patrick Modiano

“Something-he wondered later is it was simply his youth-something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.”

Recently I read Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, the story of a young man whose life in Paris is being uprooted for mysterious, possibly illegal reasons when he meets a driftless young woman. It’s a strange, timeless story, told, obviously, in retrospect by a much older man who is looking back on a brief, yet memorable period in his youth. That same description could apply to Young Once, a story which opens with Odile and Louis living in Switzerland, facing their 35th birthdays, and about to make a career shift–modifying their residence from a children’s camp to a sort of tea shop for tourists. They sound like a young couple who’ve done well for themselves, and then we’re back in the past.

Louis is in the army when he meets Brossier, a much older man in a Saint-Lô bar. There’s something not quite ‘right’ about Brossier who claims he “worked ‘in cars.’ He even ran a garage in Paris.” Is he just a shady salesman or is he a criminal? He takes an extraordinary interest in Louis, and once Louis’s stint in the army is over, Brossier finds him a hotel, foots the bill and even buys him a pair of new civilian shoes. Brossier tell Louis he “would introduce him-as he had promised-to ‘important friend of mine who will give you a job.'”

young once

Odile is just 19 and alone in Paris when she meets Bellune, a fascinating, sophisticated man in his 50s, who says he’ll help her with her recording career. He scouts out amateur talent for a record company, and he’s convinced that Odile can become a singer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he convinces Odile she can become a singer. He funds the making of a flexidisc, but Odile soon finds that becoming a singer isn’t a smooth road.

Of course, Odile and Louis meet and become a couple. Louis has a job as some sort of ‘security guard,’ but just what he’s guarding isn’t clear, but as he becomes increasingly trusted by his strange employer, Roland de Bejardy, Louis assumes much more dangerous work. Meanwhile Odile has a tenuous gig in a nightclub.

There are some commonalties between After the Circus and Young Once. Both stories are about youthful main characters who don’t understand a great deal of the world that swirls around them. In Young Once, Odile doesn’t quite ‘get’ the nuances of her employment, and Louis, although warned increasingly about Roland de Bejardy, doesn’t ‘get’ just how crooked his employment is. Both novels also maintain an overriding disconnect from the characters, so we never know exactly what it going on in their heads–although Modiano conveys a sort of dreary disappointment when Odile collects a paycheck.

Nothing was left of the dream she had chased for so long except for an envelope, in which they had slipped her “the rest of your fee,” as the manager said.

There are several distinct worlds created in this book. Brossier, for example, is attempting to return to his youth by hanging out with his much younger girlfriend on a university campus, and at another point, Odile and Louis assume the roles of students attending a language course in England. We see glimpses of Roland de Bejardy’s world–some through interactions with his disaffected girlfriend and other views from those who know de Bejardy and warn Louis to move on while there’s still time.

I liked Young Once but didn’t love it, and this I think comes from the deliberate distance Modiano creates between us and his characters. Louis and Odile’s naïveté simultaneously makes them vulnerable and yet also acts as a protective seal. This young couple prove useful in the world of the older, the more sophisticated and powerful, and Modiano skillfully creates an atmosphere of imminent chaos while showing how Louis and Odile don’t understand the risks they are exposed to. The sense of emotional distancing is also apparent between the characters and their own lives. At one point, for example, Bellune describes the squashing of his music career “indifferently, as though it had happened to someone else,” and there’s the sense that de Bejardy’s  high-maintenance girlfriend would be with any man who could provide her with the lifestyle she desires.

I’m interested, very interested in Modiano’s characters, but we never get inside them. They remain remote. Perhaps this distance mirrors the distance all of us have between our youthful selves and our middle aged selves. This is a story about youthful dreams, innocence and naiveté and once those things are lost, it’s hard to recall how we used to see the world. If it’s Modiano’s goal to recreate that haunting sensation of lost youth, then that is achieved.

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Translated by Damion Searls

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”

I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game.  Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.

Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.

Black wings has my angel NYRB

Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp,  Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.

As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her. 

As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.

For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My MistressShe is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”

Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:

She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian , still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.

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My Marriage: Jakob Wassermann

“It was the age of paste diamonds and shallow minds.”

I don’t think you can beat California when it comes to divorce laws. This is a no-fault, community property state, and that boils down to the two basic elements: if one party wants a divorce and the other doesn’t, tough, it’s sayonara. And no one really cares whose fault it is; it’s 50/50 baby.

Now why do I preface a review of a German novel in translation, published in 1934, from the fabulous NYRB with a comment about California’s divorce laws? Well I’ll get back to that later.

My Marriage from Jakob Wasserman is a novel about a writer, Alexander Hertzog, who, in his late 20s, marries Ganna, a young heiress. Fast forward to three children, the dowry spent, countless affairs, and Hertzog, now further in his career, falls in love with another woman, wants a divorce, and guess what … Ganna doesn’t roll over and give him what he wants.

My Marriage

Hertzog, our narrator, is a penniless young writer, one meal away from starvation when he’s introduced to Ganna–one of six daughters, “the ugly duckling among five swans,” and the one who’s also “hard to manage.” Now in hindsight, Hertzog draws the warning signs in the sand of a determined young woman who may not be the most stable female on the planet. Ganna is obsessive, willful and, apparently, worships Hertzog. Determined to get him for a husband, she pursues him and talks him into it. There’s a bit of waffling here, but it’s easy to see that Hertzog is swayed by the money and persuades himself that Ganna, who is starstruck by Hertzog’s talent, will make a good wife.

Should I have shut myself away, should I have remained aloof and said: begone, there is no room for you in my life? There was room. Of course, the fact that I saw and sensed her the way I did in my self-sacrificial compassion, this single pregnant moment that bore the seed of thirty years-that was also in part Ganna’s doing, her over-powerful will, her dazzling sorcery. But I wasn’t to know that back then.

Hertzog does a lot of bitching about Ganna. There’s never really a honeymoon period that palls and segues into disillusionment; he’s always at the “mercy of her drives.” One of his complaints is that Ganna has the bad manners to discuss his extramarital affairs in public.

My senses too were aflame. Ravenous appetite alternated with satiety. No woman was enough for me; none gave me what I was dimly seeking: a sense of who I was, some final easement of the blood. I went from one to another, and it was often as though I had to break them open like a husk of shell with unknown contents, peeling them like a fruit which I then discarded.

Hertzog has basic problems with Ganna right from the start; she’s emotionally needy, manipulative and prone to hysteria, and surprise surprise, some of the problems are over money. It’s been drilled into Ganna to live off the interest of her 80,000 crowns, and not touch the capital, but Hertzog finds that idea rather grubby.

What was it all for, I would ask myself periodically, to be living like an outlaw? A bank account, I thought is obviously intended to be a type of conserve, like foie gras; not something anyone eat fresh.

As I read My Marriage, I kept thinking about von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs; it’s an account of one man’s search for the ideal harsh mistress (and his fantasy was to have a woman treat him like crap until he decided it was time for the game to stop. Logical fallacy…who’s really in charge?) If you read it, you also have to read his wife’s version of events, The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch –contrasting the two is hilarious. My Marriage is a diatribe from the fictional Hertzog about his wife, but the events in the book mirror Wasserman’s life. As noted in the afterword, “as anyone reading it then or now can tell instantly, Ganna (or now) My Marriage is the true account of Jakob Wassermann’s marriage to Julie Speyer of Vienna.” Ganna (aka Julie Speyer) had her say in Psyche Bleeds (Julie Speyer’s novel was The Living Heart: Novel of a Marriage,) and according to Hertzog, aka Wassermann, it’s wasn’t pretty.

It’s impossible to determine the dynamics of another’s marriage, and that brings me back to the ‘no fault’ divorce. With a divorce in which one party must prove ‘wrong,’ who can really tell (unless, let’s say for example, in a case of abuse) where the first misstep took place? And a no-fault divorce doesn’t allow one party to hang on the other spouse just out of spite or revenge.

Poor Hertzog seemed to forget that marriage is a legally binding contract, so we see him complaining how Ganna wants him to provide dowries for his two daughters while also providing for her in perpetuity.

The Kraal’s imperative was: provide for your brood, man; first and foremost your brood, we don’t give a hoot about what happens to you; let the deserter work himself to the bone; let him fail and come to his senses; let him and his mistress fail ever to free themselves from the shackles.

In the aftermath of the separation, Ganna, now with her dowry gone, tries to create an income stream for herself, but fails, only generating a mountain of bills which she expects Hertzog to pay. Hertzog seems to see this as another attempt to drain him dry, and it’s likely that just how reasonable and unreasonable these two parties are, will cause some division of opinion amongst readers. While it’s easy to have a lot of sympathy for a man who wishes to sever ties with a woman he can’t stand, it’s not so easy to have sympathy for a man who wishes to step away from his obligations and start with a clean slate.

This is a very emotionally involving book, and I found myself, at several points, wanting to slap the pair of them. There’s a dynamic between Hertzog and Ganna which becomes increasingly pathological as the distance between the pair grows. Neither one knows when to stop, and as Ganna grows increasingly desperate, Hertzog inadvertently feeds her desire to be involved in his life. Hertzog is so passive, he creates his own fate, and Ganna, who “had something of a sorceress about her,” won’t release Hertzog from her possession.

It’s all very sad. Is Ganna as unbalanced as Hertzog claims? If so, is he responsible for this? After all this was a young woman raised in privilege, trained for marriage, who suddenly found herself, in middle age, penniless and cast adrift. Is Wasserman motivated by guilt when he responds to Ganna’s repeated annoying requests? By the end of the book, the sympathy see-saw wobbles back and forth.

I first heard of this book through Tom’s blog, so thanks for the recommendation. This book would be great material for book clubs, for it’s certain to generate some lively conversations.

Translated by Michael Hofmann

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