Tag Archives: New York Review Books

No Room at the Morgue: Jean-Patrick Manchette

“I was fucking sick and tired of being taken for a ride.”

Disgraced ex-cop Eugene Tarpon turned private eye has hit rock bottom. There’s no business, bills are due and Tarpon drinks to forget his woes. He’s about to pack in this latest stage of his failed life and move back home with his mother when a beautiful woman arrives asking for help. Memphis Charles, and no that’s not her real name, is covered with blood. She says her roommate Griselda has been murdered, her throat slit, and instead of calling the police, she asks Tarpon for help. But Tarpon, smelling a rat tells Memphis to leave him alone and call the cops:

If there was a murder, or suicide, or who knows what, you’ve got to call the police, that’s all there is to it. You don’t go running to a private investigator. Not in real life. And then, in real life, a private investigator deals with divorce, store security and, when he has more prestige than I do, industrial spying. Not violent death.

But Memphis, who is apparently a rather resourceful woman, knocks Tarpon unconscious and disappears…

Not a good start.

No room at the morgue

Soon Tarpon is buried up to his neck in a mess which involves Griselda, aka Louise, a murdered porn star, whose resume includes such classics as Forbidden Caresses and The Desires of the Tartars. Thrown into the investigative mix are bombs, drugs, organized crime, pissed-off policemen and even some anarchists who might as well be escapees from The Big Lebowski. As Tarpon digs deeper into Griselda’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of Memphis Charles, the case grows murkier and murkier. The cops investigating the case have no respect for Tarpon as his past doesn’t reflect well on their profession:

“There are two kinds of private detectives,” said Coccoli. “Ex-cops and ex-cons. And sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Judging by their actions.”

No Room at the Morgue contains a dash of humour which is created by Tarpon’s attitude to life and danger. As characters insert themselves into the investigation, it becomes clear that several parties are involved in the hunt for Memphis Charles, and all of these people think that Tarpon knows more than he does. So for a great part of the novel, he’s followed, beaten up, threatened and kidnapped. Tarpon doesn’t exactly have clues but he just picks up whatever trails open up before him, and he employs recklessness as a tactic.

I heard a car start up behind me and follow me slowly. The engine was old. If that was the tail they were sticking on me, it lacked discretion. But the vehicle ended up passing me a little before Alésia and pulled over near the curb, about ten meters in front of me, and the door opened halfway. I headed straight toward it. That’s how you get killed in the movies.

Movies vs real life is a sub-theme in the book, and it’s a sub-theme accentuated by the characters who swarm over Tarpon’s life. The book’s humour makes it different from the other novels I’ve read from this author: The Mad and The Bad, Fatale, The ProneGunman, 3 To Kill. These 4 noir novels are much darker, however, all 5 are shadowed with political elements.

Tarpon is a character we want to hang with; he’s cynical yet that darkness is alleviated by a wry humour. He’s done bad things, he’s made terrible mistakes, and he’s “broken by alcohol and regrets.” This first Tarpon novel introduces a character who is salvageable–a man whose principles and recklessness make him an anchor for the cases he has in his grubby future. Let’s hope that the publication of this book means that NYRB will publish more.

Great title, great cover.

Review copy

Translated by Alyson Waters

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Manchette Jean-Patrick

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives: Diane Johnson

I’d never heard anything about Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821-61) before I picked up Diane Johnson’s book, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. If you’d described the book to me, I probably would have rejected it as there are aspects to this history that would normally drive me crazy.  But the book, which is described as an “alternate biography”  and includes hypothetical and occasional filling in of gaps, is quite extraordinary. The author argues, and proves, that while Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith existed as an aside in other, more famous, peoples’ lives she had a rich and historically ignored life of her own.

The life of Mary Ellen is always treated, in a paragraph or a page, as an episode in the lives of Peacock or Meredith. It was treated with a certain reserve in the early biographies because it involves adultery and recrimination, and makes all the parties look ugly. More recent biographies of Meredith repeat the received version of the story with a brisk determination, a kind of feigned acceptance: we know that these things, regrettably, do indeed happen. 

Mrs. Meredith’s life can be looked upon, of course, as an episode in the lives of Meredith or Peacock, but it cannot have seemed that way to her. 

Mary Ellen was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, married and widowed within a brief period of time, and then she met George Meredith who was 7 years younger. And what a miserable old sod Meredith sounds like. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Mary Ellen took a lover and ditched her neglectful spouse, but there was no happy ending for Mary, and who could have expected it in the 19th century.

Mrs Meredith

Mary Ellen’s first husband was Edwards Nicholls, “the wild, sexy son of a general of the Royal Marines,” and they were married, happily by all accounts, for a few “glorious months,” before he drowned trying to rescue a friend. Mary Ellen, 23 years old, returned home to her father, a pregnant widow. Four years later, she met George Meredith, “a brooding neurasthenic fussy about his food, obsessed with achieving literary success, and hardly ever wanting to leave the house.” They were “together” for 8 years.

After running off with her lover, Mary Ellen died of kidney disease in 1861. Convenient for many perhaps and thus she sank into history. Yet author Diane Johnson shows that Meredith, who used a flexible version of the truth whenever he recalled his former wife, never really recovered from the relationship–continually working her character, “drawn from his evergreen memories,” into various forms in his novels. 

He had never ceased to brood over her–her presence is invoked in novel after novel.

The book opens, after an excellent introduction from Vivian Gornick, with Mary Ellen’s poorly attended funeral. It’s a somewhat fanciful beginning with some details that surely must be speculative (the young vicar is embarrassed, for example) but instead of being annoyed, as I usually am by such fancies, I was drawn into the misty story of Mary Ellen, a woman whose short life wasn’t much fun, who struggled with poverty and abandonment and was haunted by the knowledge of an imminent early death.

Snippets of Mary Ellen’s childhood underscore her somewhat unconventional upbringing thanks to her “too-indulgent” father. Literary figures dot Mary Ellen’s life: James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. These details hint at the inevitable rebellion of Mary Ellen when faced with the loneliness of a drab marriage, so it’s no great surprise that she fell in love with pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Wallis, But Mary Ellen may have been born in the Romantic Age, but she was married in the Victorian Age, and Victorian attitudes to scandal buried her story.  Her poignant letters and notebooks reveal the realities of her married life to Meredith coupled with details of a troubled, rich inner life. Since Meredith lived to a ripe old age while the long-deceased Mary Ellen faded into obscurity, Meredith controlled both the narrative of his dead wife’s character and also the narrative of their life together. And the truth? Meredith kneaded the truth into an acceptable narrative even hinting that he had been trapped into marriage by Mary Ellen when certainly her literary connections gilded the deal. 

Somewhere, in some British parlor, she looks out of a painting called Fireside Reveries, and the people who see her every day may wonder–or perhaps it never occurred to them to wonder–whether the lady over the mantel was ever anyone real. 

review copy

2 Comments

Filed under Johnson Diane, Non Fiction

Diary of a Foreigner in Paris: Curzio Malaparte

“How kind France is when it is noble.”

Malaparte, a play on the name Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but later fell foul of the Mussolini regime and was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. Malaparte certainly got around. In The Skin, Curzio Malaparte, as a liaison officer with the American forces, takes a look at the ugliness of Naples in 1942. In The Kremlin Ball, Malaparte is in 1929 Stalinist Russia.

Both The Skin and The Kremlin Ball echo a thought that rolls in frequently: amazing eye witness accounts cannot be exchanged for history books, and then comes a second thought: while all these things happened in incredible times, I’m glad I didn’t live through them.

diary of a foreigner in paris

Diary of a Foreigner in Paris finds Malaparte in the City of Light, but since it’s 1947, Paris is a changed place. In 1933, Malaparte left Paris and returned to Italy where he was arrested and imprisoned. After a stint in the Regina Coeli prison, he was sent to the island of Lipari. Malaparte recalls that although he had many friends, it was only his French friends who “defended” him. So Malaparte, who enlisted in the French army at age 16, and whose mother was French returns in 1947 to a country he knows well and loves. He considers himself not to be a “foreigner in France,” but France has changed.

There are some famous people in these pages: Rossellini, Jean Cocteau, Camus, Henry Muller, François Mauriac. At a dinner party, Malaparte feels uncomfortable and senses “a hint of animosity, of repulsion, of dislike.”

Everyone looks at me as if I were not only a foreigner but an uninvited guest.

An icebreaker comes from Henry Muller who tries to smooth things over:

recalling my years in Paris, my time in prison. François Mauriac interrupts him to say that many people in France suffered a great deal in prison as well, that it’s rare to find a Frenchman who hasn’t been in prison, etc.

Malaparte thinks “it’s not my fault if Mussolini declared war on France, if he behaved badly toward France. I think that certain foreigners who came to Rome before the war to pay homage to Mussolini are rather more responsible than the Italians who had no choice.” So hardly a warm welcome for Malaparte.

Malaparte is, at least for this reader, somewhat disingenuous since he supported Italian fascism, fought as a fascist soldier and praised the Wehrmacht at least initially–even if he fell foul of Mussolini later. Yes he was exiled and imprisoned, but the introduction from Edmund White explains that Malaparte is a “mythomane” and that he was “under house arrest in his luxurious villa in Capri and several times imprisoned for short stays in Regina Coeli in Rome, he claimed  for his assiduous anti fascism.” (In reality, he “siphoned off public funds” and remained an avid supporter of Italian fascism.) Mussolini’s son in law personally intervened for Malaparte’s freedom from exile to Lipari.

With WWII still close in the rear view mirror, other intellectuals find it hard to mingle with Malaparte, and it’s easy to see why.

Time passes, to be sure. Oh, does time pass. No one is still Catholic in 1947 the way one was in 1933. Then one was Catholic in a freer, more personal way. Today it’s more political. 

This is an interesting, somewhat fragmentary read. It’s more impressionistic than The Kremlin Ball and The Skin, and more philosophical (even if his sometimes twisted thinking is bizarre).  For example, at one point, he outrageously argues that “Gide is the high priest of a religion whose sacrificial altars are at Dachau.” Malaparte tries to make sense of what he interprets as general, wide changes in France and in the French. Of course, there’s never any personal responsibility here, any acknowledgement. At one point he’s asked why he didn’t desert, and decides that the criticism directed towards him is “amusing.” According to Malaparte “there’s no longer any sense of humour in Europe.” So WWII and the Nazis sucked a lot of ‘fun’ out of the world; Malaparte’s comment is tactless at best. 

Collaboration was born from the sense of feeling like a winner alongside the Germans. And I wonder why those in the Resistance, why I myself, don’t feel like winners alongside the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians. What is so indigestible for us Europeans about the Russian and Anglo-Saxon victory?

Mythomane and fabulist–this is a study in a very particular personality with Malaparte revealing more about himself than he ever imagined.  For this reader, while this book is my least favourite of the three I’ve read, Malaparte, who obviously feels rather aggrieved by his lack of welcome, by is, above all, a wonderful stylist, and the very scene in which he throws up his hands and asks “what do they want of me?” shows, rather queasily, how slippery people argue their way out of anything. 

Review copy

Translated by Stephen Twilley

8 Comments

Filed under Malaparte Curzio, Non Fiction

Malicroix: Henri Bosco (1948)

Henri Bosco’s moody novel Malicroix, set in the nineteenth century, drops the reader right into the plot when the narrator, a 25-year-old man receives a letter informing him that he has been “left an inheritance: some marshland, a few livestock, a tumbled down house. ” So a modest legacy, but, Mégremut an orphan raised by his father’s relatives, is intrigued. The property was owned by his reclusive uncle, Cornélius de Malicroix, the Marquis de Malicroix. The young man’s father’s relatives, the “gentle and patient Mégremuts,” don’t want him to go, but he is drawn to the situation, partly by curiosity and partly by some aspect of his nature.

I felt myself to be a Mégremut when I was among them, for their gentleness is quite infectious. But, left to myself, I rebecame a Malicroix, with a sort of secret drunkenness and a strange fear. For this Malicroix, unknown to all, hidden within the blackest part of myself, seemed more alive than all the Mégremuts who inhabited me with ease. 

Cornélius de Malicroix’s notaire, a man called Maître Dromiols sends an “itinerary” and so Mégremut sets off to meet a coach at an “old signpost at the intersection of two poor tracks.” The scene reminded of Great Expectations when Pip meets the convict, Abel Magwitch. Not that the scenes are the same, but nonetheless, the bleakness and the loneliness of the landscape form a visual and emotional connection between the two books. 

Malicroix

By this point, the novel gains Gothic dimensions which continue as Mégremut travels to an island. There on the island, he takes up residence in his late uncle’s home, a house in which “everything was so clearly reduced to the soberest utility.” The house comes equipped with a laconic servant named Balandran and a large Briard, Bréquillet. Eventually Maître Dromiols, an unpleasant man, arrives accompanied by his strange, much abused servant, Uncle Rat. Dromiols then reads the terms of the will: Mégremut must stay in the house for three months. If this term is completed, then he will be given a letter with instructions for a “mission.” It’s all very mysterious and all very cryptic. 

It’s daunting to imagine living in this bleak area for three months, and initially Mégremut has no intention of doing so, but he gets the feeling that Dromiols wants him to fail. Mégremut, curious to discover why his uncle chose to live his life in this bleak place, decides to remain and discover the mystery at the heart of this Gothic novel of revenge and long standing blood feuds.

The novel, a slow, dense, rich read focuses on nature. There are some gorgeous descriptions here. The island is not a particularly habitable place–and that’s at the best of times. At worst, the island seems forbidding, dangerous and hostile. Nature is powerful, angry and violent. Which poses more danger for Mégremut? Nature or Man?

In the Camargue, the wind is drunk. It stamps, swirls, loses its head. Nothing can withstand its ravages. A bare land, pale water, and, on the horizon, the white-capped sea, bristling as it arrives from the distance. Everything succumbs to the law of the wind: water, plants, man, beasts. 

Translated by Joyce Zonana

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction

Marrow and Bone: Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a road trip novel rife with a sense of historic reckoning. The tale is set in 1988, West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Fabrizius, the centre of this story, is a middle-aged journalist, navigating a middling career. He doesn’t make enough to support himself, but he has an uncle, a furniture manufacturer, who supplements his income with a monthly allowance. Jonathan is a war orphan. His father was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast. As for his mother, following a horrendous, freezing journey from the Eastern front in a cart, she died in East Prussia after giving birth to Jonathan. This bare bones story provides Jonathan with his sense of identity, and while the history is murky and lacks details, it has provided a sort of heroic, romantic structure of his past.

As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.

Jonathan lives in a fabulous but decaying building which somehow managed to survive the bombing of WWII. His peculiar girlfriend, Ulla, who works part time at the municipal art gallery, also lives there. It would be a stretch to say that they live together, for while their rooms connect, they both block their room’s access with furniture. That’s a statement, so it’s probably more accurate to say they share things together: such as sex and outings. Ulla is fascinated by “depictions of cruelty in the visual arts,” so her “shelves were full of books showing all sorts of Inquisition torture” But she’s also interested in modern atrocities but “none of these terrible images left the slightest impression”on her.

Marrow and Bone

With Jonathan’s relationship with Ulla moving towards a termination (that he’s unaware of) he receives an invitation from the Santubara car maker. The company offers Jonathan a job, a trip to East Prussia. It’s a “test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest” car. Jonathan agrees and soon finds himself on a road trip accompanying diminutive harem-pant wearing Frau Anita Winkelvoss, and race car driver Hansi Strohtmeyer.

There’s humour in the Germans’ attitude towards Poland and the Polish. This ranges from amusing (Jonathan, Anita, and Hansi tend to make sweeping, unflattering generalizations) to queasy observations. 

She praised the fact that they’d been able to take a shower in this hotel without a problem and was astonished that all the Poles were so friendly. To us Germans! After what we did to them. A third of the population exterminated and all the towns and cities destroyed.

Along the way to their destination, the three Germans stop at various historic sites such as Danzig and Marienburg which “the Russians had used for target practice.” At one point several groups of Germans converge: the homeland association, and a delegation from Bremen, the “Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemberg Comprehensive there to see “what sort of fascist revanchism was being played out.” Touring the sites has awkward moments with the Polish tour guide leaving out “the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht.” It’s entirely possible that members of the homeland association “had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” At one point the German tourists see an exhibition of concentration camp drawings, and the “homeland association slunk past these,” while a teacher “perked up” and yet another tourist, who had been imprisoned in Dachau wants to move on. 

The book, with dark humour, examines how these Germans ‘deal’ with their history and “the business with the Jews.” Frau Winkelvoss has definitely moved on from “all that Jewish stuff,” and her ignorance shows. Another major theme is human suffering as spectacle. The characters here are removed from human suffering–it’s a thing of the past, history or even Art. 

In Stutthof they had a pleasant surprise, as Hansi Strohtmeyer put it: the concentration camp was shut. 

At one point the three travellers visit Hitler’s Bunker, and again, Jonathan, while the most informed of the three, seems to lack understanding of Hitler’s psychology. This is in many ways a book that deals with our ‘roots’ and confronting our personal and national mythologies and history, and for Jonathan, finally, the trip has an unexpected emotional impact. 

Review copy

Translated by Charlotte Collins

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

Abigail: Magda Szabó

“Once again, as so many times before, Gina had a sense of being trapped in the chilly, suffocation air inside a bell-jar.”

Madga Szabó’s brilliant novel, Abigail, is set during WWII. It’s Budapest, and life for 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, ‘Gina’, the daughter of a widowed General, has changed. Her beloved French governess has had to return to France, and Gina lives a fairly secluded life with visits to her somewhat unreliable, giddy, vain Aunt Mimó. Gina also has a simmering romance in the form of Lt. Feri Kuncz but since he’s not welcome in the General’s house, meetings take place at Aunt Mimó’s “afternoon teas.”

Gina is stunned when her father announces one day that she is to leave for a boarding school “in the provinces.”

In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn away from her familiar world.

It all happens so quickly and Gina imagines that an imminent stepmother is at the root cause of the upheaval. She’s allowed to say farewell to her aunt but not her friends or the staff. She is not to mention she’s leaving Budapest and Gina isn’t told where she’s going so her destination remains a secret. Gina is unhappy and peevish about her father’s decision which she sees as a betrayal and a rejection, but it’s clear to the reader that the General fears for his daughter’s safety, and as it turns out, his fears are very much warranted.

Gina’s father drives her to the distant Bishop Matula Academy for Girls which is located “almost on the Eastern border.” While the strict school is protestant, there’s the feel of a convent. The building is “like a fortress” with a barred entrance, and the girls must hand over their worldly possessions when they arrive. Soap, towels, a dressing gown, and even a toothbrush are deemed against “regulations.” 

Surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery would be of no interest to a good christian girl.

She is given the plain uniform, her hair is cut, arranged in plaits and tied with a black shoelace.

Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought and her breathing became a rapid pant.

The stricter the school, the more secrets the girls keep between themselves. At first Gina is generously welcomed by her fellow pupils, so at least she has companionship and friends, but she makes a terrible mistake which leads to her being ostracized.

But as the hours dragged by she began to panic. This was something she had not reckoned with: the terrifying self-discipline of the Matula. These girls were not like any other. They had been brought up in their own special world and trained to keep their silence. 

In this tight, oppressive atmosphere, the society between the girls is recreated marvelously. “Those who couldn’t keep up, or didn’t work, were sent away at the end of the year, never to set foot in the building again.” Under strict discipline, these teenage girls study hard and suppress most of their natural behaviour, but like all repressed behaviour it bubbles up, unable to be completely contained. According to tradition, a garden statue named Abigail assists the girls with their various troubles, so many of the girls take their sorrows to Abigail–the statue who leaves notes and and even passes along letters to some of the girls. The girls’ role model is the legendary Mitsi Horn who attended the school decades earlier and flouted the rules by wearing an engagement ring on her finger. Now widowed by WWI, and with her only son killed in action in WWII, she lives close by and occasionally hosts a group of girls.

Gina could easily imagine what Abigail’s friend the eighteen-year-old Mitsi Horn must have looked like in the days when she could still laugh so loudly it could be heard, they said, at the porter’s lodge.

Another great diversion for the girls is the relationship between some of the teachers. There’s definitely a love triangle afoot with handsome young Kalmár in love with Susanna but she seems to only have eyes for Kónig–a middle-aged bumbler whose kindness to Gina only generates contempt. There are disturbing incidents around town and even in the school which indicate there’s an active war resistance afoot. The General’s visits are few; at first Gina is hurt by what she sees as his abandonment but then after she tries to run away, her father is forced to take her into his confidence. Gina, who first saw the school as a punishment, realises it’s a sanctuary.

It’s only January but I can easily call this as one of the best books I will read this year. It’s that good. Gina is forced to grow up and make mature decisions that someone decades older would find difficult. Yes it’s a coming-of-age story, adventurous in parts, but it’s also a story of betrayal, of the value of self-discipline and incredible courage on some many levels. I’ve read 3 Szabó novels now: Abigail, Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is the best of the three IMO. It’s an amazing tale. 

Review copy

Translated by Len Rix

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Szabo Magda

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940):Iris Origo

Some books serve as incredible mirrors of history. These books have the power to create a range of emotions in the reader: disturbed, sad, horror.  I felt uncomfortable and disturbed by Curio Malaparte’s books The Skin and The Kremlin Ball. Teffi’s Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea was poignant rather than uncomfortable–a haunting read, and when I finished the book,  I found myself thinking about the many people she encountered on her epic journey.

Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940), also from New York Review Books, another mirror of a particular time, doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling, and neither is it haunting. Instead imagine an Anglo-American woman of considerable privilege, brought up in Italy, married to an Italian, living on a grand estate in Tuscany, who records events with intelligent, cool detachment and a growing sense of unease, as they occur in 1939-1940.

A chill in the air

The book opens with Iris Origo on a train “packed” full of squadristi–“the fascists della prima ora, those who belonged to the first squads of 1919.” The men are headed to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Fasci and also to hear a speech from the Duce. It’s a brilliant opening which shows fascism deeply embedded in society, ‘respectable’ fascists who look “good-natured, friendly and peace-loving. About 80% of them belong unmistakably to the working-class; the others look like small tradesmen or employees. Impossible not to like them; impossible too not to feel that Fascism was, in its beginning, a genuine revolutionary movement of the people.” 

The rumors of war are just that. Yes, there’s unrest in the world, and as events unfold, Origo takes particular note of the newspapers, again with that cool detachment she recognises shifts in attitudes. There’s a “sympathetic tone now adopted towards Russia,” which she intelligently realises “suggests that there may be some foundations in the persistent rumours of a German-Russian rapprochement.”

Although Mussolini makes speeches about arming the country, Origo expresses the thought that people are “entirely right in saying that Mussolini intends to avoid war,” and yet she speculates about “Mussolini’s capacity to act as a moderating influence on Hitler.” Meanwhile foreigners are expelled, foreign papers are not available, while “voluntary exodus” requires German subjects to move back to Germany and Italian subjects of Austrian origin to “move either to Germany or to other Italian provinces.”

Other restrictions kick in, there’s the last day that cars can be used, and on this day, the author visits old friends. The sale of coffee and tea is forbidden, and the English leave the country “except for a few very old ladies, who can’t move.” Still the general mood is that “it won’t come to a real war: the Duce will get is out of it somehow.” The diary notes how people manage, or fail to manage, the depression of anti-fascist neighbours, the mothers who worry that sons will be hauled off to fight. The war creeps closer and the mood darkens…

Iris Origo initially admired the Duce; her husband was, at one point, the president of the local fascist consorzi (landowners’ association). As the diary continues, we see the author’s attitude shift until she is galvanised into action, and that’s the story that continues in her book: War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-44. Sometimes book introductions are spoilers, and while the introduction, written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explains some of what happens in the book, it also explains who Iris Origo was, her connections, and her politics. I’d recommend reading it prior to starting the book.

Review copy

6 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Szabo Magda

The Kremlin Ball: Curzio Malaparte

“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”

Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening.  Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.

The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:

I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.

Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:

They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility. 

Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire. 

Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:

All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.

On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb,  the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:

What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of  tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.

Review copy

Translated by Jenny McPhee

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Malaparte Curzio

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1768-1800): Chateaubriand

I’d intended for a long time to read Chateaubriand’s (1768-1848) memoirs, and a new translation from New York Review Books sealed my resolve. But wait… at over 500 pages, this is only a section of his memoirs–the first of four parts, and there I was feeling all proud of myself.

The memoirs start with a 77 year old Chateaubriand writing a preface as he looks over his long life. He talks about being “forced” to sell his memoirs for financial reasons, and he even expresses the idea that he wishes they could be “suppressed.” I’m not an expert on French history, or Chateaubriand, so I can’t tell if his wish for his life to remain private is sincere. But whatever the truth is, these memoirs are a gift to the world. I’m not sure that I would have liked Chateaubriand if we’d met (he mentions at one point that he is “not much interested in wit; it is almost repugnant to me,”) but this man had an incredible life and fortunately kept detailed records of incredible events and journeys.

memoirs from beyond the grave

The memoirs begin somewhat heavily with a history of the aristocratic Chateaubriand family and their family estate at Combourg, Brittany. François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand was the last of ten children, and there’s the sensation as you read the memoirs that he fell into the cracks of family life. While Chateaubriand loved his mother dearly, his strongest relationship was with his sister Lucile. Chateaubriand’s father was a distant, morose figure, but Chateaubriand was a good son and loved his family very much.

Chateaubriand notes his sisters being married off, and loving long solitary walks in the countryside, he begins to feel the first inklings of wanderlust as the family disperses. But the Chateaubriand family have other plans for this tenth child, and he’s intended for a life in the church. Fortunately, his mother offers him a moment to reflect on his future, and instead of the church, Chateaubriand comes up with a “harebrained scheme” to travel to Canada or India. Chateaubriand’s father announces he’s dying, gives him a hundred louis, and basically tells him to get his act together.

The memoirs reach a turning point at this stage. Chateaubriand leaves Combourg and nothing is ever the same again. Of course, we know that the French revolution is on the horizon…

Chateaubriand recalls travels to America, the beginnings of the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, and finally exile in England. While Chateaubriand was a Royalist, he was also a realist and understood the political scene well:

Aristocracy has three successive stages: the age of superiority, the age of privilege, and the age of vanity. Once through with the first, it degenerates into the second, and dies out in the third.

At times the memoirs are not easy reading. Chateaubriand assumes he has an audience who knows what he is talking about. The sections are dated for the time he wrote them, and that adds to some of the confusion. He also mentions many people I’d never heard of (my fault not his) but when I tried to find out more information, there was very little available. The memoirs take flight, however, when Chateaubriand begins his amazing travels.

These memoirs really are an incredible read, so I’m glad that I finally got to them. There’s too much to detail, but the highlights for this reader are Chateaubriand’s brilliant observed moments such as when he visits the castle of Potsdam, the home of King Frederick the Great:

Only one thing held my attention: the hands of a clock stopped at the minute that Frederick expired. I was deceived by the stillness of the image. The hours never suspend their flight; it is not man who stops time, but time who stops man. In the end it matters little what part we have played in life. The brilliance or obscurity of our doctrines, our wealth or poverty, our joy or pain: these things have no effect on the measure of our days. Whether the hand moves around a golden face or a wooden one, whether the dial fills the bezel of a ring or the rose window of a cathedral, the length of the hour is still the same. 

That’s a brilliant quote.

Chateaubriand’s travels in North America are incredible. He lived with various tribes, and slept with various Indian women. He often solicits sympathy from his audience–for example he’s married off to an heiress for her fortune only to discover that she’s not that wealthy after all. Throughout the memoirs, Chateaubriand hears the call of duty to his class–even though, at times, he realises that his class is guilty of folly. I’d never heard of the hearth tax before, but Chateaubriand explains it well.

At one point he sees Marie Antoinette and remarks how pretty she is, but even as he writes this, there’s the shadow of death across the page. There’s a tremendous sense of loss running through the memoirs–loss for the world he knew which disappeared, loss of the family members executed during the revolution, and loss of the past.

Since that day, I have seen Combourg three times. After my father’s death, the family met there in mourning, to divide our inheritance and say our goodbyes. Another time I accompanied my mother to Combourg, when she was busy furnishing the castle for my brother, who was to bring my sister-in-law to live in Brittany. My brother never arrived. Beside his young wife, at the executioner’s hands, he was to receive a very different place to lay his head than the pillow that my mother prepared for him. Finally, I passed through Combourg a third time, on my way to Saint-Malo, before I embarked for America. The castle was abandoned, and I had to spend the night in the steward’s house. When, wandering on the Grand Mall, I looked down a dark alley of trees and saw the empty staircase and the closed windows and doors, I felt faint. I dragged myself back to the village and sent for my horses. I left in the middle of the night.

The sections of his adventures in North America are wonderfully contrasted with scenes of the Revolution. Is it possible to get two more dissimilar worlds?  These were two worlds that were both disappearing. At times this reads like an adventure story as he sees a bloodthirsty mob looking for aristocrats or when he flees to England. The memoirs end with Chateaubriand returning from exile. He’s lost everything and arrives “in France with the century.”

I brought back nothing from the land of exile but regrets and dreams. 

Translated by Alex Andriesse

6 Comments

Filed under Chateaubriand, Non Fiction