Tag Archives: New York Review Books

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

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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

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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

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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

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Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

Review copy

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Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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Late Fame: Arthur Schnitzler

“You don’t know the effect that the applause of hundreds of enthusiastic listeners, that the praise of the press–that fame will have on you.”

Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, Late Fame examines the tricky labyrinths of self-delusion through the dreams and desire for literary glory. This novella, originally intended for publication in a magazine, was resurrected from Schnitzler’s archives, and its title, published now decades after its creation, has an irony which is underscored by the material itself.

Late Fame

Eduard Saxberger is a 69-year-old civil servant, a bachelor, who has had a successful career, and who lives alone, contentedly, in a pleasantly appointed house. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Wolfgang Meier, a young poet, a member of the “Enthusiasm society,”  who gushingly asks if Saxberger is the author of The Wanderings.

Saxberger has almost forgotten his long-dead and buried dreams of literary fame. At first when he rereads the poetry he wrote so many decades before, painful memories awake:

The whole sorry life that he had led now passed though his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him.

Meier understands why Saxberger stopped writing poetry:

It’s the same old story. At the start, we’re satisfied to have just our own pleasure in our work and the interest of the few who understand us. But when you see those coming up around you, winning a name and even fame for themselves-then you would rather be heard and honored as well. And then come the disappointments!  The envy of the talentless, the frivolity and malice of reviewers, and then the horrid indifference of the public. 

Charmed and flattered by the reverence shown by Meier, Saxberger mingles with the young writers, the self-styled “hope of young Vienna,” and so begins a period of renewal in Saxberger’s life. He discovers that while he loves listening to these young people praise his work, he’s bored when asked to critique another’s poems. He joins these “writers who stay apart from those following the beaten track,” and once again Saxberger dreams of literary fame. …

Late Fame is a delightful tale which follows Saxberger’s ‘renewal’ which comes to a crisis point when he’s asked to write a new poem for a public reading–a reading which will, the poets claim “show that rabble,” who will “get the shock of their lives.” A great deal of the story’s humour is found in the relationships within the group of writers. These include various poets, an unemployed actor, and a rather shopworn actress who “doesn’t fit into regular theatre life.” From a distance, she looks impressive, but as she comes closer to Saxberger, he sees “the strangely ravaged lines of the face itself.” The penetrating stares she insists on sending Saxberger make him uncomfortable.

According to the group, anyone not in their circle are “the talentless ones,” “careerists,”followers of literary fashion.” Schnitzler captures not only the seductiveness of fame, but also how easy it is to cloak ourselves in self-delusion. This circle jerk of poets and writers support each other with claims of being ‘true’ and chafe against the lack of fame while skirting the possibility of lack of talent. In their circle, they survive on mutual admiration as they bolster each other’s lack of progress. We’ve all met people like this, and we all know how impossible it is to break through the tough membrane that protects the talentless. Does Saxberger profit or suffer from this experience? That’s for the reader to decide.

This bittersweet tale of fame lost and found will make my best-of-year list.

Jonathan’s review

Max’s review

Translated by Alexander Starritt

Review copy

 

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Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Like Death: Maupassant

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

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

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

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

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

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

like death

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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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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