Tag Archives: WWII

The Girls of Slender Means: Muriel Spark (1963)

The meaning of the title of this, a short novel from Muriel Spark, becomes clear by the time the book concludes. The Girls of Slender Means is set in an-all female residence, The May of Teck Club. It’s London 1963 in this frame story, and The May of Teck Club has been in existence for decades. Originally, it was intended “for the pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” below the age of thirty. The 30-year rule has long been ignored and many of the female residents have lived at The May of Teck Club for decades. The novel is jump-started by the news of the death (murder) in Haiti of Nicholas Farringdon, a Jesuit at the time of his death.

The novel goes back and forth from the present (1963) to 1945 and opens in London with a vivid depiction of bombed-out buildings.

The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out leaving the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.

So in 1963, when “woman columnist,” Jane Wright hears of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, she contacts acquaintances she knew back in 1945, people who also have slivers of memories of the dead Jesuit. Those who remember him, recall that Nicholas was the lover of Selina, a resident of The May of Teck Club. That’s his claim to fame as far as the residents, or former residents of The May of Teck Club are concerned. Then the story peels back the decades to the story of what happened during that brief period of 1945. Although The May of Teck Club is the home of dozens of young women, we are only concerned with the fate of a handful: including the beautiful, capricious, and fickle Selina, saintly rector’s daughter Joanna Childe, and Jane Wright. The residence houses just women, but some of the female residents pass through a narrow slit window which grants access to the flat roof of the club. It’s here that lovers meet.

This is a peculiar book replete with Muriel Spark’s dark (I’m going to say it: ‘twisted.’) wit. While the plot is far removed from The Driver’s Seat, nonetheless, the connection is the bizarre undercurrent worming its way under what appears to be a fairly non-exciting plot. On one level there’s a shocking incident that occurs in 1945 and that is linked, somehow, to the death of Nicholas Farringdon. It’s not a direct thread–Muriel Spark is too subtle for that. Instead it’s a question of how did Nicholas Farringdon, anarchist/poet, end up as a martyred Jesuit in Haiti? There’s no definite answer to that, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Here’s Lisa’s review

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This House is Mine: Dörte Hansen

My first selection for German Literature Month X (2020) is the rather grim read: Dörte Hansen’s This House is Mine. Spanning 70 years, this is the story of a drab farmhouse and the three generations of tough women who live there. The book opens in the aftermath of WWII. Dour Ida Eckhoff owns the farmhouse and shares it with her son, Karl, who was lucky enough to return home from a Russian POW camp. He’s not the same man any more. His mother “didn’t recognize him, now that he’d started talking to snowflakes and trying to escape from the Russians.” The arrival of Polish refugee Hildegard von Kamcke and her 5 year old daughter, Vera, ignites a war as the two women, Ida and Hildegard struggle for control of the house. Hildegard wins, marries Karl, and after Hildegard lays down an ultimatum to her mentally absent spouse, “it’s your mother or me,” Ida is found hanging from an attic beam.

Possession of the house brings no joy to Hildegard, and a few years later, she buggers off to a Hamburg suburb with a lover, abandoning Vera to Karl’s dubious care. But it’s Vera who ends up taking care of the childlike Karl, and in time, Vera grows up and becomes a much-feared dentist.

Vera is a respected and yet also loathed figure. In spite of the fact that she has lived in the farmhouse for almost her entire adult life, she does not fit in.

For just as long as it took to do one round of the garden, she longed not to be the other, the foreigner.

She owns ferocious dogs, is an avid hunter, and the local men are afraid of her (with good reason). Enter Anne, Vera’s niece, another displaced person (for a different set of reasons) who seeks refuge at the inhospitable farmhouse.

This is a grim tale and it includes a few scenes with Vera slicing and dicing her many kills from hunting. The women in these pages are tough, tougher than the men, and even though the story spans 70 years, from the grimness of post WWII to the 21st century the stains of the war remain for those who endured it. For this reader, the house is a metaphor for life:

This house wasn’t built for people who wanted warmth and comfort. It was the same as with horses and dogs; you couldn’t show any weakness, couldn’t let yourself be intimidated by this colossus, which had stood with its legs apart on the marshy soil for nearly three hundred years.

This House is Mine is a tale of fitting in–fitting into the world, fitting into our families, making choices and dealing with the tragedies life throws our way. The story moves between the fearsome Vera who projects the desire to be left alone, when in fact all she wants to do is belong, and her niece Anne who rather intrepidly begins renovating the decaying farmhouse.

She still didn’t trust this house, but she wasn’t going to let it throw or spit her out. She wouldn’t let herself be rejected like a foreign organ. She refused to let herself be rejected like the majority of refugees, who’d gotten out of the large farmhouses as fast as they possibly could and moved into small houses in developments grateful and scrupulously intent on avoiding becoming a burden to anyone else for the rest of their lives.

Translated from the German by Anne Stokes

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I Belong to Vienna: Anna Goldenberg

I Belong to Vienna from Anna Goldenberg was inspired by the author’s desire to answer the question: why did her relatives return to Vienna, the scene of catastrophic events, following WWII? This is a very unique, personal history, part research, part contemplative as we learn how the members of one extended family were scattered by WWII. The author’s grandparents, Helga and Hans Feldner-Bustin, met at a Zionist group meeting in 1945 and slowly became a couple. After the war, they both attended medical school and emigrated to America, working as residents in a Poughkeepsie hospital, but did not settle there, instead deciding to return to Vienna in 1956. 

I belong to Vienna

This is a remarkable account which manages to convey a sense of urgency as the author digs into the past to discover details, and in this intimate history, we stay by Anna Goldenberg’s side as she digs into the story of how some family members died and others survived.

As I’m doing research for this book, a memorial is erected on the former site of the Aspang train station, from where most Viennese were deported. One of my cousins, as chairman of a Jewish student organization, is preparing to give a public address here on the anniversary of the November pogroms. I’m sitting in a restaurant, across the table from my mother, when he calls. Were our great-grandparents and Hansi’s brother Herbert, deported from the Aspang train station? Yes, I answer, and explain what happened to our grandfather’s family: Theresienstadt, meningitis, Auschwitz; family camp, selection, Sachsenhausen. I talk fast, get all excited, and feel the exhilaration I always do when I know the right answers to tough questions. When I hang up, I see a shocked look on my mother’s face. “I never knew all those details,” she says. 

The book offers a unique look at the disintegration of Jewish family life during this horrendous period.  Hans’s (Hansi) parents, Rosa and Moritz Bustin owned a furniture shop. One great point made by the author, backed with incredible detail, is how the Nazis systemically and bureaucratically stripped her family of any means whatsoever:

On April 13, 1938, a law was passed allowing the Nazi appointed Reich Governor–who was in charge of “coordination,” meaning forced political conformity–to appoint so-called acting administrators for Jewish enterprises. The administrators’ task was to oversee such businesses’ appropriation. The man assigned to Moritz’s furniture business set about collecting all customers’ outstanding payments. It’s hard to say whether the largely non-Jewish clientele had been intimated or impressed by his stormtrooper uniform, but either way, he’d collected all debts within a few months. 

The author scours official documents that record the decimation of her family, and the bureaucratic, systematic details are in horrific, cold contrast to the reality of the results: the suicide of Hansi’s uncle the day before an administrator took over the family business, the stripping of assets, the impossibility of creating any sort of livelihood. In another instance, the author’s great-grandmother scraped every penny to save her husband only to have him stuck in Italy as he tried to connect to a non-existent steamer.

The seventeen scanned pages attached to my great-great-aunt Frieda’s form allow me to understand what happened to the family between May 1938 and November 1939: the first page details the Jewish communal organization’s “home check” and describes their living situation in words. Shortly after the Anschluss, Frieda’s husband had been arrested because one of his vendors had filed a false complaint against him, presumably hoping to take over his furniture business. “Business liquidated–nothing kept,” it reads. 

But amidst the horror and despair, there are some stories of survival: Helga’s grandfather, who had proved to be a not-so-great dad, came through for his daughter and grandchildren, the miracle of transportation of children to England, and a Bronx-based cousin who sold his car to fund steamer tickets for relatives escaping from Vienna. 

It’s amazing that so many documents survive. 

They reveal in detail one cog in this massive machinery of annihilation, I see how seriously the administrator took his task. For half a year he carefully prepared lists, scoured warehouses, wrote letters, calculated balance sheets. Thus is how my family was destroyed and I can still read all about it today.

Review copy

Translated by Alta L. Price

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Weatherley Parade: Richmal Crompton (1944)

Yes, Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) wrote those Just William books, but she also wrote a host of adult novels. Crossing genre and audience boundaries can be hazardous to both the author’s career and the readers’ expectations, so when I first came across a few of her novels (for adults) I wondered how good they would be. A few years ago I read and enjoyed Steffan Green, a story of village life in the 30s, so onto Weatherley Parade–a book which had lingered in my TBR  room stack for far too long.

The word ‘parade’ evokes a celebration, but if there’s any celebration here, then it must be the celebration of survival. The book opens in 1902 with the return of Arthur Weatherley from the second Boar War. Although Queen Victoria died the year before, somehow the ending of the Boer War seemed to slam the door on the era, so here we have the Weatherley family about to enter a different age. Since the novel follows several generations of this family into the 20th century, we know we are going to head into some difficult times.

Arthur Weatherley arrives home a broken man; he’s now an invalid and will remain so for the rest of his life. In his absence, his much younger responsible second wife, Helena, has managed their stately county home, their baby Billy and Arthur’s 2 children from a former marriage: Clive and Anthea. Even though the 3 children are young, already the eldest 2 have formed the characters which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Clive is ‘perfect’–a sober little adult in the body of a 15-year-old. He’s even tempered and meticulous. Clive has many of his father’s characteristics, but while Arthur Weatherley could be called an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, a product of his age, Clive is a prig. But there’s more than just fustiness afoot here. There’s no warmth, no shred of humanity or compassion. He’s an automaton. Eventually he marries and proceeds to micromanage his young, naive wife. If he micromanaged her with sarcasm or anger, she’d probably fight back, but he micromanages her with a smile, under the guise of ‘teaching’ her. 

On the top of the bureau was a little pile of books that Lindsay had brought from the Library the day before. He looked at them with a kindly smile.

“No trash, I hope, darling?”

“No,” said Lindsay. “They’re all from the list you gave me.”

Anthea Weatherley, on the other hand, is nothing like her brother. She’s vain, superficial and hell bent on being the centre of attention. “Already the bright–too bright–eyes were darting round in search of further conquests.”

Other characters include: Arthur’s sister, Lilian, a youngish woman when the book opens, whose many engagements to various men have all ended abruptly. Lilian is on the wild side; she smokes and drinks, and her private life causes Arthur a great deal of anguish. Lilian won’t settle down, and over the course of several decades she restlessly careens from one cause to another, burning her bridges as she goes.

Another significant character is Clive’s best friend Ronnie–the son of the local vicar. Ronnie is neglected and treated badly by his father who is unhealthily fixated on his paralyzed daughter, Flora. She may be immobile but she’s a tyrant masquerading as an angel:

You’re a very brave little girl,” said Miss Clorinda. 

“Well, I can’t be anything else,” said Flora, “so I might as well be brave.”

The Vicar’s hand went to the pocket where he kept the notebook in which he recorded his angel’s more notable sayings, then, as he remembered where he was, withdrew. He could put it down later … Flora’s sharp eyes had seen and understood the movement. If he forgot to put it down later, she would remind him. He didn’t often forget, but when he did she reminded him.

Ronnie accepts Clive’s patronage as he’s several years younger than Clive, but as the years pass, Ronnie, no longer wants a friendship with someone who acts like his schoolmaster, and he grows apart from Clive.

The novel’s strongest aspect is the examination of character as these people age and interact. Many of the relationships here are built on exploitation of one sort or another. When people are nasty, then their behaviour is at least somewhat transparent, so manipulation with kid gloves under the guise of ‘caring’ is especially toxic.

Will wild Aunt Lilian ever find happiness? It’s arguable that she can’t fit into the role defined for her by the standards of the day (marriage and children). Will she grow through the Suffragette movement or it this just another of her phases?

And what of Anthea as she ages? Some of the novels best scenes concern her middle aged attention seeking behaviour which her kind, supportive (doting) husband, accepts as normal.

There’s some tragedy here as peoples’ lives fall apart. Adults blunder and a child pays the  heavy price. Society changes a great deal over the years 1902-1940, and these changes free some of the characters. The novel begins with women not expected to get an education as “a girl’s place is at home both before and after marriage, ” and divorce is considered perfectly scandalous. We pass through WWI, the Spanish Flu, the Spanish Civil War, the growth of Socialism, the rise of Nazi Germany, and eventually WWII. Incredibly few characters become casualties given these events, and instead people more or less build their own tragic fates. While the Weatherley children grow up and move away, the story still revolves around the house and the family. This is a gentle read, even while it reinforces the idea that character is fate.  

 

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Family Matters: Elizabeth Berridge

Elizabeth Berridge’s foreword in Family Matters, a collection of 16 stories, is strong stuff:

There is no substitute for the family. It is society’s first teething ring, man’s proving ground. When repudiated it still leaves its strengthening mark; when it does the rejecting, the outcast is damaged. Within its confines, devils and angels rage together, emotions creep underfoot like wet rot, or flourish like Russian ivy. It is the world in microcosm, the nursery of tyrants, the no-man’s land of suffering, a place and a time, a rehearsal for silent parlour murder. 

These stories focus on different aspects of family life, and it should come as no surprise, thanks to that excerpt from the foreword, that these relationships are often toxic. While the stories dissect various relationships, several of the stories examine the life of widows as they ‘move on.’ Some of the stories are from the 40s while others were published closer to the time of this book’s publication (1979)

Here’s a breakdown of the stories: 

Idolatry in the Afternoon

Breakthrough

Between the Tides

Time Lost

Mr. Saunders

Growing Up

The Beacon

Lullaby

The Story of Stanley Brent

Subject of a Sermon

The Notebooks

The Prisoner

Tell it to a stranger

Breath of Whose Being?

Under the Hammer

Nightcap

Of course with this many stories, I have some favourites. Idolatry in the Afternoon is the tale of 86-year-old Great-aunt Esmé who is visited by William and Kate.  Great-aunt Esmé tells the story of her Uncle Claud, a man who rented a little house in which he discreetly entertained his mistresses. But discretion falls by the wayside when Esmé overhears the servants gossiping about Claud, a divorce and takes note of the statement: “I never thought it counted as adultery if you did it in the afternoon.” This bit of information, not understood by Esmé and her sister Lila, disastrously slips out at the church bazaar tea. 

But the story is more than a memory; it’s also William’s smary, superficial  relationship to his Great-aunt, and Kate’s discomfort and feeling of exclusion when William and Esmé chat. 

Comfortably, Great-aunt Esmé switched off her lamp and composed herself for sleep. Well  they were all gone now, and she was the only one left. Kate was a little like Lila, kind but judging. She wouldn’t approve of the end of the story. And that young scallywag William –well, he didn’t want to hear old women’s tales. Men became bored so quickly, and then they went away … no she wouldn’t tell them.

What a fuss! By tomorrow she’s have forgotten it, anyway. Another bit of cargo dropped overboard to lighten the boat on its lonely journey over a darkening sea. 

In Breakthrough, a recent widow, Mrs. Jameson, is downsizing and moving into a flat. This means that she needs to get rid of many precious family possessions. Her pregnant daughter, Tessa, is supposed to be helping, but Tessa barely manages to hide her impatience. There’s little affection between the two women, and Mrs. Jameson, who relied on her husband for a great deal of support, isn’t coping well with widowhood. There’s resentment brewing in Tessa, and when her mother reaches out for emotional support, Tessa takes the opportunity to strike. 

Time Lost is a cautionary tale. Pat visits Aunt Tazie in Wales every summer. Although there are other nieces, Pat and Tazie have a special relationship. Pat loves visiting Aunt Tazie as ” we were both great readers, the two of us.” So there’s a meeting ground where they read together and squabble over various fictional characters. At one point, Pat asks Aunt Tazie if she’s read Proust:

At once, she blushed, like a child stealing jam, and said in a whisper, “Oh I long to read Proust! I’ve promised myself Proust for years … but I’m leaving him till last, like a bonne bouche.” She gave me a hesitant look, “I’m saving him up for my deathbed, my dear. What a beautiful way to drift off.”

“It will have to be a long deathbed, then Aunt Tazie.”

Life has a way of playing tricks with our plans, and so it is with Tazie with her “longed-for, saved-up pleasure of this last bonne bouche, this Madeleine which had also turned to sawdust in her mouth.”

Mr Saunders is the story of an inmate in a mental home. The narrator’s Uncle Albert is the superintendent and Mr. Saunders, a long-term patient, and an artisan, has become a sort of hospital mascot. He’s allowed a great deal of freedom with Uncle Albert’s permission. …

Under the Hammer is another great favourite. There’s an estate sale afoot at Glanbadarn, and sensible Bella Linton can’t resist going to the sale. Bella is the daughter of a “previous” vicar and the widow of the local doctor. Her father was great friends with the old squire, also known as the Colonel. Bella’s father, the vicar marries again after the death of his first wife, and Bella finds herself with a stepmother and a step sister, Phoebe. Phoebe eventually marries the squire’s son, but now she is a widow too, and she’s shedding the great house that belonged to her husband’s family for many generations. To Bella, the house has many wonderful memories, and Phoebe’s decision to sell it along with its hordes of treasures of the past, seems like sacrilege.

Bella leaned against the big window that looked into the courtyard at the back of the house, then aside at her young step-sister. Young? She had always considered her to be so, and now she saw that age had not withered so much as preserved her. Now her skin showed a certain dryness, as if it might suddenly flake off. Hers was not a body to sag into old age and death; it would explode into dust, each particle dancing with its owner’s infuriating vivacity.

All the village is gathered to bid for items that will look incongruous in their modest homes. Some desire a slice of memory from the great house and others cannot hide their glee at acquiring an item owned by the Rushby-Knightons.  Bella finds that the visit to the house stirs resentment at her stepsister but more than that, she remembers how “always she had left Glanbadarn Hall with more than she came: a bunch of roses, a basket of peaches from the hothouse, asparagus, black grapes.” And then Bella commits an unpremeditated act that she did not think she was capable of. 

The 16 stories showcase the author’s range and talent at dissecting the power of memory and magnifying the complex dark corners of human relationships. We seek companionship, love, friendship and yet all those things often twist with a bitter sting, for in long-term relationships we so often cannot resist evening the score. Here Elizabeth Berridge shows women who are adjusting to being alone, women who confront their pasts, a lonely spinster on holiday, a mother whose charitable occupations alienate her son, a strange triangle which occurs between a married couple and a single male friend, a spinster who becomes attached to a German POW, a widow who prevaricates over the sale of her late husband’s papers, two sisters who meet a clairvoyant, and a rancid moment in a decades long marriage. There was only one story I disliked and that was Lullaby

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Villa of Delirium: Adrian Goetz

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read biographies, autobiographies, survivors’ accounts, histories and fiction concerning WWII and the Holocaust, but the sheer destructive drive of the Nazis continues to yield new material. Those jackboots trammeled millions underfoot. And while we mourn artists, there are also the regular people who didn’t leave much behind in the way of landmarks of history. Just ashes and dust. 

Villa of delirium

Adrian Goetz’s Villa of Delirium joins the ranks of books that illustrate the wanton destruction that took place in Europe during WWII. This fiction book concerns the wealthy French Jewish Reinach family. I had no idea these were ‘real’ people, a wealthy family who built a replica of a Greek palace in the French Riviera in the 1900s. The villa, which took over 6 years to finish, is close to Chateau Amicitia, the home of Monsieur Eiffel. The arrival of the Reinachs and the construction of the villa, from 1902-1908, is the focus of local gossip and attention.  When it comes to the locals’ attitude to the Reinachs, the class divide marries with brewing antisemitism.

The Reinach family is composed of Theodore, his wife Fanny, their children, and there are visits from Theodore’s brothers Salomon and Joseph. Into this rarefied atmosphere where classical education is valued above all else, Achilles, a Greek/Corsican boy, the son of a maid and a gardener, becomes the sort of adopted mascot for the family. He’s 15 when he first meets the Reinachs in 1902, and when the novel opens, it’s 1956. Grace Kelly is about to marry the Prince of Monaco, and Achilles, now in his 70s, returns to the villa where his memories pour forth in the decaying, abandoned villa.

I was there when the Nazis came to arrest Julien Reinach, one of Theodore’s sons., who I had known since childhood.

[…]

He was in the library translating Gaius, the classical author of works about the laws of ancient Rome, when he was arrested. The Croix de Guerre he had been awarded after the 1914 war offered him no protection from the French police. 

While the plot construct, which focuses on loss, is somewhat weak and artificial, this slow-to-unfold story told through the eyes of Achilles succeeds best in its examination of the loss of a family of scholars. Their ivory tower pursuit of education, and the way in which they were destroyed, makes the family seem almost like museum pieces. Stamped out (although some survived) under those jackboots. 

At the end of the book, the author includes several sources for those who wish to read more about Villa Kérylos

Review copy

Translated by Natasha Lehrer

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The Blessing: Nancy Mitford (1951)

“I  wish I understood Americans,” said Charles-Edouard. “They are very strange. So good, and yet so dull.” 

The delights and hazards of marrying out of one’s culture are explored with style and wit in Nancy Mitford’s light, entertaining novel, The Blessing. The introduction to my copy states that this is the author’s most “personal” novel as it “explains in barely veiled terms” why her love affair with a “womanising Frenchman” lasted for over 30 years. 

When the book opens, it’s WWII and Grace Allingham receives a visitor to her father’s county home. The visitor is Charles-Edouard, a man who met Hughie, Gracie’s fiancé in Cairo. While he could bring tidings, instead Charles-Edouard starts paying attention to Grace. A month later, he proposes, Grace accepts, they marry, and two weeks later, Charles-Edouard returns to Cairo. The war rages on, and it’s 7 years before Charles-Edouard returns to Grace, and by this time, they have a child named Sigismond, the ‘blessing’ in the title.

The blessing

It’s easy to see that there will be problems ahead. Grace’s father wasn’t keen on his daughter “marrying a Frog.” He guesses that Charles-Edouard will not be a faithful husband, and senses that his daughter, who is blissfully happy at the family country estate tending goats, is ill-equipped for life in French society: “she would be a lamb among wolves.”  Trouble immediately begins, although the pliant Grace doesn’t see it, when the day after Charles-Edouard returns from the war, he whisks his wife and son off to France, with no notice whatsoever, to his family’s country estate, Bellandargues in Provençal. She meets his grandmother, the Marquise, his Tante Régine, and his grandmother’s lover, an elderly man who sports a pale green wig. Through this initial introduction, she learns, but fails to absorb, that lovers are openly accepted, not hidden away–at least not in Charles-Eduoard’s circle. Charles-Edouard’s family give Grace the once-over, decide she’s lovely, but that there will be problems ahead ahead–mainly due to extra-marital affairs. 

Charles-Edouard’s family think “the English are very eccentric,” and that “they are half mad, a country of enormous, fair mad atheists.” They can’t understand what “induced” him “to marry an Englishwoman–these English with their terrible jealousy.” For when it comes to infidelity:

It is quite different for a Frenchwoman, she has ways and means of defending herself. First of all she is on her own ground, and then she has all the interest, the satisfaction, of making life impossible for her rival. Instead of sad repining her thoughts are concentrated on plot and counterplot, the laying of traps and springing of mines. Paris divides into two camps, she has to consider most carefully what forces she can put in the field, she must sum up the enemy strength, and prepare her stratagem.

Then Grace is whisked off to Paris–just as she was getting used to the French country estate (belatedly she learns that her husband hates country life), and it’s here, mingling at dinner parties and soirees in Paris, we find Grace mostly out of her depth–especially when she realises there are a string of other women in Charles-Edouard’s life. …

Several nations are skewered here. From child-rearing, marriage, adultery, diet, the fun comes from the clash of cultures. There are a couple of English ladies Charles-Edouard decides are lesbians: “Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?” And then there’s Grace’s old school friend, Caroline; Charles-Edouard doesn’t get the schoolgirl crush thing, and insists on calling her a lesbian too. Caroline is now married to an obnoxious, loud, know-it-all American, Hector Dexter who, unfailing tells everyone around the dinner table exactly what’s wrong with their respective countries. France is, according to Dexter, suffering from “a malaise, a spirit of discontent, of nausea, of defatigation, of successlessness,” while England, “this little island of yours is just like some little old grandfather clock that is running down.” And of course, Dexter also thinks that Americans have superior morals when it comes to marriage and adultery:

We, in the States, are entirely opposed to physical relations between the sexes outside the cadre of married life. Now in the States, it is usual for the male to marry at least four, or three times. He marries straight from college in order to canalize his sexual desires, he marries a second time with more material ends in view–maybe the sister or the daughter of his employer–and much later on, when he has reached the full stature of his maturity, he finds his life’s mate and marries her. Finally  it may be, though it does not always happen, that when he has raised this last family with his life’s mate and when she has ceased to feel an entire concentrated interest in him, but is sublimating her sexual instincts into other channels such as card games and literature, he may satisfy a longing, sometimes more paternal than sexual, for some younger element in his home, by marrying the friend of one of his children, or as has occurred in certain cases known to me personally, one of his grandchildren. 

Grace ultimately is attracted to Charles-Edouard because he isn’t English. With him, she avoided a “dull” safe English marriage. Charles-Edouard may be charming, but he has an escape clause for the marriage if it doesn’t work out, and then at one point, we see a callous side when he plots to ruin a carpet Grace makes as he doesn’t find it aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, it dawns on Grace “that she was, perhaps, more in love than he was.”

But since the title is The Blessing, the story goes beyond the troubled marriage to Sigismond. Charles-Edouard doesn’t like the British Nanny’s influence, and he wants his son to emulate Napoleon rather than Garth, a British cartoon character. Nanny doesn’t understand what a bidet is: “what is that guitar shaped vase for?” and bemoans the French diet:

Course upon course of nasty greasy stuff smelling of garlic.

In time Nanny finds another British nanny in Paris, and “the two nannies clung to each other like drowning men.” Sigismond grasps that the cultural values and expectations of behaviour from each parent are different, so he learns to manipulate the situation between the estranged couple to his advantage.

The ending was a little too Disney for me. Overly optimistic IMO but no doubt the ending reflected the author’s decisions. This book is a light, amusing treat which delights in Grace’s painful awakening as she realises that when she married outside of her culture, she was unaware that French values would be so different. Of course, the elephant in the room is that no … what’s normal in Charles-Edouard’s aristocratic family is not the standard for the rest of France. Grace did not know the man she married. Frenchman or not. 

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A Nail, A Rose: Madeleine Bourdouxhe

“One part evil is always much more powerful than one part good. Evil has a habit of leaking, spreading out, overlapping.”

a nail a rose

I came to author Madeleine Bourdouxhe a few ago via the film Gilles’ Wife– a great, if somewhat depressing film. The book was a stunner. I also read Marie which I found disappointing. So on to a short story collection from Pushkin Press: A Nail, A Rose. Here’s the contents, and there’s an excellent introduction from translator Faith Evans who provides a bio of the author, an analysis of her work and a recollection of meeting the author.

A Nail, A Rose

Anna

Louise

Leah

Clara

Blanche

René

Sous le Pont Mirabeau

For those who’ve read Madeleine Bourdouxhe before, it shouldn’t come as a revelation that some of these stories depict the toxic, brutal relationships between men and women. In A Nail, A Rose, it’s WWII, Irene is walking at night, recalling her lover Danny:

Danny and Irene: that she did understand, she understood it perfectly, and she thought it meant she could understand the rest of the world as well: Danny and Irene, and the whole world. But she would never understand the line that ran between them, like an arrow with a sharp point at either end. And the whole world was now this line. 

Her memories include the times of their “savage” “love-making” full of “hope and despair,” when she’s suddenly jolted back to reality by an attack from a hammer-wielding assailant. She confronts her attacker, and suggests that they divide the contents of her handbag. One thing leads to another and then he’s holding her with an obvious erection. The next day, the assailant, Jean, shows up at her house to check on her:

What a strange episode this man who’d not been afraid to return. Neither perfection nor eternity; some good, some evil. And while she waited, the mould was rising in layers, in the world and in her heart.

The stories have a dream-like quality to them as though the women featured here drift through their experiences. If you’ve read, Gilles’ Wife (or watched it) you know what I mean, and while Madeleine Bourdouxhe writes about the inner life of women, we repeatedly see women who exist on a physical level while their minds hook them, by the necessity of survival, into a different realm. In Blanche, for example, the main character is “an absent-minded woman” who “often forgot things” and is considered “stupid” by her bore of a husband.

It was then that Louis had passed the kitchen door with his hat and coat–“Goodbye, Blanche.” She waited for the layers of air to re-form themselves and be healed, for them to join up again and for the air to be one, without fissure or tremor, and for peace to inhabit her.

The gem of the collection is Sous le Pont Mirabeau. There’s something special about this story, something different, shimmering, and perhaps that’s because it’s based on the author’s own experience. In this tale, a young woman gives birth to a baby girl the day the Germans invade Belgium. Loaded into a lorry with her newborn, she makes the hazardous journey to France. Many people, seeing the mother and baby, give assistance, and the story, set amidst a moment of human tragedy, glows with hope and strange, surreal experience:

In the evening, the roads were dark yet they thronged with people, bumping into each other, still hoping to find somewhere to spend the night. It was full of people and quite dark, until the great green and red arc lights shone out over rooftops, walls and faces. 

She stayed still for a moment, the child in her arms, overawed. Above her was the beauty of the guns. A second of immobility was enough to embrace, and reject, the beauty of the guns, denuded, useless, miraculous, valuable only in their own right. But what if this beauty was meant to become embedded in the secret of all things, to flourish on the greens and the reds of nature and the rhythms of the earth? Or perhaps to be exploited, warped, faded, false as the beauty of the helmeted warrior and his steel blade false as the beauty of the dead hero–kissed, corrupted, rejected? Above her was the beauty of the guns.

Translated by Faith Evans

Review copy

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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

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Honeymoon: Patrick Modiano

“When was the turning point in my life, after which summers suddenly seemed to me to be different from the ones I had known up to then?”

In Patrick Modiano’s haunting novel Honeymoon, Jean, a documentary film maker checks into a hotel in Milan. He’s in the bar when he learns that another guest, a woman, committed suicide in her room 2 days earlier. There’s a certain curiosity of course–especially when he learns that she was attractive, French and drank the same drink as him. Later, thanks to a short obituary in the paper, Jean discovers that he knew this woman. Her name was Ingrid Rigaud and Jean met the Rigauds 6 years previously. It was one of those chance encounters that later takes on more significance with time. Jean, down on his luck, was hitchhiking and the Rigauds gave him a lift, took him to stay at their villa, and finally bought him a train ticket home. Jean was 20 at the time with his whole life ahead of him. He didn’t really understand that the Rigauds were damaged people.

Honeymoon

Move forward eighteen years. Jean, now established in his career and married to Annette who is carrying on, none too subtly, with a friend. His career is stale and seems past its peak:

I wanted to tell them that we were too old for the profession that can only be described by the antiquated name of ‘explorer.’ How much longer would we go on showing our documentary films in the Salle Pleyel or in the provincial cinemas that were becoming fewer all the time? When we were very young we had wanted to follow the example of our elders, but it was already too late for us. There was no more virgin territory to explore. 

Jean, obsessed with what became of the Rigauds, has been secretly working on Ingrid’s biography for years. Jean, a man whose films concentrate on explorers decides to disappear from his own life rather as Ingrid disappeared from hers, and he plans to hole up in Paris and complete Ingrid’s biography. He tells Annette and his friends that he’s leaving for Brazil, but he has no intention of taking the flight; instead he stays in Paris and disappears. Well … tries to.

Honeymoon takes the reader into typical Modiano territory. Memory of course, but since this novel is not as opaque as others I’ve read by this author, Time plays a much bigger role. The years are rolled out; the past and present, but there’s this curious sense of overlapping, circles of  time. Jean is twenty when he meets the Rigauds and they were the age he is when he ‘disappears’ from his life. He ‘misses’ Ingrid in Milan by a mere 2 days. Would her suicide have occurred if Jean had run into her? And what about that other occasion when he ran into a solitary melancholy Ingrid in Paris? Could Jean have said anything or done anything to help? In retrospect, he hadn’t even asked pertinent questions. At one point, Jean remembers his time with the Rigauds:

I saw myself again, twenty years earlier. with Ingrid and Rigaud, in the semi-darkness outside the bungalow. Around us, shouts and burst of laughter similar to those now reaching me from the terrace. I was now about the same age as Ingrid and Rigaud were then, and whereas their attitude had seemed so strange then, I shared it this evening. I remembered what Ingrid had said: “We’ll pretend to be dead.”

As so often with a Modiano novel, a telephone book plays a role. A telephone rings in an empty apartment as we call the past.

I’ve read a number of Modiano novels now and IMO this is his finest. It hit a nerve. A friend committed suicide a decade ago and I often imagine myself stepping somehow through the corridors of time to stop her. In this novel, Modiano creates the sense that the departed are there in the next room. We just have to find a way to pass through the door.

I was somewhere else, in another summer, more and more distant, and with time the light of that summer underwent a curious transformation; far from fading, like old over-exposed photos, the contrasts of sun and shade became so accentuated that I recall everything in black and white. 

(I went back and rechecked the gaps between various meetings and they seem correct but the years slide across each other and I may have made an error)

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