“It’s not often one needs an elephant in a hurry.” (Phileas Fogg, Around the World in 80 Days, 1956 film)

I’m starting to write this post at 7pm on the final day of the1956 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. There used to be a time when I wrote my Club posts in advance of the week, so it’s fair to say my blogging still hasn’t quite got back on track yet😊

Unusually for this blog, my first read is a non-fiction work, My Dog Tulip by JR Ackerley, a book which took me by surprise. The blurb on the back of my NYRB Classics edition describes it thus:

“The distinguished British man of letters J. R. Ackerley hardly thought of himself as a dog lover when, well into middle age, he came into possession of a German shepherd […] she turned out to be the love of his life […] a bittersweet retrospective account of their sixteen-year companionship, as well as a profound and subtle meditation on the strangeness that lies at the heart of all relationships. In vivid and sometimes startling detail, Ackerley tells of Tulip’s often erratic behavior and very canine tastes, and of his own fumbling but determined efforts to ensure for her an existence of perfect happiness.”

So basically I was expecting a period piece Marley and Me. The trailer for the 2010 film did nothing to dissuade me of this:

Yet my experience of reading this was of a deeply eccentric and sometimes quite unnerving narrative. I didn’t dislike it, but it just wasn’t what I expected at all. I should have paid more attention to the use of ‘strangeness’ and ‘startling’ in the blurb. I think Ackerley was probably quite an independent thinker and so he writes about Tulip in really quite astonishing ways. He clearly adores his dog and captures her in almost poetic blazon style:

“these dark markings symmetrically divide up her face into zones of pale pastel colours, like a mosaic, or a stained glass window; her skull, bisected by the thread, is two primrose pools, the centre of her face light grey, the bridge of her nose above the long, black lips fawn, her cheeks white, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set.”

That’s lovely, but for much of the book Ackerley is quite determined to Tulip mated and pregnant, and I could have done without similar dwelling on the state of her vulva. I’m not a prude, and my job means I spend most of each day talking about human anatomy in very frank terms, but I was truly taken aback.

I guess if you have a pedigree dog you do have to concern yourself with such things. Every animal I’ve had has been resolutely mongrel and neutered/spayed and therefore unable to pass on their moggy/mutt genes 😊

Being an animal lover I am used to vet visits, but this book made me very glad I’m not taking my furry family members to the vets in the 1950s. The beginning of the book describes some truly distressing experiences and I am so grateful times have changed. Ackerley shares this view and can’t believe what is happening, until he and Tulip meet the lovely Miss Canvey. Tulip is untrained and appallingly behaved (according to the introduction Ackerley became something of a social pariah for the 16 years he spent with Tulip) and Miss Canvey tells it like it is: “ ‘Tulip’s a good girl. I saw that at once. You’re the trouble.’”

As an aside, I had to say goodbye to my sweet wee boy this June, and the vets could not have been kinder, or more respectful and caring. They even relaxed their own lockdown rules so I could be with him when he died (still all very careful and socially distanced). This was the last picture I took of him, just before he became unwell:

So I’m very glad Ackerley and Tulip find Miss Canvey, but unfortunately her insight doesn’t result in any changes and Ackerley observes: “people seem to resent being challenged whenever they approach their own sitting or dining rooms.”

He does feel some sympathy for the local shop owners though (somewhat surprisingly, as he does come across as a terrible snob), when Tulip fouls their frontage:

“True they were horrid people, but no doubt they had their burdens like the rest of us, and Tulip’s gift would not help to uplift their hearts to a sweeter view of life.”

Ultimately what Ackerley captures in My Dog Tulip is the close bond that is unique to every human and animal relationship; and what us animal lovers know for sure, that they behave infinitely better than humans:

“But if you look like a wild beast you are expected to behave like one; and human beings, who tend to disregard the savagery of their own conduct, shake their heads over the Alsatian dog. ‘What can you expect of the wolf?’ they say.”

Secondly, Emma at Book Around the Corner suggested reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin  and I am so glad she did. You can read Emma’s review here. This was my first James Baldwin and on the strength of this novella I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his work. He is a stunning writer: precise, poetic, insightful and so deeply moving. I knew from the opening lines, told from the point of view of young blond American David, that I’d found a writer to love:

“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me towards the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of window pane.”

It’s a terrible morning because Giovanni, the man David loves, is going to be executed. They met in Paris in a gay bar where Giovanni was a barman, and quickly became lovers. Giovanni’s dilapidated lodgings provide the suffocating background to the most profound experience of David’s life:

“I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long – we met before spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me I spent a lifetime there.”

It is David’s self-hatred and wish to not be as he is that casts a shadow over their relationship. He longs for a fantasy life of heterosexual conformity:

“I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real.”

(David has a girlfriend, Hella, who is exploring Spain and deciding whether to accept his marriage proposal when he meets Giovanni.)This self-hatred means David is not always likeable but he is always believable. It makes him very judgemental towards how other gay men lead their lives, and he has horrible attitudes towards anyone he views as effeminate. His older friend Jacques picks him up on his behaviour, in an eloquent plea for humanity:

“There are so many ways of being despicable, it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”

The story unfolds towards its inevitable tragedy that we know from the start is looming over the characters. It’s a heartwrenchingly sad tale that captures the deep and profound damage that can occur when the pain and frustration of a life unlived is inflicted on others.

I could have quoted so much from this novella. It is full of passages breathtaking in their beauty and wisdom. Effusively recommended.

“But people can’t, unhappily, invent their own mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

To end, I’d normally pick a song from 1956 but none of them really took my fancy. So instead, a song for the year we’re in now. I’ve mentioned before that at times of trouble in my life there is one man I always turn to. That man is David Bowie. During the weirdness of 2020, he has not let me down. Yet also this year I’ve found myself seeking solace with another…

Bruce Springsteen has jokingly said that he writes the same song over and over. The song he’s referring to is about feeling powerless, trapped by circumstance, wanting to escape and still trying to reach out. That pretty much sums up the current situation doesn’t it?

I think so many of us are waiting on metaphorical sunny days. Here’s hoping they’re not too far away. At least I’ve managed to stop bursting into tears when he sings ‘everything’ll be ok’ which is a marginal improvement:

(Also at 4:25 Bruce does a knee slide, which contains the important message that you can be a 70 year old rock god but you’re never too old or too cool to launch yourself across a temptingly shiny floor like a giddy child…)

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” (Shirley Jackson)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 has been a big old pile of pants. Initially I felt guilty about seeking some escapism – it seemed to be another facet of privilege that escapism was available to me – but now I think if it keeps you sane, do whatever works to come out the other side (and I need to keep reminding myself that there will be the other side…) So here are two enjoyable, light comic novels that have helped me keep possession of my remaining marbles.

Firstly, Kate reminded me that the Lucia novels by EF Benson are perfect for this sort of read. Having read Queen Lucia back in April for the 1920 Club, I was keen to read the sequel Lucia in London (1927), especially as fans of Mapp and Lucia tell me the novels get better as they progress.

It opens with the death of Lucia’s aunt by marriage, who had been very unwell for many years and lived to a ripe old age. All things considered:

“it had been generally and perhaps reasonably hoped among his friends and those of his wife that the bereavement would not be regarded by either of them as an intolerable tragedy.”

But to do so would deny Lucia a chance at self-dramatisation, so of course she goes all out for grief. Her donning of black and a pained expression is wonderfully satirised by Benson, as are the social niceties of bereavement when no-one genuinely cares for the departed:

“Georgie held her hand a moment longer than was usual, and gave it a little extra pressure for the conveyance of sympathy. Lucia, to acknowledge that, pressed a little more, and Georgie tightened his grip again to show that he understood, until their respective finger-nails grew white with the conveyance and reception of sympathy. It was rather agonising, because a bit of skin on his little finger had got caught between two of the rings on his third finger, and he was glad when they quite understood each other.”

It soon becomes clear that Lucia plans to decamp to London, to the aunt’s very swish home, leaving Riseholme reeling. Georgie understands the impulse but is surprised that Lucia is quite so keen to leave:

“He wanted, ever so much, to have a little flat in London (or a couple of rooms would serve) just for a dip every now and then in the life which Lucia found so vapid. But he knew he wasn’t a strong, serious character like Lucia, whose only frivolities were artistic or Elizabethan.”

As readers we know that Lucia is entirely frivolous of course, and she throws herself into the contemporary London scene with gusto.

“What she wanted was the foam of the wave, the topmost, the most sunlit of the billows that rode the sea. Anything that had proved itself billowish was her game, and anything which showed signs of being a billow, even if it entailed a vegetarian lunch with cocktails and the possible necessity of being painted like the artist’s wife with an eyebrow in one corner of the picture and a substance like desiccated cauliflower in the centre.”

As a Londoner myself it struck me that nothing changes: 93 years on and the silliness of the fashionable London scene is still ripe for satirising. Benson pokes gentle fun, nobody is truly despicable or utterly destroyed. Personally I enjoyed the ongoing saga of Georgie’s Oxford bags, bought during “a moment of reckless sartorial courage”. Not everyone can carry off Oxford bags with the aplomb of Buster Keaton, after all:

Life at Riseholme continues at its usual pace – that is, a snail’s. It is a life they all enjoyed, one filled with enough little dramas and crises to keep them all amused. Now however, something is missing:

“Yet none of these things which, together with plenty of conversation and a little housekeeping and manicuring, had long made life such a busy and strenuous performance, seemed to offer an adequate stimulus. And he knew well enough what rendered them devoid of tonic: it was that Lucia was not here, and however much he told himself he did not want her, he like all the rest of Riseholme was beginning to miss her dreadfully. She aggravated and exasperated them: she was a hypocrite (all that pretence of not having read the Mozart duet, and desolation at Auntie’s death), a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

Will Lucia make a splash in London? Will Riseholme find their way without her? Will she ever return? What do you think?

“Aren’t you feeling more Luciaphil? I’m sure you are. You must enjoy her: it shows such a want of humour to be annoyed with her.”

You can read Lucia in London online here.

Now a musical interlude, but one of which I’m certain Lucia would not remotely approve. You can’t get more London than Chas and Dave:

Secondly, Ali’s lovely post 10 vintage books of joy reminded me I had Something Light by Margery Sharp (1960) in the TBR, and so I dug it out forthwith. I adore Margery Sharp and her well-observed but gentle humour was just what I needed.

It opens “Louisa Mary Datchett was very fond of men.” Unfortunately for Louisa, this means she keeps running round after various wet blankets, helping them keep on track, buying them yogurt and mopping their brows. She’s getting older and her profession as a dog photographer only just keeps her afloat, so she decides she needs to get married.

“ ‘It’s not the suffragettes who’d be proud of me,’ thought Louisa bitterly, ‘it’s the Salvation Army. I may be the modern woman, the femme sole with all her rights, and I’m very fond of men, but it’s time I looked out for myself.  In fact it’s time I looked out for a rich husband, just as though I’d been born in a Victorian novel…’”

It’s a brilliant piece of characterisation that Louisa doesn’t come across as either a doormat or as mercenary. She’s a kind person, a wee bit lost, and trying to take the best decisions she can for a happy life.

We then follow Louisa’s various adventures trying to gain what she thinks she wants. She spends a week trying to secure a rich husband, another seven days rekindling an adolescent devotion and a further week acting as a housekeeper for a man whose ready-made family are appealing.

That’s pretty much it, plot-wise and there are no real surprises. In no way is this a criticism. A comfort read for me has a nice predictability to it and I enjoy watching things play out as I expect in an entertaining way.

What further makes this such an enjoyable read are the fond portraits of the various characters, and the little details. One suitor is frequently likened to a Sealyham terrier; bamboo framed spectacles are given far too much importance; Louisa wears a “rowdy housecoat, zebras on a pink ground”; the milkman is a constant source of sympathetic wisdom as well as dairy products; Louisa has to try and sell ugly beechnut jewellery on behalf of her Bohemian artist neighbour. Everyone is flawed, believably human, gently ribbed by the author. It’s an absolute delight.

“She was constantly being either sent for, like a fire engine, or dispatched, like a lifeboat, to the scene of some masculine disaster”

To end, an 80s pop classic as always, but presented in a lip sync scene of sibling bonding that makes me smile, and we all need things that make us smile right now:

“Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Oh dear, my blogging mojo is taking a while to get back. It’s been weeks since I read these two short story collections for Women in Translation Month and I’m only writing this now. Given that I find writing about short story collections difficult at the best of times, I beg your indulgence, Reader…

Firstly, Dark Paradise by Rosa Liksom (1989 trans. David McDuff, 2007) which I picked up having greatly enjoyed Compartment No.6 back in 2016. This was a dark, violent collection of stories, split into two sections, Domestic and Foreign. The stories are not titled otherwise and are very short, frequently only a few pages, with unnamed narrators describing their extreme actions in a matter-of-fact voice. Hence I’m going to have to give a trigger warning for descriptions of violence and blood.

In the first story, a woman locks herself in her bedroom after the death of her husband:

“She took a heavy vase from the floor and threw it at the mirror which shattered into large and small pieces. The shards cut her all over. Some of the wounds were deep – they gaped and spurted blood. The sheets were stained red, her body throbbed, and the blood smelled of something old and oppressive.”

This is a choice image to begin the collection, as it captures what is in store: sharp, fragmentary glimpses into violent and unhinged worlds. Unlike the first story, many that follow are told in the first person. A woman who viscerally hates her husband of two weeks; a man who obsessively cleans his flat; a social outcast who lives with his mother:

“It all started some time before my eighth birthday. I was lounging in an armchair in the parlour watching Mom make dinner in the kitchen. That was the first time the realisation came to me. I got this terrible nauseous feeling, a flash of lightening cut right through my brain and Mom suddenly looked to me like some sort of mutant, a caricature of a human being. I know that’s when it started, and the years have only made it clearer to me that even then, as a little kid, I was one hundred percent correct: I hate all women.”

There are some brief glimpses of light. Not every encounter ends in violence, though most do, and there are some affectionate relationships, like the woman and her daughter who are chocoholics:

“Then I walk home and my daughter is back, she’ll have had three mugs of cocoa and a package of chocolate biscuits. She eats chocolate too, and biscuits, and potato chips. I’ve hardly had time to get the door open when she’s shouting for chocolate. But she has to wait until I’ve taken off my coat and sat down in front of the TV. Then I give her one of the bars and take the other for myself. We watch TV, eat chocolate and occasionally I have a cigarette.”

Liksom is such an accomplished writer. In just a few lines she establishes character, tone, setting. She’s sparse and uncompromising. This is not the collection to read when you’re feeling fragile or want characters to root for, but if you feel like being pummelled into nihilistic despair for about an hour (and sometimes I do, sometimes I want a truly destabilising read) then this is for you.

Secondly, Death of an Ex-Minister by Nawal el-Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987). I first looked at el-Saadawi’s work for WITMonth 2018 and then again this year when I was undertaking Novella a Day in May, and I’m always so impressed by how she weaves her politics into stories that never suffer under the weight of the issues she’s addressing: often corruption, the role of women, and sexuality.

The titular story has a government employee talking to his mother as silent interlocutor, about a junior colleague that has incurred his ire:

“But I was angry Mother, because when she talked to me she raised her eyes to mine in a way I’d never seen before. Such a gaze, such a strong and steady look, is daring in itself, even impudent, when it comes from a man. So what if it comes from an employee, a woman? I wasn’t angry because she did it, but because I didn’t know how she did it, how she dared do it.”

I thought this was such a clever way to explore a man realising that he has been a cog in machine, a subservient bureaucrat, and send him spiralling into crisis.

In The Veil, el-Saadawi deals with female sexual desire completely unabashed:

“My eyes fall on to his naked body and hairy thighs once more. The expression on my face, as I look at his body, is not the same when I look into his eyes, for my problem is that what I feel inside shows instantly on my face. His eyes are the only part of his body with which I have real contact. They dispel strangeness and ugliness and make my relationship with him real in the midst of numerous unreal ones.”

She always has plenty to say but is never preachy and often has an underlying humour. The tone in Masculine Confession (another silent female interlocutor, this time a sex worker) is wry:

“I loved my masculinity and from the start I realised it was the reason for my being privileged. I always had to prove its existence, declare it, show it to people to make it clear and visible and that it was not open to doubt […] I love my wife like I love my mother, with the same sort of spiritual, holy love. In other words, a love in which I take everything and to which I give nothing. That’s ideal love.”

In Camera is perhaps the most powerful and tender, where a young woman accused and tortured by the state is watched in a courtroom by her family:

“I feel the air when it touches you and hunger when it grips you. Your pain is mine, like fire burning in my breast and stomach. God of Heaven and Earth, how did your body and mine stand it? But I couldn’t have stood it were it not for the joy of you being my daughter, of having given birth to you. And you can raise your head high above the mountains of filth.”

Death of an Ex-Minister captures a variety of voices finding their way in late twentieth century Egypt. El-Saadawi is all the more powerful because of her compassion – she writes about flawed humans, fighting, loving, scared and brave. Her characters are always believable and always compelling.

To end, a move that will shock regular readers of this blog to their core: I’m going to end on some tasteful music for once 😀 Stunning harmonies from singers of traditional Finnish Sami music:

“Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack)

Hello bookish blogosphere! I’ve been away for what feels like a long time. June and July were a big pile of pants and I needed a step back from things. I want to say thank you to the lovely bloggers who contacted me to ask if I was OK, when I really wasn’t. Your kindness genuinely meant a lot.

I’ve only just started reading again after about six long weeks of being unable to digest a single written word. Some very strange things have happened to my reading; I couldn’t deal with fiction for a while so I finally got round to reading some of the biographies that have languished in my TBR for aeons. Then having got back to fiction I’ve started with a subject about as far from my usual fare as its possible to be: serial killers. Except neither novel is really about serial killers…

Firstly, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2017). This made quite a splash when it came out and I remember large, eye-catching posters on the tube, back when commuting was a thing. It’s a quick read and it was that reason that made me pick up this debut, thinking it was a good way to try and get back into reading.

My logic worked well, and I whizzed through this tale of a murderous sibling, narrated by Korede, a young successful nurse whose talent for cleaning comes in handy when helping her sister Ayoola cover up her deeds.

The novel starts in media res as Ayoola contacts Korede to ask for help having killed her third boyfriend in self-defence. Ayoola is completely oblivious to the seriousness of her crimes and seems to feel no remorse. Although Korede loyally helps her, she is beginning to have doubts as to the nature of Ayoola’s self-defence.

“ ‘Do you not realise the gravity of what you have done? Are you enjoying this?’ I grab a tissue and hand it to her, then take some for myself.

Her eyes go dark and she begins to twirl her dreadlocks.

‘These days you look at me like I’m a monster.’ Her voice is so low, I can barely hear her.

‘I don’t think you’re – ‘

‘This is victim shaming you know.’”

The novel isn’t graphic and the details of the killings are not dwelt on – thankfully, if you’re as squeamish as me. Instead what Braithwaite explores is a complex relationship between sisters and the impact of patriarchal systems on young women. It’s set in Nigeria but the themes certainly resonated with me as a UK reader.

Korede and Ayoola grew up with a violent father and it his weapon that Ayoola uses:

“ ‘The knife is important to me Korede. It is all I have left of him.’

Perhaps if it were someone else at the receiving end of this show of sentimentality, her words would hold some weight. But she cannot fool me.”

No-one questions Ayoola because she is beautiful, no-one pays attention to Korede because she is average looking. Both women suffer under a society that commodifies women, even though Korede is successful in her career as a nurse and Ayoola is a talented clothes designer.

A doctor where Korede works, Tade, seems to be decent but even he follows the predictable path of not noticing what Korede can offer and falling for Ayoola’s looks, projecting his fantasies onto her.

“ ‘She is beautiful and perfect. I never wanted to be with someone this much.’

I rub my forehead with my fingers. He fails to point out the fact that she laughs at the silliest things and never holds a grudge. He doesn’t mention how quick she is to cheat at games or that she can hemstitch a skirt without looking at her fingers. He doesn’t know her best features or her…darkest secrets. And he doesn’t seem to care.”

Ayoola dating Tade adds tension to the narrative – will she try to kill him? Will Korede try to save the man she has feelings for? Who will succeed?

Sometimes satire can leave a bitter taste, but MSTSK avoids this with it’s dry humour and lack of preachiness. It doesn’t attempt crass psychology as to why both women are as they are, it simply presents their lives and upbringing and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. This light touch means it raises serious issues about contemporary society without losing sight of characters or plot. An impressive debut.

Secondly, Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu (2008, trans. Marina Sofia 2020) which was sent to me by the lovely Marina Sofia who blogs over at Finding Time to Write. She has translated this novel under Corylus Books, the publishing house which she has founded with three others.

MSTSK used a serial killer to satirise patriarchal systems, and Sword uses it in a similar way to satirise political systems. Set in Romania, it forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit who sadly don’t seem to be blogging any more.

Someone is killing Roma people in Bucharest using the titular weapon. There is no apparent motive – except presumably a racist one – and the murders have a competence to them which means the police investigation has very little to go on. This isn’t a police procedural though, and very little of the story is given over to the murders themselves (again, thankfully…) aside from the first. Instead Teodorescu uses the murders to explore the power systems in place in Romania and how this exposes the weaknesses and motivations of those within.

If that sounds dry, it really isn’t. The story whips along and the portrayals of power players feel authentic (Teodorescu is a political analyst). Early on, the petty concerns of Istrate, Head of Comms and Press Relations at the Presidential Office, demonstrate the disregard that the deaths receive. He only likes the social side and travel associated with his job, and the President hates him and so has set up another press office.

“He was briefly tempted to write a report complaining about the lack of professionalism in his team. Instead of getting reports about major problems, the international situation, global crises that could destabilise the Balkan region, an in-depth political analysis, he had to put up with silly homicide stories! He gave up reading the press summary, but resolved to complain about it the next time he met the President.”

The government is concerned, but only in trying to balance appealing to those who might welcome vigilante justice represented by Sword (as the press have nicknamed the killer) because he only kills criminals, and how it will look internationally that they haven’t caught him. The advice given to the Minister of the Interior suggests how to manage the situation in a pre-election year:

“A few heads rolling at all levels in the police force should demonstrate the government is taking things seriously. Admittedly, it also demonstrates how incompetent the police are, but no-one worries about that too much.”

Despite such machinations, the murders continue to rack up and tensions in the country between various groups escalate. The context of Romania finding its place in international capitalist systems after the fall of communism is evoked well but it doesn’t take much imagination – if any – to see parallels across different political systems. I felt this could just as easily be Westminster. There’s something depressingly universal about someone with integrity being forced aside for political expediency:

“ ‘It’s not anger. It’s profound sadness. Because you’ve proven to me yet again that it’s not good enough to be qualified, professional, well-intentioned and to work your socks off… it still won’t get you the respect you deserve.’”

Sword is incisive and uncompromising in its portrayal of corruption and the powerless victims of such systems, but its not depressing. Instead I found it a compelling read and I’d definitely be interested to read more by this author.

Writing this post was difficult as I’m so out of practice, but to end it’s business as usual with an obvious late twentieth century pop choice 😀

Novella a Day in May 2020 #31

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? – Lorrie Moore (1994) 148 pages

The final post of Novella a Day in May 2020! Despite my optimism about completing every day earlier in the week, it was a close-run thing. I’ve just finished reading Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore and came straight to writing this post, so I beg your indulgence of typos and wandering sentence structure (which you’re probably used to given the number of hurriedly written posts I’ve cobbled together this month 😀 )

I chose this novella thanks to Paula’s always brilliant Winding Up the Week post halfway through May, which directed me to this article on contemporary novellas. The wonderfully titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was included, and I had it in my TBR pile, which I’m really trying to reduce during lockdown (and failing dismally, of course…)

It starts with a brief portrait of Berie (Benoite-Marie) on a working holiday in Paris with her husband. Their marriage is not in a good place but they are trying:

“The affectionate farce I make of him ignores the way I feel his lack of love for me.”

We are then taken back to 1972 in upstate New York, where adolescent Berie is working in Storyland with her friend Sils. Sils is beautiful, employed to play Cinderella in the park while Berie works the ticket counter.

“Little girls would stand in line to clamber in and tour around the park with her – it was one of the rides – then be dropped back off next to a big polka-dot mushroom. In between, Sils would come fetch me for a cigarette break.”

Moore captures perfectly that feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood, of desperately wanting everything to happen but being unsure as to whether you are ready for it, of being uncomfortable in your own skin and not quite knowing who you are.

Berie is skinny and underdeveloped, she doesn’t have Sils’ body or the sexual interest from others that it attracts. When Sils gets a motorbike-riding boyfriend named Mike, Berie is left somewhat out in the cold.

“Everything would turn out fine. Or else – hell – it would burn. I only wanted my body to bloom and bleed and be loved. I was raw with want, one made for easy satisfaction, easy story, quick drama, deep life: I wanted to go places and do things with Sils. So what if the house burned down.”

This naivete coupled with recklessness leads to trouble for both girls, in very different and yet ordinary ways. There are significant events in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, but nothing hugely dramatic.

“My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air; waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was like liquid, like a song – nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.”

What Moore demonstrates is how little we can know those closest to us, even alongside the intensity of adolescent feelings. Berie is close to her brother Claude, but they drift apart. She grows up with her adopted sister LaRoue, but never really takes time to connect with her. Her parents are absent a lot of the time. All her feelings are focussed on Sils, but Sils is moving into adulthood faster than Berie and there are things they cannot share. This distance between people who know each other intimately is continued into adulthood as her marriage comes close to collapse.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is the first of Lorrie Moore’s work I’ve read and I really enjoyed her humour and wit. Overall though, I found this a melancholy book. It portrayed the singular aloneness of human beings and how this underpins ordinary everyday lives. But maybe that’s what I took away because I’ve been self-isolating for eleven weeks now!

Lorrie Moore writes in a beautifully precise way that never feels laboured. She’s insightful, funny and sad, and I’ll look forward to reading more by her.

You can hear Lorrie Moore talk about Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? here.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #30

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata (1935-7 trans. Edward G Seidensticker 1956) 121 pages

My brother doesn’t often lend me books, in fact I can’t remember the last time he did. So when he lent me Snow Country with the warning ‘I want it back’, I thought it must be exceptionally good. Turns out my brother and the Nobel Prize committee are in agreement on this, as Snow Country was cited when Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

It begins with Shimamura, an overprivileged wastrel who doesn’t have to work, leaving Tokyo to travel to a hot spring town in the north of Japan. He is captivated by Komako, a young geisha who works there.

“The more he tried to call up a clear picture of her, the more his memory failed him, the farther she faded away, leaving him nothing to catch hold. In the midst of this uncertainty only the one hand, and in particular one forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”

Shimamura has a wife and children back in Tokyo so the relationship with Komako is a commercial one, but still one in which both seem emotionally invested. I say seem, because nothing is ever spelled out in Snow Country. This is not the novella to read if you want fully rounded characterisation or plot development. What Kawabata creates is series of impressions, moments and images that layer on top of each other.

“The woman’s hair, the glass of the window, the sleeve of the kimono – everything he touched was cold in a way Shimamura had never known before.”

That’s not to say that Snow Country is an unsatisfying read. Kawabata is a beautiful, precise writer and he crafts an atmosphere expertly. The natural surroundings are stunningly described, and the people are believable and idiosyncratic, even though we know very little about them.

“there was something sad about the full flesh under that white powder. It suggested woollen cloth, and again it suggested the pelt of some animal.”

It’s also a deeply melancholy read. The two main characters will never be together and both seem trapped. Shimamura by his inability to find a meaningful way to spend his time, Komako by debt and circumstance. The sadness of it all crept up on me due to the writing style I’ve described, and it seemed all the more poignant for doing so, rather than explicitly announcing itself.

My memory is terrible, so as a reader I find what tends to stay with me is not plot or character, but more the atmosphere of a novel and the feelings it evoked. Snow Country is one of those that will stay with me a long time.

“All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls. And he knew he could not go on pampering himself forever.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #29

The Birds on the Trees – Nina Bawden (1970) 196 pages

The Birds on the Trees was sent to me a long while ago now, by the lovely Ali at heavanali. Ali’s a great advocate for Bawden’s writing and it was her enthusiasm that got me picking up one of my favourite childhood authors again as an adult. I’ve really enjoyed the Bawden I’ve read so far and The Birds on the Trees was no exception.

The story concerns the very ordinary middle-class Flowers family and what happens when the eldest son Toby experiences mental health problems.

He is kicked out of school for smoking drugs and returns home refusing to follow his parents wishes to attend a crammer in order to sit his Oxford entrance exam. His hair needs a cut and he’s not washing. He’s spending a lot of time dressed in a burnouse. His parents Maggie and Charles are at a complete loss as to what to do.

“Now, for the first time (their first, real crisis?) he saw what drove her was something more like fear: she raced through life as over marshy ground, fearing to stand still in case she sank in quagmire.”

This all sounds pretty mild but we never really find out what’s going on with Toby. He’s diagnosed with schizophrenia but this is questioned by a family friend and doctor, who thinks Toby has drug-induced psychosis. In a prologue we see Toby as a small child telling neighbours he’s been abandoned by his parents at Christmas, that they don’t feed him, and then later that his parents are dead. Clearly something’s wrong, but Bawden never offers trite answers as to what that might be – was Toby always unwell? Was he neglected in some way?

Very little of Toby’s speech – and never his thoughts – are provided to the reader. The Birds on the Trees is a study of a family under immense strain, but the family member who’s instigated the crisis remains remote. This is a masterstroke as it keeps us in a similar position to his family: at a loss as to why things are unravelling so considerably.

One of the rare times we hear from Toby is when he’s trying to impress potential girlfriend Hermia, and the fantasy, arrogance and pretension of what he says just brought home his youth to me:

“‘I have left school. But I haven’t made up my mind. Eventually, I expect, I shall go into something interesting and creative, like publishing or films. Or perhaps the theatre, though the standard’s so terrifying low at the moment, one would have to be careful. I mean, it would be so easy to write a play just for commercial success, one would have to watch out that one wasn’t corrupted.”

The family are distant from each other, but in a very ordinary way. Maggie and Charles take their frustrations out on each other, middle child Lucy starts stealing and youngest Greg is convinced he’s adopted. At one point Lucy attacks her aunt with grape scissors, which I again thought hinted at something deeper troubling this family, but it’s not clear. Maggie’s mother can’t see what all the fuss is about:

“ ‘I never heard of such a thing,’ Sara Evans said. ‘Taking a boy to a psychiatrist because he refuses to have his haircut!’”

I really enjoyed the portraits of the rest of the Flowers family, which were so well-observed, both psychologically – as I would expect from Bawden – and physically:

“The skin on his face was loose and baggy: he was always folding and pleating it as if it was an ill-fitting garment he happened to be wearing.”

 Toby deteriorates and although fears about heroin addiction prove ill-founded, he cannot get out of bed. He is hospitalised and treated with ECT, which would be practically unheard of now. Although the treatment of Toby has dated, and to some extent the attitudes of the family, I thought this novel hadn’t dated nearly as badly as it could have done. This is because Bawden is so good at characterisation and so psychologically astute that the examination of these people under pressure, both individually and as a family, remains fresh.

I read a review from when The Birds on the Trees was nominated for the Lost Man Booker Prize that criticised the novel for being too optimistic in its ending. Maybe I’m just a miserable so-and-so but I didn’t think it was that optimistic. I thought it was one character allowing a brief moment of hope, when the reader knows things are unlikely to get any easier…

“How could you ever really understand why people behaved as they did? Oh, you could guess…but it was like trying to find your way through some intricate underworld of caverns and passages by the light of one flickering match!

Novella a Day in May 2020 #28

A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman (2014, trans. Jessica Cohen 2016) 198 pages

A Horse Walks Into a Bar is a novel about a comedian, but the fact that it won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (there’s an interesting interview with translator Jessica Cohen on the Asymptote blog) is an indication that it has serious things to say. Its takes place in Israel and so it also forms my last stop this novella month on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. 

Dovaleh Greenstein is a stand-up comic known as Dovaleh G, and the novel follows his set in a Netanya comedy club over two hours, from the point of view of his childhood friend Avishai Lazar, now a retired district court judge in his late 50s who barely remembers Dovaleh.

“From the minute he got on stage he’s been seeking my eyes. But I can’t look straight at him. I dislike the air in here. I dislike the air he breathes.”

Dovaleh G is not a pleasant man. He berates the audience, he insults their town, he has the style of stand-up that mixes old-fashioned jokes with barely concealed aggression.

“I swear to God, standing before you tonight is the first man in history to get post-partum depression. Five times! Actually four, ‘cause two of them were twins. Actually five, if you count the bout of depression after my birth.”

He’s offensive and at various points audience members walk out. They complain he is not giving them what they paid for – a night of laughs. Instead, Dovaleh recounts his childhood memories: living with his mother who was traumatised from the camps, and his father who beat him. He walked on his hands to escape neighbourhood bullies.

Onstage, he verges on being a bully himself. Someone else is in the audience who remembers him as a child: Azulai, a small woman and spirit medium, to whom he is absolutely brutal. Yet his most vehement aggression is reserved for himself:

“Somehow, on the phone, there was something attractive about his offer, and I can’t deny that he does have his moments on stage, too. When he hit himself, there was something there, I’m not sure what, some sort of alluring abyss that opened up. And the guy is no idiot. He never was”

Grossman captures brilliantly that tension that can exist in stand-up where the audience don’t feel entirely safe, and don’t exactly know where their laughter is coming from. He also exploits fully that a lot of comedy is born out of pain. Dovaleh G is not likable, but throughout the course of the novella he does become understandable, and it is possible to feel compassion for him.

The audience (and readers) become witnesses for Dovaleh G; to his life, his trauma and his anger. What humour there is, is very, very dark. There was a riff on Dr Mengele that actually made me wince – I’m not sure I’ve winced at a book before.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a devastating read but not a destructive one. At the end I felt there was some hope, which given Grossman is a highly political writer has wider significance than the life of Dovaleh G and Avishai Lazar. I’ve not discussed the politics of the novella because I felt I didn’t know enough about Israel and Palestine to do it justice, but if you know about this in more depth then I’m sure A Horse Walks Into a Bar will have an extra resonance for you.

“How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul?

Novella a Day in May 2020 #27

The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant (1863) 153 pages

Halfway through the final week of NADIM 2020 and for the first time this month it’s feeling do-able! I don’t want to tempt fate (especially as I’m changing broadband providers this week) but I’m hopeful I might actually complete a novella for every day…

After the brutality of First Love yesterday, I thought I’d take refuge in Victorian gentility. Also, I thought it would make a change from my resolutely twentieth and twenty-first century choices this month. The Doctor’s Family takes place in the fictional town of Carlingford, a setting Margaret Oliphant revisited in four subsequent novels as well as the short story The Rector, which was included in my Virago edition.

Dr Edward Rider has come to Carlingford after his wastrel brother Fred caused him to lose his practice elsewhere. He lives:

“in the new quarter of Carlingford; had he aimed at a reputation in society he could not have done a more foolish thing; but such was not his leading motive. The young man, being but young, aimed at practice.”

Unfortunately Fred has followed him to Carlingford where he does very little except smoke pungent pipes and go out to waste money. However, Oliphant doesn’t paint Fred as evil (to my twenty-first century eyes he sounded depressed) and she doesn’t paint Dr Rider as wholly virtuous. He can be short-tempered and dismissive to his patients, more than once he takes out his anger on his horse (thankfully not dwelt on in detail but still repulsive), and he doesn’t have high ideals about his vocation, though he is a reasonable doctor. In other words, the brothers are flawed human beings each muddling through, and bound by a “strange interlacement of loathing and affection”.

His family suddenly enlarges in a way Dr Rider did not expect, when Fred’s wife, children and sister-in-law all – never alluded to by Fred – arrive from Australia. They rent a house on the outskirts of town and Dr Rider visits initially out of a sense of duty more than any affection, as Susan, Fred’s wife is petty and spiteful, and his children are feral. His sister-in-law Nettie, on the other hand, is capable and practical, and essentially runs their entire lives for them.

Again, the characterisation here is subtle. Nettie isn’t one of Dickens’ holier-than-thou self-sacrificing virgins. Rather she is a determined, independent young woman who sees what needs to be done and does it. Oliphant makes it clear that Nettie gains from the situation, that it suits her.

“Those brilliant, resolute, obstinate eyes, always with the smile of youth, incredulous of evil, lurking in them, upon her bewildered advisor. ‘I am living as I like to live.’”

Short-tempered Dr Rider develops feelings for Nettie and can’t understand how she puts up with her selfish, demanding, draining family. She is less judgemental than he is:

“She knew their faults without loving them less, or feeling it possible that faults could make any difference to those bonds of nature.”

But while the family seem settled in their slightly unconventional ways, events will conspire to change things irrevocably.

This is the first time I’ve read Margaret Oliphant and I enjoyed her immensely. I liked her flawed characters and her resistance to showing situations as morally black-and-white, which can sometimes be the case in Victorian fiction (and I’m a big fan of the period and the women writers). I read The Rector as well (but I’ve not discussed it here as it’s not a novella) and found that story lighter and wittier than The Doctor’s Family. Both together mean I’d be interested to see how Oliphant developed the inhabitants of Carlingford in later novels.

If you like Victorian social realism but can’t face the hefty tomes that genre often involves, if you like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, or if you sometimes wish George Eliot wasn’t so heavily intellectual, then a trip to Carlingford will be just perfect for you.

There are no great surprises for the reader in The Doctor’s Family; things work out exactly as you’d expect. But that is no criticism and especially in these uncertain times, it’s a perfect example of the solace to be found in reading.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #26

First Love – Gwendoline Riley (2017) 167 pages

Trigger warning: discussions of an abusive marriage and strong language

First Love is told from the point of view of Neve, a youngish writer married to the significantly older Edwyn. Their marriage is horrific; a battleground of manipulations, gaslighting, verbal abuse, withholding, blaming and bitterness. The blurb quotes on my paperback edition mention tenderness, humour and bittersweet truth. I can’t say I really saw these elements in the story…

“When we cuddle in bed at night, he says ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one [….]

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.”

Yes, Edwyn is an outright misogynist who clearly despises women, blames them for his own extensive inadequacies, and seems to take his insults from the early seventeenth century.

Even when he’s not explicitly abusive, he’s monumentally detached, such as when Neve’s father dies:

“ ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘You’re an intelligent woman. Did you imagine he was going to live for ever?’

‘No.’

‘We all feel guilt honey. Guilt is just what you feel when this happens.’

‘OK. Fine.’

‘He’s dead, you’re alive, you’re guilty, it’s desolate,’ Edwyn said. ‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to get over this.’

We then go back in time as Neve considers her upbringing and romantic past. Her father was a horrible bully, her mother given to attachments to grim men with no real reflection to prevent her from repeatedly following the same pattern. Neve moves from place to place – Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London – and keeps her family at a distance. Eventually her mother visits after leaving her second husband:

“I stood by the door as she stepped into the flat, as she bared her teeth and crept forward. This was my home, and I was letting her into it. I’d never done that before. I haven’t since. It gave me a strange feeling. Revulsion, I suppose you’d have to call it.”

For all the emotional desperation in First Love, there is no self-pity or victimhood. Neve has a complex family, narcissistic ex-boyfriends and self-involved friends, but she never sees herself as any better than them, or any more put upon than they are.

“When I least expect it, my instincts are squalid, vengeful. And for what? What am I so outraged by? … My parents were hopeless. And? Helpless, as we all are. Life is appalling.”

First Love is definitely the strongest of Riley’s novels that I’ve read. She’s intelligent, uncompromising and incisive: 

“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work anything out.”

I’ve probably given a very skewed impression of  First Love because I thought the central relationship so horrible and Edwyn so repulsive. It’s not relentlessly bleak or brutal; the sense I was left with after reading made me think that the ambiguous title isn’t scathing, more highly sceptical.

“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterise the forms they assume?”