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?”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #25

The Beautiful Summer – Cesare Pavese (1949, trans. WJ Strachan 1955) 101 pages

Thinking back to when I bought The Beautiful Summer seems so foreign now even though it was at Birmingham New Street station. It’s unusual for me to buy a new book, I usually go to charity shops. But I’d finished my book on the train journey in so I needed something for the journey back. That book was Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, and in WHSmith I could get it with The Beautiful Summer half price (it’s part of Penguin’s European Writers Series). The thought of being in such a huge public space with people milling around, and wandering into a shop to browse and purchase on a whim seems a lifetime ago…

The Beautiful Summer opens with sixteen year old shop assistant Ginia enjoying the feeling that “Life was a perpetual holiday” in 1930s Turin. On the cusp of adulthood, she is also frustrated at knowing there is more life to be had,  most likely away from her friends.

“Rosa was indispensable; with her easy, familiar ways and her high spirits she made Ginia’s superiority plain to the rest of the company.”

Ginia takes up with the older Amelia, an artist’s model, and her free-living friends. Ginia is both intrigued and intimidated:

“the excitement at the discovery that they were both made in the same mould and whoever had seen Amelia naked was really seeing her. She began to feel terribly ill at ease.”

Ginia falls for Guido, an artist who seems to do very little painting, if at all. Her naivete is almost painful to witness:

“He likes me a sweetheart; he loves me. He did not believe I was seventeen, but he kissed my eyes; I am a grown-up woman now”

As the summer progresses, so does their affair, and Ginia grows up. The story of The Beautiful Summer is a tale oft told, of lost innocence, heartache, and learning who you are as you forge your own path. What lifts it above cliché is the compassionate characterisation of Ginia, the non-judgemental portrayals of young people who do not always behave well, and the sense of sad survival rather than devastation.

“Ginia knew he would never marry her, however fond she was of him. She had known this from that evening when she first offered herself to him.”

To end, a Brummie band in honour of my copy’s origins (OK, a blatant excuse for a Duran Duran video as I don’t generally indulge my love of 80s pop during my NADIM posts.) Apparently Simon Le Bon nearly drowned filming this; they should have strapped John Taylor to the windmill instead, I’m sure the buoyancy of his hair would have kept him afloat:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

Astragal – Albertine Sarrazin (1965, trans. Patsy Southgate 1967) 190 pages

I first came across Astragal on Kaggsy’s blog last year, and not long after reading Kaggsy’s post I found a copy in my favourite charity bookshop (how I miss browsing those shelves… it’s been good for my wallet though…) It’s sat in the TBR since then but NADIM prompted me to pick it up.

Generally I’m not one for biographical readings of novels, I prefer to let the work speak for itself and not get too caught up in looking for insights into the author’s life. In Astragal though, it’s pretty unavoidable. Albertine Sarrazin wrote Astragal in prison; she was a French-Algerian who spent her childhood in care and then in reformatory school after being abused by a family member; she escaped to Paris and earned money as a sex worker and through crime. She died at the age of 29 after complications from surgery. It is her picture on the cover.

You’d expect that Astragal was thoroughly depressing, but maybe due to the author’s youth, it stays resolute and optimistic. It begins with Anne leaping to freedom from a prison wall and shattering her talus bone (astragale in French) in the process.

“A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight. No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment, then gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through my head, and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk.”

She is rescued by Julien:

“Long before he said anything, I had recognised Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day.”

These two jailbirds fall in love and go on the lam while Anne’s ankle heals, or fails to. What follows is a series of safe houses where Anne is left while Julien disappears to commit robbery and visit other women. Eventually Anne makes it back to her beloved city:

“Beaten, broken, I’m here all the same; furthermore, as we often said in jail, the winner is the one who gets away. I’m coming back, Paris, with what’s left of me, to start to live and fight again.”

I liked Astragal more than I thought I would. Anne and Julien don’t always behave well, but Sarrazin doesn’t ask the reader to like or excuse them. She also writes beautifully without overwriting:

“I was busting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot dreamed a lot and lost the thread.”

She also has a hard-won wisdom about the impact her life is having her. It’s not that she unthinkingly follows destructive paths but rather that she does what is familiar to try and improve her situation while knowing how unlikely this is.

“You can’t wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self.”

Sarrazin was undoubtedly a writer of talent, its truly sad that she didn’t live to see what else that talent could produce and where it might have taken her.

To end, this edition features a rhapsodic introduction by Patti Smith “My Albertine, how I adored her!” If you’ll permit me a paraphrase: “My Patti! How I adore her…” Here she is singing about lovers, which I thought was apt for Anne and Julien:

 

Novella a Day in May 2020 #23

UFO in her Eyes – Xiaolu Guo (2009) 200 pages

UFO in her Eyes is structured as a series of government files, with memos, notes paperclipped to pages and redacted sentences. This sounds gimmicky and tedious, but actually works effectively and Guo is able to capture a variety of voices within a formalised format.

Kwok Yun is a woman in her thirties who lives in a quiet village of Silver Hill with people much older than her, as the younger generation move to the city. As Chang Lee, the middle-aged Communist village Chief explains:

“Silver Hill is a simple village, with tea and rice fields, the harvests of which are our principal sources of agricultural income […] The village centre is rather small, just one narrow street. But it provides everything you need for life”

All of that is about to change drastically, following one extremely hot day when Yun is cycling through the rice fields. She sees a giant spinning plate in the sky.

“then I realised that the noise was coming from the enormous metal plate. I stared at it, terrified. It was as if I was a tiny insect, exposed on the soil, about to be eaten by a big bird. I kept gazing at that white monster, and suddenly the world in front of me went hazy and I collapsed.”

When she awakes she finds a Westerner injured by a snake bite. She helps him and then he disappears.

As a result of these events two things happen: the Westerner sends the village $2000 as a thank-you, and various government types attend the village to interview the inhabitants and find out what happened.

This proves no easy task. Only Yun saw the UFO and the villagers are grumpy and resolutely unimpressed by metropolitan officials, as Yun’s grandfather Old Kwok demonstrates:

“Did I not tell that to your colleague from Beijing already? The one with the square head who spends his whole time at Niu Ping’s liquor stall drinking Er Guo Tou while you do all the work? Did he not understand what I said or something?”

The money provides an opportunity for change, an opportunity Chief Chang Lee has been waiting for:

“everything is stuck as it was in the sixties. Except its falling apart.”

No-one particularly loves Silver Hill. The older villagers have lived through feudalism, communism, the Great Leap Forward, famine and the Cultural Revolution. They remember a starving man eating his brother’s leg. Even younger people like Yun hold no affection for the place:

“The sun here makes everything decay. It beats down on sticky skin, sweaty legs, burning hair, dead leaves, broken roots, old seeds and slowly they all rot. I hate this place.”

Yet the change isn’t welcomed either. Essentially it is industrialisation, and carp ponds are filled in, tea and rice fields built over. This has tragic consequences that are both immediate for some villagers, and more insidious, like Yun realising the air is getting harder to breathe.

Guo doesn’t suggest that modernisation is evil and old ways better; the famine is still in living memory when the villagers had to eat grass to survive. For Yun, her intelligence is given opportunity to thrive as she becomes educated. But Guo does question the price paid for unplanned progression, and what the desired outcomes are.

“In Silver Hill, we don’t smile much. Smiling is even more difficult than crying. Our faces have been frozen by hardship. You understand what I’m saying? Yun doesn’t smile. She doesn’t talk much either. She just listens to my swearing and cooks my food. What goes on in her broad forehead I don’t know.”

So much of this novella could be clunky: the file format, the treatment of Silver Hill as a microcosm of China. But it’s written with such a light touch and the characters are so idiosyncratic and believable that I found it an entertaining read, dealing with important themes but never preachy.

Xiaolu Guo is a film director as well as a novelist and she adapted this novella to film in 2011. I didn’t realise this and I’d love to see the film – it’s not often a novelist adapts and directs their own work. Here is a short interview with Guo about the film. The clips look beautiful: