“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand in the cold.” (Aristotle)

Temperatures have dropped in the UK and I’m writing this after coming in from a surprise snow flurry, while Scotland’s had proper snow, so I think now it’s December & officially winter. My choices this week are suitably wintry in theme, but they’re not a big tome to curl up with on a winter’s day. I’m going through a prolonged novella phase at the moment and these are excellent examples of how much can be achieved in a short space.  They’re small, but powerful.

Firstly, A Life’s Music by Andre Makine (2001, trans. Geoffrey Strachan) which comes in at 106 pages. The narrator is stuck in a snowbound railway station awaiting the Moscow train:

“Suddenly everything is illuminated by a truth that has no need of words: this night lost in a void of snow; a good hundred travellers huddled here; each seems as if he were breathing gently upon the fragile spark of his own life; this station with its vanished platforms; and these notes stealing in like moments from an utterly different life.”

The notes come from a piano being played by an elderly gentleman, tears streaming down his face. When they finally board the train, he tells the narrator his story, and why the music makes him cry. It is a tale of war and persecution, and of shifting identities in order to survive:

“As a result of this fear, and the assiduity with which he copied the actions of others during those first few weeks, he did not feel as if he were engaged in combat. And when he was finally able to relax the constantly taut string within him, he found himself in the sin of a veteran soldier”

Makine is interested in human endurance, in cruelty, in love and in moments of transcendence. He is brilliant at using small moments to illuminate big themes.

“To his surprise he felt himself growing increasingly separate from the wind, the earth, the cold, into which he had almost merged. But more surprising still was this simple bliss: the warm line where the woman’s body touched his own at night. Just this line, a gentle, living frontier, more substantial than any other truth in the world.”

A Life’s Music is a haunting tale written by a master. Makine proves that you don’t need to write at length to create something substantial. Stunning.

Secondly, A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (2012 trans. Sam Taylor 2013) which is only 138 pages long. The premise of A Meal in Winter is incredibly simple, and the themes it explores incredibly complex. Three German soldiers find a Jewish man when they are on patrol in Poland. They do not share a common language with the young man and they take him prisoner with ease . They then retreat to an abandoned cottage to cook their meagre rations on a freezing winter’s day before taking him back to their barracks to be shot.

“everything would be better once it was warmer. Smoking and eating in front of the stove! What could be better? We would smoke while we waited for the bread to thaw and for the cornmeal to cook.”

The focus on essential human need for food, warmth and shelter is a master stroke by Mingarelli. The men are human first, soldiers second. Will they recognise their common humanity with their terrified prisoner and what will it mean if they do?

Mingarelli is excellent at building characters, scenes and atmosphere in a few words, and the desperate situation for all concerned is brilliantly evoked, within a harsh, freezing landscape:

“Sky and earth had blurred into one, and there was no comfort to be found in either. While I packed the snow into our mugs, I wondered again how it was possible that we had once seen so many sunflowers here, and not so long ago either. The landscape had been so full of them, so completely covered, that it seemed their oil must have been flowing like a river somewhere.”

A Meal in Winter is a powerful and moving novella that does not offer simple answers; it has really stayed with me.

To end, I know it’s a  wee bit early for Christmas tunes, but I’ve chosen it because of the excellent snowy outfits. Remember kids: real fur is cruel, and spandex leggings are not suitable winter attire.

22 thoughts on ““To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand in the cold.” (Aristotle)

  1. I do like that quote! I know what you mean about the attraction of novellas. Not one word wasted in the good ones, and A Meal in Winter is a very fine example of that. I haven’t read A Life’s Music but I like the sound of its premise.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lovely summaries, Madame Bibi. Like you, I was very impressed by A Meal in Winter. As you say, such a simple yet striking story, beautifully told. It would be good to see more in the way of translations of this author’s work in the future. I’ve a feeling that this is the only one available in English at the moment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Both sound pretty powerful. I like novellas too – there’s something very satisfying about being able to read a book in one complete session and it does seem to concentrate authors’ minds to stay away from unnecessary padding. Talking of unnecessary padding, those snow cloaks are unique… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Haha! I don’t think I’ve ever seen that video! I’ll have to show my kids who like listening to their Christmas album. 🙂
    I agree with TJ – after reading your description, I feel like I *need* to read A Meal in Winter!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oops – I seem to have just ordered ‘A Life’s Music’! I hadn’t even got to your second review, which is probably a good thing as that sounds equally essential so I might have ended up buying that too. Boney M – such class! I’m totally with you on fur, but I beg to differ on the spandex leggings. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful! I do like adding to other people’s TBRs 😉 I really hope you enjoy it.

      I’m currently reading Beryl Bainbridge’s novel about the ill-fated Antarctic expedition of Captain Scott – if only they’d had spandex leggings 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. HaHaHaHaHa. I’m afraid I had to fast forward to see what your tempting video was, and it has quite spoiled me for the serious business of the book reviews. The women’s outfits look quite fetching, they wear them well, but, oh, that poor guy, he does look a little as if he knows his outfit isn’t quite one to flatter a chap.

    I do hope the ladies weren’t wearing spandex under their furs. What with studio lights and all it must have been fearsomely hot. No wonder no one was dancing very energetically

    Liked by 2 people

    • There is definitely a satisfaction from feeling as though you’re getting that stack down, even though the number of pages read is the same no matter what size book you take from the TBR. It helps me psychologically anyway!

      Boney M make everything better 🙂


  7. Spandex in the snow falls into the woolly beanie with a vest top in summer category, a category known as ‘Go home. Yer mum’s wanting a word with ya’.

    I have read a Makine and it was a bit sad. I would need quite a lot of Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s little drummer boy to get through it.

    Liked by 2 people

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