“Spice a dish with love and it pleases every palate.” (Plautus)

After a month of daily novellas throughout May (many of which were quite heavy in subject if not in actual weight) followed by reading Ulysses for the first time (which was heavy in both senses) I was in need of some light, comic, bookish palate cleansers. Thankfully, an enormous TBR can always provide 🙂

Firstly French Exit by Patrick de Witt (2018), which induced an existential crisis because I thought I read his novel The Sisters Brothers fairly recently, but when I checked it turns out it was nine years ago. Where is my life going??

Anyway, once I stopped panicking about my imminent death, I sat down to this short novel which the cover quotes assured me was funny/comic/Noel Coward-esque etc. And it was, but there was a strong vein of sadness running through it too.

Frances Price lives with her adult son Malcolm in New York, and seems determined to blow her late husband’s ill-gotten gains as rapidly as possible. Eventually it reaches the point where they will be evicted from their townhouse:

“It was grotesque to see a person such as Frances exposed in this way, and Mr Baker was peeved to be a party to it. He told her, ‘I spoke to you about this as a possibility for seven years, and as an eventuality for three. What did you think was going to happen? What was your plan?’

She exhaled. ‘My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying, and here I am.’”

So Frances comes up with another plan, to leg it to Paris and live in her friend Joan’s apartment. Malcolm will go with her, because it doesn’t occur to him to do otherwise, despite his girlfriend Susan’s weary protestations:

“Malcolm was unafraid of social discomfort, which is not to say he courted it; but it was common enough that he assumed it requisite, and endured it without grievance.”

The other presence on this international adventure will be their cat, Small Frank, named after Frances’ husband. There’s more to Small Frank than meets the eye, a fact accepted by Frances, Malcolm, and the psychic Madeleine that they meet on the cruise ship:

“Madeleine stood. ‘Sorry.’ Pointing to Small Frank, she asked, ‘Do you not know?’

‘We know.’ said Frances.”

Although seemingly set in contemporary times, French Exit has an atemporal quality. The cruise ship, the lack of mobile phones, use of paper money (admittedly euros not francs) and no reference to the internet mean it could easily be many years earlier.

There’s a cast of eccentric characters both on the ship and in the French capital, but this stayed the right side of idiosyncratic for me, without seeming self-consciously quirky. Frances is wonderfully spiky which stops the story being too saccharine.

As we learn more about her life and Malcolm’s upbringing, there is a lot to consider about the emotional damage people can wreak on each other. However, as Frances and Malcolm adjust to their new surroundings what comes through most strongly is the human need for acceptance and friendship, and all we can give one another if we’re open to it.

The sadness in French Exit stopped me from wholeheartedly viewing this as a comic novel, and so it wasn’t quite what I expected. But this is no bad thing, and I found it a delightful, fully-rounded tale of unique individuals working out how to get by alongside other people, while still setting their own terms.

“The heart takes care of itself. We allow ourselves contentment; our heart brings us ease in its good time.”

French Exit was made into a film in 2021. I’ve not seen it but the dialogue in this trailer is straight out of the book:

Early Morning Riser (2021) by Katherine Heiny is not my usual sort of read at all, but Susan’s review made it sound so enticing that I snapped up a copy when I saw it in the charity shop. I’m glad I did, because it was just what I was looking for at this moment in time: a well-written book about idiosyncratic people, muddling through alongside each other, not sentimental and not bitter either.

The story begins in 2002, with young teacher Jane meeting Boyne City’s local lothario Duncan:

“He was of medium height, medium build, wearing nothing more distinctive than jeans and a denim shirt, yet he seemed to stand out vividly, like the subject of a photo with a blurred background.”

They start dating and there is much humour derived from Duncan’s past with just about every woman in town, and the neighbouring towns too. He’s not manipulative or unpleasant, and he seems pretty honest (unless you’re waiting for him to finish restoring your furniture) – although he probably doesn’t have much choice in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

“It had seemed even before dinner that Mrs Elgin had wanted to say something, and finally she laid down her fork and said to Duncan, ‘I’m sorry but, but how is it possible that you don’t remember having sex with me after a Grateful Dead concert in nineteen ninety-four?’

Doctor Elgin was struggling to open a bottle of prosecco, and at that moment his thumb slipped and the cork popped off with a surprised-sounding ping.

Duncan looked up from his plate. ‘I went to thirteen Grateful Dead concerts in 1994. Can you be more specific?’”

What I thought was clever is that Heiny doesn’t try and convince the reader of Duncan’s charm. Often when there is a love interest, authors try and get the reader onside, and of course, if you’re not as keen on the character as those in the story are, it’s not going to work. Instead, everyone in Early Morning Riser is presented simply as they are, and no-one is expected to be otherwise.

This includes Duncan’s domestic-goddess ex-wife Aggie, her inflexible husband Gary, and warm-hearted Jimmy, Duncan’s apprentice who has an unspecified learning difficulty. Jane also makes a good friend, Freida, who miraculously is among the very few women not to have experienced the sexual delights of Duncan:

“Freida settled herself on the couch next to Jane and took out her mandolin. Part of being friends with Freida meant getting used to her playing the mandolin all the time – softly if people were talking, louder if they weren’t. If the conversation got heated, she would strum faster; if they were all tired, she would play something soothing. It was like having a constant soundtrack to your life, or maybe a mandolin-playing Greek chorus, because sometimes she sang, too – little snatches of lyrics that always seem to fit the occasion.”

Personally that would drive me to absolute distraction, but the people of Boyne City are much nicer than me and don’t seem to mind.

We follow everyone up to 2019; through births, deaths, joys and griefs. It is a novel resolutely about ordinary life and the value of such. People behave well and behave badly. They make wise decisions and poor decisions. They’re kind to each other and not so kind. They’re recognisably human.

“The joy is in the dailiness. The joy is having someone who will stop you from hitting the snooze button on the alarm endlessly. The joy is the smell of someone else’s cooking. The joy is knowing you can call someone and ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way over. The joy is having someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, because it really is no good when you watch it by yourself. The joy is hoping (however unrealistically) that someone else will unload the dishwasher. The joy is having someone listen to the weird cough your car has developed and reassure you that it doesn’t sound expensive. The joy is saying how much you want a glass of wine and having someone tell you, ‘Go ahead you deserve it!’ (Although it’s possible to achieve the last one with a pet and a little imagination.)”

Although the relationship between Jane and Duncan centres the story, romantic love is not the focus of Early Morning Riser. Rather, it is about family in all its guises: blood relatives, children, parents, lovers, friends, those we choose and those who choose us, those we somehow end up sharing lives with and we’re not quite sure how or why. It’s a warm-hearted read and an absolute joy.

To end, in honour of Freida, a song that goes heavy on the mandolin:

“I finished Ulysses, & think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” (Virginia Woolf) 

Today is Bloomsday, and the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I decided this meant I couldn’t put it off any longer and 2022 would be the year I finally cracked the spine on this tome (metaphorically of course – I don’t crack spines, I’m not an animal.)

When I read War and Peace back in 2017, I opted out of a review-type book post, intimidated at the thought of trying to say anything remotely coherent or interesting about such a revered novel. Instead I opted for a reading diary. Now here I am with a similarly revered, equally intimidating cornerstone of literature. There’s no way I can say anything useful about Ulysses, especially in its centenary year with all the celebratory events happening.

And so I present my Ulysses reading diary, neither coherent nor interesting! In fact, to manage any expectation of intellectual engagement with the genius of Joyce in this post, I should confess that the first hurdle I had to overcome in approaching the text was to get the Ulysses 31 theme tune out of my head (it’s probably unnecessary to explain here that I am a child of the 80s…)

Day 1

“Ulysses, Ulysseeeeees, soaring through all the galaxieeeeees….” Pesky earworm.

Normally if I’m told a book is difficult, I arrogantly assume I can do it. But Ulysses is genuinely intimidating. What I need to remind myself is:

  1. I really love James Joyce. Genuinely, Dubliners is one of my favourite-ever books. So I might even enjoy Ulysses.
  2. Other people have done it. I’ve even met some of them. Lovely bloggers left encouraging comments on my previous post where I explained what I planned to do.  It’s definitely do-able.
  3. I am not going in unarmed. I have The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires (3rd ed. 1996) at my side. I’m almost certain I read on twitter that this was a good thing, and surely twitter is never wrong??

I’ve read the 80+ page introduction to my edition and now wonder if I should gain degrees in Classical Civilisation/Modernism/European History/Religious Studies before even attempting this novel.

I’ll start tomorrow.

Pages read: None. Pages remaining: 933

Day 2

OK, possibly I overreacted. I think maybe I knew too much in advance. In the end, I was amazed I could make it to the end of a single sentence. But so far Ulysses is beautiful yet also sordid, and very readable. I’m glad I’ve got the reading companion though, as there was complex word play around the word ‘melon’ that I definitely wouldn’t have picked up on my own.

Pages read: 140 Pages remaining: 793

Day 3

For such a learned, intellectual novel, Ulysses also manages to be emotionally affecting. Now I’m just under a quarter of the way through I’m finding Leopold Bloom very moving. There’s something pathetic about him, and isolated and sad, even among the crowds of Dublin.

“I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I? Twentyeight I was. She twentythree. When we left Lombard street west something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy. Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand. Would you go back to then? Just beginning then. Would you? Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy? Wants to sew on buttons for me. I must answer. Write it in the library.

Grafton street gay with housed awnings lured his senses. Muslin prints, silkdames and dowagers, jingle of harnesses, hoofthuds lowringing in the baking causeway. Thick feet that woman has in the white stockings. Hope the rain mucks them up on her.”

Pages read: 218 Pages remaining: 715

Day 4

Fair to say my pace has slackened off today. I woke up with the book on my face, which upon removal revealed two hungry cats giving me the death stare.

Pages read: 250 Pages remaining: 683

Days 5, 6, 7

I’m sure a more attentive reader would get a lot more out of Ulysses, but as an inattentive reader I’m still really enjoying it. I especially like the section which the companion tells me corresponds with The Wandering Rocks in Homer. It’s 19 sections where, by following many characters for a short time, Joyce creates the hustle and bustle of the afternoon of 16 June 1904 in Dublin. He does this as much through the inner lives of his characters and their interactions with one another, as with description. Having said that, here are some descriptions which caught me:

“Two carfuls of tourists passed slowly, their women sitting fore, gripping the handrests. Palefaces. Men’s arms frankly round their stunted forms. They looked from Trinity to the blind columned porch of the bank of Ireland where pigeons roocoocooed.”

“Stephen Dedalus watched through the webbed window the lapidary’s fingers prove a timedulled chain. Dust webbed the window and the showtrays. Dust darkened the toiling fingers with their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones.

Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness. Where fallen archangels flung the stars of their brows. Muddy swinesnouts, hands, root and root, gripe and wrest them.”

“Moored under the trees of Charleville Mall Father Conmee saw a turfbarge, a towhorse with pendent head, a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw seated amidships, smoking and staring at a branch of poplar above him. It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people.”

I’m very grateful for the companion guide. I’m reading part of Ulysses then the corresponding section in the guide, and this isn’t nearly as tedious as I anticipated. It reassures me that I’m picking up a lot, and it’s highlighting the things I didn’t have hope of recognising.

Among all this learning, my most significant take away is: I’m going to start using the phrase “I beg your parsnips.”

Pages read: 403 Pages remaining: 530

Day 8, 9, 10

More than 100 pages of very unpleasant scenes, filled with boorish, racist, drunk men. An effective contrast to Bloom’s sober gentleness and moderation, (although also some questionable voyeurism from him) but I was very glad to leave it behind.

I wasn’t keen on the following section set out like a play either, and Bloom and Stephen’s hallucinations weren’t the most pleasant reading.

It’s hot, my hayfever is terrible, I’m sleep deprived and grumpy so not the best reader right now. Don’t listen to me.

Pages read: 704 Pages remaining: 229

Days 11, 12

Thank goodness – back on a much more straightforward narrative (or as near to one as you get with Joyce) and I’m enjoying Ulysses again. (I don’t normally mind experimental narratives so I’m blaming my hayfever brain.) Lovely scenes between Bloom and Dedalus.

“Literally astounded at this piece of intelligence Bloom reflected. Though they didn’t see eye to eye in everything a certain analogy there somehow was as if both their minds were travelling, so to speak, in the one train of thought.”

Which is then followed by 50-odd pages of (surprisingly explicit, even by today’s standards) almost punctuation-free stream of consciousness – a brave choice to end and a masterstroke.

“…I dont like books with a Molly in them like that one he brought me about the one from Flanders a whore always shoplifting anything she could cloth and stuff and yards of it O this blanket is too heavy on me thats better I havent even one decent nightdress this thing gets all rolled under me…” 

Pages read: 933 Pages remaining: zero!

So that’s me all done! And one of the Big Scary Tomes ticked off my Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge. While it doesn’t yet occupy a special place in my heart like Dubliners, I still got so much from Ulysses. It’s such an achievement to be simultaneously so epic and so determinedly everyday. I would definitely read it again, and I’d love to go to the Bloomsday events in Dublin, which I’m sure would mean I’d enjoy a re-read even more.

To end, an opportunity to indulge myself with one of the loves of my life, because here Kate Bush is singing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:

P.S Virginia Woolf did modify her view of Ulysses at a later date: “very much more impressive than I judged. Still I think there is virtue & some lasting truth in first impressions; so I don’t cancell mine. I must read some of the chapters again. Probably the final beauty of writing is never felt by contemporaries”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.31

Academy StreetMary Costello (2014) 179 pages

My final novella of Novella a Day in May 2022! Each time I’ve done this project I’ve been uncertain I would finish and this year more than ever looked shaky, as my post-covid brain hasn’t recovered to quite the extent I thought. Still, I’m really glad to have made it and discovered some wonderful novellas along the way. It’s been especially great this year to have Simon at Stuck in a Book doing the project too, and adding many more novellas to my TBR 😊

My final choice is a novella that I remember getting a lot of love in the blogosphere when it was published in 2014. Academy Street by Mary Costello follows Tess Lohan from her childhood in Ireland to adulthood in the US, raising her son on the titular New York street in the 1960s.

Do you know, dear reader, I started writing this post in my usual style but I’ve just deleted it all. I’ve decided instead to pull my favourite passage from Academy Street, and simply say that if you like this, I think you’ll like the novella. The scene is adult Tess, cutting her taciturn father’s hair. He is a grieving man in a great deal of pain over many years, and this has made him distant from his children.

“He turns his head towards her, and she waits to be denounced. He looks at her, baffled, stunned, as if he has suddenly found himself somewhere else. His chin begins to quiver, and he looks down. She is flooded with tender feelings for him. She sees for the first time all he has endured. Holding things together, holding himself together, poised, always, to defend against a new catastrophe. She gets up and lays a towel on his shoulders and begins to cut his hair. Neither of them says a word. She is moved by his silent acquiescence. Gently she takes each strand and cuts, the sound of the scissors in the air between them, the hair falling to the floor. And his sorrow, for all that is lost, lying silent within him.”

I really loved Academy Street. A beautifully observed novella of a quiet, ordinary life and of the distances and touchpoints between people.

So that’s it! Another NADIM come to end. Despite flagging at times I’ve really enjoyed it. And now I plan to go from one extreme to the other. From 31 books under 200 pages, to a single tome of 933 pages. I’m setting myself the goal of getting it read by 16 June. Those of you who recognise the date as Bloomsday will be way ahead of me here. It was published 100 years ago, and so for the centenary I’m finally going in…

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.30

A Nice Change – Nina Bawden (1997) 192 pages

Although I wouldn’t describe Nina Bawden as a comfort read – she is far too sharply observant for that – it was with some relief that I started A Nice Change, after the traumas of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles yesterday. A middle-class comedy of manners amongst holidaymakers in Greece sounded free of serious consequence and therefore just the ticket.

The story opens with solicitor Amy arriving in Athens airport with her husband Tom, a Labour MP, who has spotted his ex-mistress Portia heading to the same hotel as them:

“What the hell is she doing here? What the hell can he do? Amy has booked (a package deal, paid in advance) this reportedly comfortable hotel entirely for his benefit. She hates lying around pools, or on beaches, is bored by rich food as she is bored by rich people, likes to keep on the move when she travels. But he has just had a small but humiliating operation that made bicycling around Brittany, their earlier, energetic plan for this summer fortnight, out of the question.”

Despite being a philandering politician, Tom isn’t especially despicable. He’s not especially likable either. He’s just a middle-aged man worried about his waistline, dissatisfied at work but feeling too old to start anything new. He’s recognisable and ordinary, rather than a moustache-twirling villain.

“He could never again think of himself as an honest man. (There is a certain enjoyment in this self-abasement that he acknowledges occasionally, even though most of the time he prefers to see it as a decent humility.)”

Amy, on the other hand, seems quite a decent and caring person.

“Now it is only with Tom that she feels these physical characteristics to be shameful, disabling. With other people (more often with women than men) she is unselfconscious, competent, kindly, a good listener, even a good talker, on rare occasions quite witty. Well, cheery, anyway, she corrects herself.”

She is aware of Tom’s affair and knows it is over. She doesn’t want to know any details, so Tom spends the holiday worrying that Amy will discover who Portia is. Tom’s charming father arrives too, adding to his concerns.

Alongside these domestic woes are the other guests: Mr and Mrs Boot, an older couple who refer to each other as Mother and Daddy belying Mr Boot’s somewhat less-than-paternal traits; lovely young doctor Prudence Honey (ha!) awaiting the arrival of her extrovert grandmother; grieving widower Philip; and some mysterious elderly female twins, who Amy thinks look vaguely familiar…

Bawden is a great social observer, but never harshly judgemental:

“Connection thus established, they nod, and smile, and make various other small facial gestures to express friendly intentions towards each other and amused dismay at the suddenly crowded bar; every seat taken and not even much standing room since several of the newcomers have crutches or zimmer frames which they deploy cunningly to give them extra floor space.”

Although it’s a novella, Bawden handles all the characters expertly and none felt under-explored to me. There are various mysteries around the guests which gradually come to light without feeling contrived, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Hotel Parthenon.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.29

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles – Giorgio Bassani (1958 trans. Jamie McKendrick 2012) 125 pages

I’ve been meaning to read Giorgio Bassani for a while and have The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the TBR. This project in May seemed the ideal opportunity to read the first of his novels set in Ferrara, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. From this first encounter I can say I found Bassani to be a truly devastating writer.

The titular eyewear belongs to Dr Athos Fadigati, who has left Venice to settle in Ferrara. His story is told by a narrator looking back to when he was a young man and knew the doctor:

“It was in 1919, just after the other war. Because of my age, I who write this can only offer a rather vague and confused picture of that period. The town centre caffes spilt over with officers in uniform; lorries bedecked with flags continually passed by […] in front of the north face of the castle, a huge, scarlet advertising banner had been unfurled, inviting the friends and enemies of Socialism to come together to drink APERITIF LENIN”

The doctor is well-liked in the town, affable and competent at his work, a breath of fresh air after the old-fashioned medics previously available. In a small town though, people take an interest in everyone’s business, and no-one can work out why Dr Fadigati is single, or where he goes of an evening. When they realise he is gay, no-one cares so long as he is discreet. An insidious homophobia that can easily become explicit and threatening.  

“Yes – they said – now that his secret was no longer a secret, now that everything was as clear as could be, at least one could be sure how to behave towards him. By day, in the light of the sun, to show him every respect; in the evening, even if pressed chest to chest against him in the throng of Via San Romano, to show no sign of recognising him.”

Dr Fadigati starts commuting to Bologna along with the young university students of the town. He is such a sweet, kind man, who only wants to connect with others.

“He was happy, in the end, with the least thing, or so it seemed. He wanted no more than to stay there, in our third-class compartment, with the air of an old man silently warming his hands in front of a big fire.”

Unfortunately, the students – who have known him and been cared for by him their whole lives – do not always behave well: “little by little, without meaning to, all of us began to show him scant respect”. This includes a humiliating exchange with one of the young men, Deliliers, who doesn’t respect the doctor’s privacy and alludes to his sexuality in derogatory ways.

Things escalate during the annual family holiday to Riccione. The narrator sees the doctor and Deliliers together, and the town can no longer ignore the doctor’s sexuality. Around the same time, the narrator faces increasing antisemitism, demonstrated by fellow holiday-maker Signora Lavezzoli’s support of Hitler. The family find themselves treading a similar tightrope to the one Dr Fadigati has had to navigate, trying to stay safe amongst a discriminatory and prejudiced society.

“Romantic, patriotic, politically naive and inexperienced like so many Jews of his generation, my father, returning from the Front in 1919, had also enrolled in the Fascist Party. He had thus been a Fascist ‘from the very beginning’, and at heart had remained one despite his meekness and honesty. But since Mussolini, after the early scuffles, had begun to reach an agreement with Hitler, my father had started to feel uneasy.”

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles makes full use of the reader’s knowledge of history. It is a deeply upsetting read, showing how quickly unspoken prejudice can escalate and be supported by wider political and legal frameworks. It demonstrates how easy it is for ordinary people to become part of widespread evil – one of the narrator’s friends decides to join the government, not through any ideological belief but because it is a useful opportunity. The ease with which it happens and the casual acceptance of the racial laws, is horribly believable.

Bassani uses the story of Dr Fadigati to fully drive home the consequences of the rise of Fascism and Nazism. It’s remarkable in portraying the tragedy that ensues in a deeply emotional but also carefully restrained way.

“The setting sun, cleaving through a dark cope of cloud that lay low on the horizon, vividly lit up everything: the Jewish cemetery at my feet the apse and bell tower of the Church of San Cristoforo only a little further on, and in the background high above the vista of brown roofs, the distant bulk of the Estense Castle and the Duomo. It was enough for me to recover the ancient, maternal visage of my hometown, to reclaim it once again all for myself, that atrocious feeling of exclusion that had tormented me in the last days to fall away instantly. The future of persecution and massacres that perhaps awaited us – since childhood I had heard them spoken of as always a possible eventuality for us Jews – no longer made me afraid.”

I’m so glad I finally picked up Bassani and I’ll be returning to him for sure. Just as soon as I’ve recovered from this novella, which could take some time…

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.28

Thérèse Desqueyroux – François Mauriac (1927, trans. Gerard Hopkins 1972) 115 pages

Today’s choice sees me return to my much-neglected Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century reading challenge with a classic of French literature.

The novella opens with Thérèse Desqueyroux being acquitted of trying to poison her husband.

“The smell of fog and of baking bread was not merely the ordinary evening smell of an insignificant country town, it was the sweet savour of life given back to her at long last. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the perfume of the sleeping earth, of wet, green grass. She tried not to listen to the little man with the short legs who never once addressed his daughter.”

As she journeys back to her home among pine forests in Landes in south-west France, she reflects on her marriage to Bernard and life so far.

“All around us was the silence: the silence of Argelouse! People who have never lived in that lost corner of the heath-country can have no idea what silence means. It stands like a wall about the house, and the house itself seems as though it was set solid in the dense mass of the forest, whence comes no sign of life, save occasionally the hooting of an owl. (At night I could almost believe that I heard the sob I was at such pains to stifle.)”

There is never any doubt that she tried to poison him. Her family know it and Bernard knows it. However, there is never an obvious reason given for her drastic action. It was an unhappy marriage, a strategic match between Catholic middle-class families, but Thérèse seems to have gone along with it happily enough, mainly due to her fondness for Bernard’s sister Anne (some commentators have suggested Thérèse is gay). She doesn’t love Bernard and she feels no desire for him, but surely history would be littered with bumped-off spouses if that were a reason for murder.

“When all was said, Bernard wasn’t so bad. There was nothing she detested more in novels than the delineation of extraordinary people who had no resemblance to anyone whom one met in normal life.”

When she returns to her husband, she is surprised to learn that the plan is for her to stay, but on what terms?

Thérèse Desqueyroux is a beautifully written, intriguing novel that raises questions without seeking trite answers, including who pays the price for male power; how to create agency when you have almost no choices; the nature of justice.

‘But if I did give you a reason it would seem untrue the moment I got it into words…’

As the cover of the Penguin Classics edition shows, this novella was adapted to film (for the second time) in 2012. This trailer suggests a wonderfully shot, faithful adaptation:

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.27

Closely Observed Trains – Bohumil Hrabal (1965, trans. Edith Pargeter 1968) 91 pages

I’m flagging a bit with my Novella a Day challenge, but I’m telling myself there’s only a few more days to go. I’m still really enjoying it, but my post-covid brain is struggling. This meant when I sat down to read Closely Observed Trains, I thought for ages that it wasn’t working for me due to my rubbish concentration levels. Then suddenly it clicked, and as a result it broke my heart.

The story is narrated by Miloš Hrma, young apprentice on the railways during 1945 in Bohemia (one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge.)

“The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the timetable, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.”

This slightly surreal comedic tone continues throughout the novel as we learn about Miloš’ colleagues: lascivious dispatcher Hubička and pigeon-loving station master Lánksý. There is a lot of silliness – Hubička is caught up in a daft sex scandal, Lánksý can be pompous and ridiculous.

But there is a serious side too. Miloš is returning to work after cutting his wrists. There is a lot of animal suffering and at first I was baffled as to why, before realising it was a way of introducing violence and victimhood to a novel about war which doesn’t include warfare.

As Miloš and his colleagues continue their ordinary lives, the troop trains trundle past to the Eastern front.

“This year the Germans had lost control of the airspace over our little town. When I rode along the footpath to the fuselage of the aircraft the snow was glittering on the level fields, and in every crystal of snow there seemed to be an infinitely tiny second hand ticking, the snow crackled so in the brilliant sunlight, shimmering in many colours.”

Closely Observed Trains presents a narrator with a distinct young voice: vulnerable, inexperienced, sceptical and funny. It finely balances unreality and humour alongside humanity and pathos. It’s deeply serious but written lightly, showing how bravery and heroism can exist in the unlikeliest places.

It could be my aforementioned foggy covid brain, but as I was writing this post I started to feel a bit teary by the end. This really was the most affecting novella.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.26

Heartburn – Nora Ephron (1983) 179 pages

Earlier in the month, Simon, my fellow Novella a Day in May-er, reviewed Heartburn by Nora Ephron. When I subsequently saw a copy in my favourite charity bookshop I decided it was A Sign. (Admittedly I’ll decide practically anything is A Sign if it means I get to buy a book off the back of it 😀 )

I’ve never read Nora Ephron because I’m not a huge fan of rom-coms (I especially don’t understand You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks essentially plays Jeff Bezos, who destroys Meg Ryan’s lovely family bookshop, yet apparently that’s all OK and they get together anyway???) But the quotes Simon pulled were so entertaining that I thought I’d enjoy her novel more, which was a correct assumption.

Heartburn is a fictional account of the breakdown of Nora’s second marriage to her husband Carl Bernstein (as in Woodward and Bernstein, as in Watergate). Her alter ego in this novel is Rachel, a cookery writer who is seven months pregnant and married to Mark:

“Every afternoon, Mark would emerge from his office over the garage and say he was going out to buy socks, and every evening he would come home empty-handed and say, you would not believe how hard it is to find a decent pair of socks in this city. Four weeks it took me to catch on! Inexcusable, especially since it was exactly the sort of thing my first husband said when he came home after spending the afternoon in bed with my best friend Brenda, who subsequently and as a result became my mortal enemy.

[…]

It is of course hideously ironic that the occasion for my total conversion to fidelity was my marriage to Mark, but timing has never been my strong point.”

This matter-of-fact, self-deprecating style continues throughout the novel. Rachel takes us through the painful aftermath of discovering her husband cheating as she sees friends, returns to her beloved New York from the decidedly unloved Washington, catches up with her therapy group and shares recipes with the reader.

Rachel is not remotely self-pitying but then nor does she pity anyone else:

“Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I’ll show you a real asshole.”

“Beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”

This sometimes goes too far and there are some discriminatory comments, thankfully very few but still surprising in a book from the 1980s.

Ephron’s humour stays the right side of pithy, and doesn’t descend into bitterness. Ultimately, I think she wanted to make the reader laugh and through doing so change the story from one of anguish and pain.

“That’s the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there’s something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.”

There’s very little plot here, and I think the main enjoyment is not from the story (which is pretty ordinary) or the characterisation (which isn’t complex) but from a strong authorial voice, so distinct and entertaining.

“It has a happy ending, but that’s because I insist on happy endings.”

Heartburn was adapted by Nora Ephron into a screenplay for this 1986 film, which I find surprising as this trailer seems to bear only a passing resemblance to the book. Two strong leads though…

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.25

Freetown – Otto de Kat (2018, trans. Laura Watkinson 2020) 142 pages

At first I thought Freetown by Otto de Kat was going to be a very different novella, and I wasn’t sure about it. It opens with Maria talking to ex-lover Vincent about the disappearance of Ishmaël, a refugee from Sierra Leone who delivered her papers and subsequently became like a son to her.

This beginning made me think the novella was likely to be description of the search for Ishmaël and an exploration of his life. I wasn’t sure that such a story could be adequately told in such a short form. But instead, Ishmaël’s disappearance serves as the motivator for Maria and Vincent to reconsider their shared history.

Maria approaches Vincent as a confidant partly because of their previous intimacy, partly because of his work as a psychotherapist. The chapters are labelled with the two characters names and each serves as silent interlocutor to the other. Maria explains how Ishmaël came into her life:

“The conversation didn’t exactly flow, not that first time. He just nodded and gave me a hint of a smile. All that rain made it look more like crying. I gave him 10 euros, and thanked him for delivering our newspaper ….

I told him to come back if he was ever out of work. And that maybe I could help him. I’ve often wondered why I said that.”

When Vincent takes over the narrative we realise he is still very attached to Maria, and that he’s not really got over their separation:

“That is why I kept going. I am hoping they will find something new, go and do something else. I never managed that myself. I just ended up in a vague fog. I live by touch, doing everything by half measures in a state of semi consciousness.”

As the story progresses we learn more about Vincent and Maria’s relationships, with each other and with their spouses. Ishmaël however, remains elusive. Although at the beginning of the story Maria proclaims him family, we don’t really get to know him and it is questionable how much Maria did:

“All the time I knew him, he was always waiting… Always ready to go, to keep on running. That too.”

This doesn’t mean her grief is any less though, and there is a sense of grieving throughout Freetown. Both Vincent and Maria seem to carry a lot of sadness for times past. Ultimately, they seem to be telling one another stories of loss.

The theme is emphasised through what is missing from the narrative. Ishmaël initially seems to be established as the central character, but remains an absent presence throughout. Maria and Vincent rarely speak within one another’s narratives despite being spoken to.

“He’s been gone a year now, and I simply cannot explain who he really was. But whenever I attempt to characterise him, I just end up saying something about myself.”

Freetown is about the stories we tell ourselves, our need for personal narratives and how we constantly reconstruct these. It shows how we try and make sense of the world when it doesn’t always make sense, and how unknowable even the closest people in our lives can be.

It also suggests that despite these limitations we keep on trying, because human connection – however fleeting and flawed – is worth it even with the pain of its loss.

“He nearly always succeeded in telling me a story I understood.”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.24

The Love Child – Edith Olivier (1927) 138 pages

The Love Child has been reissued as part of the British Library Women Writers series, a wonderful endeavour which has my fellow Novella a Day in May-er Simon Thomas as series consultant 😊

From the opening of The Love Child, I knew I was in for a treat:

“Agatha Bodenham had unconsciously moved a pace or two from the others, and she stood, isolated, near the head of her mother’s grave while the clergyman finished the service. She was wearing a dress of the shape and the tone of black which her dressmaker thought suitable for morning orders, and her hat was quite without character.”

Such a clever opening, and such detailed characterisation in so few words. This continues with clear-sightedness, yet with compassion too.

“She and her mother were women of peculiarly reserved natures, finding it hard to make friends, and holding their country neighbours at a distance. So reserved, too, that they had been barely intimate with each other, living through their days side by side without real mingling of experiences or sharing of confidences. Indeed, they had neither experiences nor confidences to share.”

Now her mother has died, Agatha is deeply, despairingly lonely. It has always been a lonely life in many ways, and she has never had many friends. Then she remembers a childhood imaginary companion, Clarissa. She wills Clarissa back to her, and the scamp – fleet of foot, irrepressible of nature – reappears. It’s not unheard of to retreat into fantasy at times of stress, but what lifts this from the psychological to the fantastical is that other people can see Clarissa too.

“She hardly believed it herself when she thought about it. She just didn’t think about it at all – she lived, and for the first time in her life.”

This presents a particular problem for Agatha as to how to explain Clarissa’s presence, the solution of which is the title.

“There was a special flavour about this scandal, because nobody believed it, however often it was repeated. The thing was unthinkable. To look at Agatha was to know that the policeman’s story was an impossible one, and yet its very impossibility made it the more amusing.”

Clarissa grows up with Agatha and the two are very much bound together. Clarissa encompasses all the behaviours that were supressed in Agatha long ago: appetites for food, for books, for life. However, as a person with those traits grows older, they are naturally going to want to experience more and varied things. Agatha feels Clarissa moving away from the insular world they have created together to beyond Agatha’s limits.

“Now Clarissa would be the guiding spirit, and it appeared she would at once step out of the artificial world which Agatha had created for them to live in, and go to the everyday world which had always been so comfortably and remotely outside, a world which seemed to Agatha at once more commonplace and more disconcerting than their own.”

In many ways The Love Child is a very sad novel. Agatha is so lonely and the solution to that loneliness is one that will cause her further pain. It’s not made clear in the novel whether Agatha is experiencing mental ill health or a truly wondrous manifestation. In a sense it doesn’t really matter because what is being portrayed, in a compelling and involving way, is the quiet desperation that could exist within an ordinary woman’s life in this period.

Agatha has no troubles or ostensible difficulties to contend with, but what she has is an entirely unfulfilled life and no idea of how to live differently. Her solution is extreme, and in many ways is one borne out of fear. She has been equipped with almost no life skills, and a fear of the wider world. It is no wonder that her solution is one that possibly lives only in her own head, and thrives in her domestic realm.

“Agatha thought she liked picnics, and in the long winter evening she often played at going to them with Clarissa. She felt rather differently about them in the summer, preferring them at a distance, like most things.”

I found The Love Child to be a sensitive and inventive novel. It was also highly readable and made me keen to seek out more of Edith Olivier’s work.