“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” (R. D. Laing)

Some friends of mine recently got married in a beautiful venue, which used to be a mental health hospital. A lovely time was had by all. People were struck at how nice it was, and it got me wondering: why? Were they expecting the institution to be grim in itself, or was it the thought that somehow all that pain remains and would be felt? It seemed to be a bit of both. Clearly the idea of a place where mental health is treated is a powerful one. It’s no surprise then, that it’s proved a tempting choice for writers, so it’s led me to this week’s theme of novels set in mental health units. Rest assured Reader: although powerful, neither of my choices are depressing. At this time of year it can feel like everyone’s mental health is under siege and we just don’t need it. In fact, here’s a little pick-me-up for us all:

On with books! Firstly, All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leao (2008, trans.Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler 2013). This novella is only 107 pages long but it is one of the most affecting and powerful pieces I have ever read. Rodrigo de Souza Leao died in a psychiatric clinic in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, shortly after this was published. All Dogs Are Blue takes the reader into life inside such an institution, and does so with an unblinking gaze, humour, warmth and blistering truth.

The narrator is 36-year-old overweight man who has swallowed ‘a chip’ which alters his behaviour. This has led to his incarceration. There isn’t a plot, it wouldn’t make sense if there was. Instead, the narrator takes us through his daily experiences and reminiscences about his past.

“The Christian says hallelujah. She takes my hand. I take out my dick and can’t play snooker. I go back to my nine-by-twelve cubicle, where they put me to smile bayoneting my veins. Grab the flesh, stretch the flesh, shove another injection in.”

The narrator never tries to convince us of his sanity. Rather, we are given his world view, one which is sometimes shocking in its clarity amongst flights from reality:

“If it could bark and eat, what would a blue dog eat? Blue food? And if it got ill. Would it take blue medicine? A lot of medicines are blue, including Haldol. I take Haldol to be under no illusions that I’ll die mad one day, somewhere dirty, without any food.”

Despite detailing an individual in dire circumstances, All Dogs Are Blue is not a depressing book. This is because the narrator is resilient and self-aware, even as he experiences psychotic delusions. There is humour found in his hallucinatory companions, nineteenth century French writers:

“Rimbaud wasn’t used to modern stuff, He was a guy from another time. He had to learn everything. He’d never written another poem. But he was a good companion for wasting away the hours and for poker.”

Whereas Baudelaire can be a bit more moody.

De Souza Leao also writes with great beauty and poetry:

“Everything went green like the colour of my brother Bruno’s eyes and the colour of the sea. Rimbaud was happy and decided not to kill himself.

Everything went Van Gogh. The light of things changed.”

But the humour and the poetry do not detract from the pain. Rather, they capture it in the most effective way to draw you in to begin to understand an extreme experience that thankfully, most of us will not endure.

“I break everything because I’m made of shards and when the shards invite me to, I wreak havoc.”

Through an individual experience, the wider issue of how we treat the mentally ill is addressed. De Souza Leao doesn’t offer answers but he poses uncomfortable questions about institutionalised mental healthcare:

“Mostly, they only wanted you to keep your mouth shut all the time, like no-one deserved to hear you say anything noble or important.”

All Dogs Are Blue is a stunning, heartbreaking novella. It is also yet another example of the brilliant work being done by not-for-profit publishers And Other Stories bringing translated fiction to a wider audience.

Secondly, a novel which examines the impact on family when a member has enduring mental ill health, The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (2014, trans. Deborah Bragan-Turner 2016). I was inspired to pick this up after reading Kate’s wonderful review. It’s also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Narrated by Jackie, it tells of her relationship with her alcoholic father Jim, who is an inpatient at Beckomberga Hospital in Stockholm. This was one of the largest mental health hospitals in Europe, but was closed in 1995 as the focus on care shifted to the community.

Image from here

Jackie finds herself drawn to her father and to the hospital, visiting repeatedly throughout her young life, despite the pain it causes.

“The light that has always been in his eyes is there no longer. The beautiful, terrifying desolate light that spilled over, illuminating the night around him and betraying a special kind of intensity and recklessness, something unstoppable, a raging fire, the sheerest drop.”

Stridsberg is excellent at capturing the complexities of loving someone who is hell-bent on self-destruction; the contradictory state whereby the person and what they seem to promise constantly shifts and hope of a better future never quite dies.

“All at once he sounds like the Jim I find so hard to remember, the way he was before the alcohol, before the devastation; if there really is such a thing as before.”

Jim is treated with compassion but the selfishness of his behaviour is not shied away from. He is the alcoholic but the disease that affects far more than just him:

“Every morning, a great despondency in his chest that stretches out like a wasteland. A blazing sun within him, his blood screaming for the warmed brandy running through his veins.”

Jackie makes highly questionable decisions herself and while this is clearly due to Jim’s impact on her life, Stridsberg is wise enough to present these decisions as they stand and not pull them apart in trite pseudo-psychological interpretations. We never entirely understand what draws Jackie relentlessly back to Beckomberga, because she doesn’t entirely understand it herself.

“Each time I walk through the hospital gates the rest of the world slides away, like the tide that recedes to lay bare another shoreline”

The Gravity of Love is about families, about how they make us who we are and how we make us who we are. Stridsberg explores a variety of familial relationships with great subtlety, but it is also a story of individuals’ relationships with institutions. Jackie’s relationship with Beckomberga is complex, and similarly, the inpatients’ relationship with the hospital is shown to be ambivalent, both supportive and restrictive:

“People say that former patients keep returning to Clock-House Park at Beckomberga, that they stand under the trees with their hands pressed on the sun-bleached walls, as if the institution’s heart were still beating within – a weak human pulse against my hand when I touch the faint blood-red colour of the façade.”

The fate of the last patient of the hospital, Olaf, is a sad one and this description of his experience just absolutely floored me:

 “He has always walked alone with the stamp of illness imprinted under his skin, visible to all apart from himself. Whenever he has approached a girl she has shied away. Every time he has offered his hand to someone it has been construed as hostile and he has been banished back to the hospital.”

Although very different from All Dogs Are Blue, Stridsberg is similarly challenging in her questions around how we treat mental illness: institutionally, societally, politically and individually. A beautifully written, poetic novel that never lets the style detract from the substance.

To end, I promised a return to 80s pop videos this week, and so I thought I’d pick an artist who has been very open about his struggles with bipolar disorder. The fact that I’ve been in love with him for 37 years is purely coincidental 😉

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“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” (George Burns)

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! From my twitter feed, I know for some that means being as far away from relatives as possible 😉 If Christmas advertising were to be believed, we should all have families like this:

Whereas in fact the reality may be closer to this:

In which case I would say well done you, because I’m the only person alive who doesn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life *ducks for cover* whereas the Addams Family are awesome.  Whether you spent Christmas with George Bailey or Uncle Fester,  I thought this week might be a good time to look at families that are found in unexpected places.

Firstly, Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999) which I picked up after loving Our Souls at Night so much and many bloggers recommended I start the Plainsong trilogy. All the things I enjoyed about Our Souls at Night were here: a gentle, unshowy voice, believable idiosyncratic characters, ordinary lives shown to have a delicate beauty.

Set in the fictional prairie community of Holt, Colorado, Plainsong focusses on a pregnant schoolgirl, Victoria Roubideaux, and one of her teachers, Tom Guthrie, who is splitting up with his wife. After Victoria is thrown out by her mother, another teacher, Maggie Jones, suggests to a pair of elderly brothers, Harold and Raymond McPheron, that they take her in.

“ You’re getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.”

They offer Victoria a home, and the portrayal of their developing relationship with the young woman is just lovely. The brothers are set in their ways and unused to female company. Victoria is shy and unsure. The tentative gestures they make towards one another pay off and a tender, mutually nurturing affection develops.

“The brothers were watching her closely, a little desperately, sitting at the table, their faces sober and weathered but still kindly, still well meaning, with their smooth white foreheads shining like polished marble under the dining room light. I wouldn’t know, she said. I couldn’t say about that. I don’t know anything about it. Maybe you could explain it to me.

Well sure, Harold said. I reckon we could try.”

Meanwhile, Tom’s sons Ike and Bobby are struggling to come to terms with their mother’s depression and subsequent leave-taking. A similarly unexpected yet gentle cross-generational relationship develops between the boys and elderly, isolated Mrs Stearns who they know from their paper round.

“The timer dinged on the stove. They took the first oatmeal cookies out of the oven and now there was the smell of cinnamon and fresh baking in the dark little room. The boys sat at the table and ate the cookies together with the milk Mrs Stearns had poured out into blue glasses. She stood at the counter watching them  and sipped a cup of hot tea and ate a small piece of cookie, but she wasn’t hungry. After a while she smoked a cigarette and tapped ashes in the sink.

You boys don’t say very much, she said. I wonder what you’re thinking all the time.

About what?

About anything. About the cookies you made.

They’re good, Ike said.”

Plainsong is a gentle tale about all that human beings can give and be to one another, but it is not remotely sentimental or rose-tinted. Haruf shows, he doesn’t tell, with a restraint and subtlety that is easy to underestimate but is absolutely masterful. I find his writing incredibly moving. It’s going to be a real strain on my 2018 book buying ban not to rush out and buy the novels of his I don’t yet own.

 

Secondly, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (2013, trans. Alison Watts, 2017). Again, this is a simply told tale of ordinary people, and it is truly heartwarming. The main protagonist is the decidedly unheroic Sentaro. He has a criminal record and is employed by people he owes money to. He sells dorayaki – pancakes filled with the titular paste – with no pride in or commitment to his work. One day Tokue, an elderly lady with distorted hands and a disfigured face arrives in the shop:

“ ‘I had one of your dorayaki the other day. The pancake wasn’t too bad, I thought, but the bean paste, well…’

‘The bean paste?’

‘Yes. I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.’

‘You couldn’t? That’s strange.’ Sentaro made a face as if to show how regrettable that was, though he knew full well his bean paste could to reveal no such thing.”

Sentaro employs Tokue on the understanding that she will not interact with the customers who he thinks will be put-off by her disability. Tokue’s delicious bean paste brings more customers to the shop and business begins to boom. As Sentaro and Tokue’s relationship develops, he begins to understand that she has survived Hansen’s disease (leprosy) but is still subject to significant stigma around the disease. One of the schoolgirl customers, Wakana, becomes very attached to Tokue, and they visit her at the asylum she continues to live in although the government has passed an act which means those with Hansen’s disease are no longer kept in isolation.

“Nevertheless human lives had been swallowed up by this place and for a hundred years, continually spurned. It felt to Sentaro as if the singular silence rose from the very earth beneath their feet, steeped as it was in sighs and regrets.”

Sweet Bean Paste is about living life to the full even when society is circumscribing it in cruel ways. It is about friendship’s power to heal and to empower. It is also about opening ourselves to experience the world in new and surprising ways, no matter our age. Tokue has an almost mystical relationship with her cooking, which enriches both her and those who consume her food.

“When I make sweet bean paste I observe closely the colour of the adzuki beans faces. I take in their voices. That might mean imagining a rainy day or the beautiful fine weather they have witnessed. I listen to their stories of the winds that blew on their journey to me.”

And so in the end, I think Sweet Bean Paste is about nourishment in all its forms; it is there for the taking if we have the wisdom to see it and the open hearts to embrace it.

To end, never let it be said that I shy away from the obvious:

“Merry Christmas, I don’t want to fight tonight” (The Ramones)

Happy Christmas everyone! I’ve picked 2 undemanding festive reads this week, as I for one am already finding my brain overtaxed – I blame all the twinkling lights.

 

To start, the irresistably titled Christmas With Dull People by Edwardian satirist Saki (republished this year by Daunt Books). This is a perfect stocking filler: 4 stories amounting to 48 pages, little bite-sized witticisms for when your brain is dribbling out of your ears trying to comprehend the inanities of Christmas telly as your stomach tries to digest a week’s worth of calories in one sitting.

The stories are so short I just want to give you a wee taster of what to expect, I can’t really say more or it will amount to paraphrasing the whole thing. Saki is wonderfully witty and contained but it does make the stories hard to review!

In the first story ‘Reginald’s Christmas Revel’ the titular man is trying to get through Christmas games with his relations.

“On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English Fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect.”

In the following story ‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’ he treats us to his opinions on the difficulty of festive gift-receiving:

“Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really long enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.”

We leave Reginald for ‘Bertie’s Christmas Eve’ in which Bertie, who “had in early life adopted the profession of n’er do well” treats his whole family appallingly in a farcical fashion.

Finally in ‘Down Pens’ a couple struggle with the thank you letter writing that inevitably follows the revelries:

 “I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters today and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness”

I hope this has given you enough of an idea of Saki’s wit and humour to convince you. A real treat, and calorie-free to boot!

Creepy snowmen break:

Secondly, Arrest the Bishop? By Winifred Peck (1949) which I picked up after reading Ali’s review. This is a lovely golden age mystery set in 1920, at Christmas time, although the festivities are not lingered over.

Dr Broome, the Bishop of Evelake, has various people arriving at his Palace where he lives with his second wife, their staff (minus Moira the housekeeper who is in hospital) and Bobs, his secretary. Joining them are Judith, his flighty, adulterous daughter from his first marriage; Sue, his sensible daughter from his second; Dick,  ex-military police and now a deacon; a Chancellor; a canon; and a group of young clerics. It is snowing heavily as you’d expect in a country house murder mystery, when the despicable Reverend Ulder arrives:

“when he focussed those eyes on you, with the secretive state of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats… the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots”

This charmer is corrupt in just about every way you can imagine and having added blackmail to his repertoire, there is no shortage of suspects when he is poisoned. Dick helps out Chief Constable Mack with the investigation, but everyone seems so unlikely a murderer:

“Motive and opportunity alike seemed to point skeleton fingers at such preposterous figures – Judith – the Chancellor – Canon Wye – the Bishop himself!”

“Dick…was aware by now that his activities in the war would always seem to outsiders that of a sort of glorified policeman. Nor could he very well explain that til this day he had no experience whatever of suspecting Church dignitaries of murder.”

Mack seems determined to arrest the Bishop, while for Dick, the chief suspect is obsequious butler Soames:

“Had this chap been reading Wodehouse as a guide to butlers? For occasionally he would throw out such Jeeves-like sentiments with oily rectitude, in startling contrast to his usual sulky, aggressive manner.”

Despite their biases and their motley crew of suspects, of course they get there in the end. To be honest, the murderer is completely obvious, but this was part of the fun. I could just watch the investigation play out and enjoy this good-natured golden age mystery as a perfect comfort read for this time of year.

I contributed greatly to our team win at my work’s Christmas quiz this year, due to my specialist subject coming up: questionable late-20th century Christmas tunes. The clincher was knowing that this wasn’t Elvis Presley (trigger warning – creepy puppet):

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” (Michelle Obama)

A little while ago I went to see Edward St Aubyn interviewed and he was every bit as witty and compelling as I’d hoped. He mentioned that he finds dialogue the easiest part of writing, and an audience member asked him if he’d consider writing a play. St Aubyn said he didn’t really enjoy theatre (something along the lines of “I always seem to be in the middle of row M”) but that playwriting might be a bit of a holiday from novel writing, which I’m sure must have pissed off any playwrights in the audience sweating blood and ink over their drama.

Also, for any fellow Patrick Melrose series fans, and I know we are a precious bunch who don’t want to see TV mess up such novelistic perfection, he said he’d been on set to see the production that’s being made with Benedict Cumberbatch and he was very happy with it.

So, a long preamble to say that this is why I decided to look at playwrights writing prose this week.

Firstly, Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Other Novellas (1954-73, trans. Samuel Beckett and Richard Seaver) which I would argue aren’t novellas at all, they are all short stories (there are 4 stories in the collection and the 2 longest are only just over 20 pages). Pedantry aside, I would say if you like Beckett’s dramas you’ll like his short stories. It’s all here: existential crisis, bleak absurdism, humour and despair.

In The End, the first-person narrator is down on his luck, clothed in badly fitting clothes that ‘they’ have given him from a dead man, having burnt his (presumably to avoid disease). He eventually finds lodgings, but is turfed out and returns to an itinerant life:

“One day I witnessed a strange scene. Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere. But that day I must have come back.”

Pretty Beckettian, no? I know he’s not for everyone, but what I like about Beckett is that all the absurdism and word-play is not an intellectual exercise only, but is underpinned by a great humanity and acute awareness of suffering which makes his work bleakly beautiful:

“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

The idea of choosing the story we tell is continued in the next two stories, The Expelled where the narrator, having taken us through a day in his life concludes:

“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.”

And also in The Calmative, where the narrator tells himself a story to assuage the fear of death:

“So I’ll tell myself a story. I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and its there I feel I’ll be old, old, even older than the day I fell, calling for help and it came. Or is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.”

The final, titular story is needless to say, not a rose-tinted view of innocence and longing.

“I didn’t understand women at that period. I still don’t for that matter. Nor men either. Nor animals either. What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains. I think them through daily, it doesn’t take long, thought  moves so fast, but they are not only in my thought, not all.”

So, business as usual for Beckett despite the change in the form from drama 😀 If you’re not sure about Beckett but want to give him a go, you could do worse than start here; you’ll get a good flavour without having to pay extortionate theatre ticket prices only to find yourself stuck in the middle of row M.

Obligatory picture of Beckett’s amazing face:

Secondly, About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. Rosamund Bartlett, OUP 2004). I’m being a bit cheeky claiming Chekhov primarily as a playwright for the purposes of this blog post, given that the back of my edition of these stories has a quote from Raymond Carver proclaiming Chekhov “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived”.

Anton Chekhov, who took up writing after One Direction split up

Having read this collection, I would say he really is a master. Beautiful writing, not a word out of place (as you’d expect given the famous ‘gun’ instruction regarding not having any superfluous detail) and he is able to take the miniature and make it epic. In The Lady with the Little Dog, Chekhov takes a well-worn story of a bounder seducing an unhappy woman and turns it into a tragedy, without it ever becoming sentimental or overblown.

“She pressed his hand and started walking down the stairs, looking back at him  all the time, and you could see from her eyes that she really was not happy. Gurov stood for a while, listening, and then when everything had gone quiet he looked for his coat-peg and left the theatre.”

It is the story not of a great love affair, but a love that sneaks up on two people who were not looking for it and how it seems to bring nothing but misery, but with an ever-present promise of unrealised happiness.

The stories are ambitious in theme and they are truly profound, but that doesn’t mean they are without humour. Rothschild’s Violin begins:

The town was very small – worse than a village really – and the people who lived in it were mostly old folk who died so rarely it was quite annoying.”

Yakov is the unfortunate coffin maker in this healthy town and he is grumpy and horrible to his wife. When his wife dies, he expresses his unexpected feelings through his violin playing, to great effect:

“Rothschild listened intently, standing to one side, his arms folded on his chest. The frightened, confused expression on his face gradually changed to one of grief and suffering. He rolled his eyes, as if experiencing exquisite pain”

A story about the universality of pain and the expression of feeling beyond words is explored with a lightness of touch that almost borders magic realism. Chekhov writes with such subtlety and never patronises the reader.

It’s really hard to write about Chekhov’s short stories. They are so rich, so full of telling detail and so beautifully evoked that I have not done any justice to them here. I only hope that I’ve convinced you to pick up one of his short story collections and read the treasures for yourself.

To end, following my last post’s comment by Lucy, a festive video of 2 men stepping out of their comfort zones and looking slightly baffled about it all (“I’m David Bowie, I live down the road” 😀 ):

“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.

“Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I’m managing to squeeze in one final post for German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.  Hopefully next year I’ll be better organised and able to participate some more, but for now I’m off to Austria, which is also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Do join in with GLM next year or AW80Books, they’re great ways to read some wonderful books 😊

Firstly, The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (trans. Joel Rotenberg 2008) which was found amongst his papers after he killed himself in 1942. This is a melancholy tale of the impact of war on individuals, in this instance the First World War. Christine is a titular provincial civil servant, who finds herself in her late twenties having only known penny-pinching and drudgery.

“The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.”

Christine is plucked out of her ordinary life by her aunt who is visiting the Swiss Alps. She invites Christine to stay and the naïve woman is enraptured by the whirlwind of new clothes, fine dining and bright young things of which she is suddenly in the midst.

 “All the world’s sweetness might be in this one thin straw of scalding ice. Heart thumping, fingers trembling avidly, she looks about for someone or something to receive her overflowing gratitude.”

Christine is transformed from a drudge into a beautiful young woman that people want to be with.

“In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite.”

Then, just as suddenly, it is all taken away. Back in her small Austrian town she finds herself unable to cope with the poverty of the people, her home and her job. She meets Ferdinand, a soldier whose war wound means he is unable to continue his work as an architect. He is cynical of governments and bitter regarding his experience:

“In our Tartar village we didn’t know if Vienna was part of Bohemia, or maybe Italy. And we didn’t give a damn. All we cared about was stuffing a crust of bread down our throats and getting the lice out of our hair and finding some matches or tobacco sometime in the next five hours.”

For Christine, this man is soulmate, but these two souls are so damaged, so hurt and isolated, that they can only offer one another the bleakest kind of companionship.

“Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had said just what she’d been thinking all this time; he’d expressed clearly what she’d dully felt – the wish to be given one’s due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while others were warm inside.”

Zweig is unblinking in his portrayals of people, showing them with all their flaws, vanities and foibles, but still with great compassion. You feel for the characters precisely because they are so believably imperfect. The tyranny they face from the ruling class – either elected or via money – is presented as inescapable. The Post Office Girl is a novel about desperation, and how financial poverty can wear people down to a poverty of spirit. It is beautifully written and absolutely devastating.

In the Afterword of my edition William Deresiewicz suggests the novel is unfinished. I’m not sure I agree. I don’t know enough about Zweig’s style to argue my point forcefully, but to me, the ending occurs exactly where it should. It is perfect: sad but defiant, with so much unknown.

Secondly, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983, trans. Joachim Neugroschel 1988). Marina Sofia reviewed Jelinek’s volume of 3 plays In den Alpen for German Lit Month, do read her fascinating post which explains how controversial the author is in Austria due to her critique of Austrian society.  The Piano Teacher was the first of her novels to be translated into English and it was also adapted into a film in 2001, starring the wonderful Isabel Huppert and directed by Michael Haneke. I haven’t seen it but it looks a faithful adaptation:

I found The Piano Teacher an incredibly tough read. Jelinek does not pull her punches in any way. This tale of Erika, a woman living in a claustrophobic, abusive relationship with her mother, and her masochistic sexual desires seeking expression with one of her pupils is really hard going.

“They are enclosed together in a bell jar: Erika, her fine protective hulls, her mama.”

Jelinek creates the cruel, affectionate relationship between mother and daughter brilliantly. They are bound together in bitterness and a warped love.

“The daughter is the mother’s idol, and Mother demands only a tiny tribute: Erika’s life.”

Erika’s relationship with her mother and the abuse she suffers, and enacts, feeds into her sexual preferences, reminding me of The Blue Room. She is repressed (she shares a bed with her mother), and this expresses itself through the violence she metes out to her unsuspecting fellow commuters, and in one horrible instance, a pupil she is jealous of. She is a voyeur and attends peepshows and stalks couples in the park, but is incapable of becoming sexually aroused by what she witnesses. When a student, Klemmer, expresses an interest in her, the two begin a clumsy, stunted affair. It is no great love story:

“Klemmer is still concerned about that damned aged difference. However, he is a man, and that easily makes up for the ten years Erika has over him. Furthermore, female value decreases with increasing years and increasing intelligence. The technician in Klemmer computes all this data, and the bottom line of calculations reveals that Erika still has a wee bit of time before wandering into the tomb.”

The Piano Teacher is brutal. Jelinek’s imagery is disturbing, particularly around the sexual or body parts [the next quote is an example of this, don’t read if you think it will upset you, but I wanted to give a clear idea of a recurring theme in the novel]:

“Rot between her legs, an unfeeling soft mass. Decay, putrescent lumps of organic material. No spring breezes awaken anything. It is a dull pile of petty wishes and mediocre desires, afraid of coming true. Her two chosen mates will encompass her by crab claws: Mother and Klemmer.”

I was relieved to get to the end of The Piano Teacher, I don’t think I could have taken much more. Jelinek is a brilliant writer: her pacing and plotting are perfect and she has powerful things to say about the psychological warfare we wage on ourselves and others. But now I have to go and find a nice Golden Age crime novel with which to recover….

Regular readers will know that I do like to end on an 80s pop video and will shoehorn them into a post wherever possible. I’m delighted that my trip to Austria means I can end on this: