Novella a Day in May 2019 #25

Following on from yesterday’s post about Anita Brookner who began her career as a novelist at 53, today I’m looking at another late debut writer; Elspeth Barker wrote this gothic novella at the age of 51. It concerns a teenager though: 16-year-old Janet has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, mourned only by her pet jackdaw who then kills itself, and her siblings. The novella then goes back in time over Janet’s life, but this is less a murder mystery and more of a character study.

Janet is an awkward child. She gets angry. She’s socially ill at ease. She has frizzy, unmanageable hair. She gets car sick. She irritates her parents. She reads a lot and is more clever than her classmates ,which causes distance. She is miserable and life is unfair. Her family don’t fit in where they are.

“Anger and outrage welled within her: she would speak the truth. ‘It was because of the witch. I wanted them to see if the witch was there,’ she wailed. ‘Don’t talk such nonsense; you know as well as I do that witches are only in fairy stories; and you read too many of those if you’d like my opinion.’ The mothers exchanged satisfied glances: they all thought Vera went too far in her choice of children’s reading; and she smoked cigarettes and wore slacks.”

Soon, however, they inherit an ancient, crumbling pile in the far north of Scotland, and Janet loves it:

“Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over battlements and booming down the chimneys”

“She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with Verdigris and haven to rats.”

It also has her eccentric aunt Lila, who wafts around dressed in black collecting fungi and incurring the wrath of Janet’s mother Vera; Jim, a taciturn odd-job man skulks around the place.

“It was a rigorous life, but for Janet it was softened by the landscape, by reading, and by animals whom she found it possible to love without qualification. People seemed to her flawed and cruel.”

So although Janet finds solace, she is still an outsider. Very much a loner and isolated at her boarding school. We follow her through the years and what emerges is a young life of a deeply awkward, lonely girl.

“What use was it to be racked by pain for animals and the general woes of the world when she was unmoved by the sorrows of people she knew?”

O Caledonia is thoroughly gothic so you need a pretty strong stomach at times – something I don’t have, particularly around animals. But it’s superbly written, startling and atmospheric.

Overall, I was left with a feeling of sadness. Janet has a lonely life and then before she’s had a chance to carve out anything better for herself, she is killed. O Caledonia really gets under your skin.

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #24

Family and Friends – Anita Brookner (1985) 187 pages

Many years ago I read Anita Brookner’s Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and although I remember very little about it I remember that I didn’t like it much. Recently I’d begun to think I should give her another try; I suspect my early 20s was a bit too young for Brookner and her incisive consideration of loneliness and disappointment. I was discussing this with a colleague, and so she lent me Family and Friends, Brookner’s follow-up to Hotel du Lac. A novella seemed a perfect way to dip my toe in again, and I’m so glad I did. I loved it.

It is the study of the Dorn family: matriarch Sofka and her children Frederick, Alfred, Betty and Mimi, beginning in the 1920s. The unnamed narrator is gazing at a wedding photograph of them all:

“I find it entirely appropriate that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. If this implies something unfinished, as if the process were omnivorous but static, that too would be characteristic. Sofka sees her children’s futures as being implicit in their names, and she has given much thought to the matter; indeed, one wonders whether she thinks about anything else.”

Throughout the novel this device is repeated: the photograph with the aging subjects and their relationships unwittingly captured over the years. Brookner’s portraits of her characters are unflinching:

“Betty is one of those women who believe in acting out a passion before they really feel it […] Mimi is not the type of girl who will, or indeed, can, do anything independently. But Betty knows that her mission in life is to be a woman who prevents men from staying with their virgin loves, and she is eager to embark on this career.”

Betty is keen to escape and uses one man to get to Paris – thwarting Mimi’s delicately-held fantasies in the meantime, and being quite aware of doing so – and then another man to get to the States, from where she never returns.

Likewise, Frederick, who is supposed to be running the family empire, flees to the French Riviera with a woman deemed wholly unsuitable by Sofka, but who makes feckless Frederick quite happy and contented. The responsibility of the business therefore falls to Alfred before he is out of his teens:

“He has, above all, obeyed his mother in everything. He does not yet know that men who obey their mothers in everything rarely win the admiration of other women.”

Over the years, perhaps only Frederick is happy. Betty is selfish and untalented, with zero insight and so unable to work out why her life is not evolving as she hoped. Alfred is disappointed in life generally, and delicate, beautiful Mimi is prone to depression.

“She has been questing unconsciously for that man, that alien, that stranger, that appointed one, who will deliver her, the sleepwalker, from her sleep. Thus, in the bosom of her family, Mimi, the good daughter, has been one of the most ready, the most willing, to defect.”

Family and Friends is about precisely what the title says. It is a study of these people over several years, with very little plot other than the typical events of people’s lives, and sparse dialogue. Although Brookner is unflinching, she is not without compassion. She sees plainly, but doesn’t sit in judgement on her characters, despite her clear-sighted discernment of all their weaknesses and the hurt they cause one another and themselves.

Anita Brookner is the ideal writer of novellas. She is so concise, not a word is wasted and every word carries its full weight. Her skill is astounding.

Despite only starting to write novels at the age of 53, Brookner was prolific and produced around a book a year for the rest of her writing life. I’m looking forward to exploring more of these now I know what I’m missing. And first on the list is a re-read of Hotel du Lac 😊

Novella a Day in May 2019 #23

The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna (1975, trans. Herbert Lomas 1995) 135 pages

Following on from The Cat yesterday, I thought I’d look at another novella about a relationship with an animal today; the international bestseller about a man who leaves his life behind after injuring a wild hare.

Vatanen is a journalist deeply unhappy with his career, metropolitan life, and his marriage.

“Their flat had become an extravagant farrago of shallow and meretricious interior-decoration tips from women’s magazines. A pseudo-radicalism governed the design, with huge posters and clumsy modularised furniture. It was difficult to inhabit the rooms without injury; all items were at odds. The home was distinctly reminiscent of Vatanen’s marriage.”

The novel opens with him in a car with his photographer, hitting a hare with their car. The hare limps off and Vatanen follows it. He splints its leg and takes care of it, deciding never to return to his life.

What follows is a series of episodes in which Vanaten meets various eccentric characters as he travels further north in Finland, having adventures and finding the presence of the hare promotes honest and open conversations with people.

“If it’s difficult to teach an old dog to sit, as they say, then it’s even more difficult to teach an old Lapland roue to swim.”

The Year of the Hare is picaresque, and the emphasis is on the escapades rather than the characters. I didn’t feel I really knew Vananten any better by the end of the novella, but it had been mostly fun spending time with him and the hare.

I say mostly, because there were a couple of episodes I had to skip. These involved cruelty to animals. There was one particularly horrible incident where Vatanen tortures a raven, and there’s an extended bear hunt towards the end. But skipping over these parts still left a lot to enjoy, and the sense of Finland and its landscape is beautifully evoked.

“When, that evening, Vatanen slowly ski’d back from Vittumainen Ghyll to Laahkima Gorge, accompanied by his hare, he no longer thought about Kaartinen’s strange world. There was a half-moon, and the stars were glimmering faintly in the frozen evening. He had his own world, this one, and it was fine to be here, living alone in one’s own way. The hare ambled silently along the trail ahead of the skier, like a pathfinder. Vatanen sang to it.”

A slightly bonkers, occasionally surreal tale about following your own path and keeping an open mind as to who might accompany you part of the way.

The Year of the Hare was made into a film two years after publication, but I can’t find a trailer for that Finnish version. Its been a bestseller in France, so here is a trailer for the French film adaptation from 2006. Christophe Lambert is immediately too likeable as Vatanen but the atmosphere and scenery look spot-on:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #22

The Cat – Colette (1933, trans. Antonia White, 1953) 96 pages

Back in January when I wasn’t sure I’d manage NADIM this year (I’m still not sure – 9 posts to go!) I did a week of novellas by Colette. I loved immersing myself in her writing that week so I couldn’t resist including another of her novellas this month.

The Cat is familiar Colette territory: a young, slightly feckless couple failing to communicate. The difference is that there are three beings in this marriage: Alain, Camille, and Alain’s Russian Blue cat Saha.

Alain is from old money that is rapidly dwindling; Camille is new money that is much more abundant.

“Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little to fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly”

They desire one another but they don’t communicate in any meaningful way. Alain almost seems to despise Camille at times – finding her tacky and invasive – unlike his pedigree cat, whom he adores. The three of them move temporarily to a friend’s flat while their home is being refurbished:

“He was incessantly and increasingly aware of his repugnance at the idea of making a place for this young woman, this outsider, in his own home. He nursed this resentment and fed it with secret soliloquies and the sullen contemplation of their new dwelling.”

For Camille, the resentments and disappointments which begin to build in their marriage become focussed towards Saha. As she points out, it is worse than another woman. Saha isn’t a competitor, but Alain loves her unconditionally and has an easy sensual relationship with his cat, whereas his sexual relationship with Camille is complicated by his feelings of contempt.

“As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure.”

Spoiler alert: I must admit I did what I never do and skipped to the end of this story before reading very far, to check the cat wasn’t killed. I couldn’t face a story where that happened. But thankfully Colette is more subtle than that. Saha doesn’t die, which means the failures in the human relationship occur not in the rage of grief, but in something more subdued and sadder. Saha is a focus for the confused, antagonistic feelings the young couple have for one another. The cat brings these feelings to the surface more quickly than perhaps they would have done without her, but there is no doubt they would have occurred at some point.

You don’t need to be a cat lover to enjoy this story. It is a study of a young, naïve, selfish couple and the unthinking damage they do to one another, while professing their love. This being Colette, alongside the psychological insights, there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world:

“High in the sky a hazy moon held court, looking larger than usual through the mist of the first warm days. A single tree – a poplar with newly opened glossy leaves – caught the moonlight and trickled with as many sparkles as a waterfall. A silver shadow leapt out of a clump of bushes and glided like a fish against Alain’s ankles.

‘Ah! There you are Saha! I was looking for you. Why didn’t you appear at table tonight?’”

To end, here’s the lady herself with a couple of her beloved pets:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #21

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (1963, trans. Elizabeth Rokkan 1966) 176 pages

This novella is like the titular structure: impressive, delicate, beautiful and disturbing. It’s impossible to review without giving away plot points, so apologies in advance and do skip to just the quotes if you don’t want to know but still want an idea of the gorgeous writing!

The Ice Palace tells the story of two eleven-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is a leader among her peers, newcomer Unn is quiet and shy. She stands alone at break times, yet the popular Siss finds herself drawn to Unn.

The girls have a deep unspoken bond that they don’t understand themselves. The first time Siss goes to Unn’s house after school, they have an almost spiritual experience gazing into a mirror together. Unn wants to tell Siss something, but Siss feels overwhelmed and leaves, thinking:

“You can tell me more another time. Whenever you like another time. We couldn’t have gone further this evening. It had been a great deal as it was. But if they were to go further it would make things impossible. Home again as quickly as she could. Otherwise they might get involved in something that would shatter it for all of them. Instead they had shone into each other’s eyes.”

The next day, Unn feels too embarrassed to see Siss again, and decides to visit the local Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall.

“She lay flat on the ice, not yet feeling the cold. Her slim body was a shadow with distorted human form down on the bottom.

Then she changed her position on the shining glass mirror. The delicate bracken still stood in the block of ice in a blaze of light.”

The natural descriptions are stunning, but never overwhelm the narrative:

“Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.”

Unn goes missing, and it doesn’t take much for the villagers to work out where she might be. Finding her proves impossible though:

“The men continued to search. They had life and light on their side. They were visiting an unknown fortress, and it looked like the fortress of death. If one of them struck the wall with his stick it proved to be as hard as rock. The blow recoiled and vibrated in his arm. Nothing opened up. They struck all the same.”

Siss is devasted. She makes Unn a promise that sees her withdraw from her family and friends, taking Unn’s place alone at the edge of the playground.

“I promise to think about no-one but you. To think about everything I know about you. To think about you at home and at school, and on the way to school. To think about you all day long, and if I wake up at night.”

The Ice Palace is a novel that doesn’t spell out its characters’ feelings but leaves you in no doubt as to how strong they are. It is a study of grief in pre-adolescents; Unn is an orphan and Siss is overwhelmed by her feelings when Unn goes missing. The atmosphere of a Norwegian village in winter is beautifully evoked and it is haunting without being creepy. The novella doesn’t give trite answers but instead asks how we learn to live with pain, with the things to which there are no answers.

“Slowly the palace changes colour. The shining green ice whitens in the warmth of the sun. The transparent chambers and domes grow dim as if filled with steam, concealing all they may possess, drawing a cover over themselves and concealing it. The whole palace draws the white colour over itself and starts to dissolve on the surface. Inside it is still ringing hard. The ice no longer sends out lightening among the fields. But shines, whiter than before, shines quietly.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

Highland Fling was Nancy Mitford’s first novel and while not as sparkling as her later works there’s still much to enjoy here. It’s familiar Mitford territory: insane upper classes, Bright Young Things, serious issues treated lightly, light issues treated seriously, and it all works out in the end.

Walter is married to Sally and is entirely useless with money, powering through both their allowances so that he has to ponder “why shouldn’t I do some work? If you come to think of it, lots of people do. I might bring out a book of poems in handwriting with corrections.”

Thankfully for the reading public, they are asked instead to look after Sally’s relative’s enormous country pile in Scotland. They take their friend Albert, who has no idea what to do with himself after Eton and Oxford until “It had come to him during the night that he wished to be a great abstract painter”; and Jane, who “had taste without much intellect, her brain was like a mirror, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of her more intelligent friends and the books she read.”

Keeping company with these Bright Young Things are all the ancient types who descend on Dulloch Castle every year for the shooting season.

“Lord Prague, it may be noted, was to all intents and purposes dead, except on shooting days when he would come to life in the most astonishing manner”

There’s also the massively racist General Murgatroyd who is violent to his dog and didn’t get the come-uppance I’d hoped for (his racism is never condoned, although some portraits of Scottish locals leave a lot to be desired), Lady Prague who is astonishingly rude to all, and Lady Brenda who has the appearance of “an overbred horse”, not helped by her habit of blowing smoke through her nostrils.

What follows is this unlikely crowd getting on each other’s nerves, lying about a missing picnic, getting pregnant, getting engaged…

Thankfully the blood sports are not described in great detail, it’s more about the ridiculous antics of people on the shoot. I do wish someone had rescued Murgatroyd’s poor dog though.

Obviously you need a high tolerance for silly toffs to read Mitford. I enjoy her writing and I did think this was fun, but as I said at the start, not quite as incisive or as funny as she would later achieve.

“Nobody dies in childbirth now, my dear. It’s considered quite vieux jeu.”

To end, something that was absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but did make me smile. For those of us irritated by schoolkids playing music out loud on their mobile phones on public transport, Albert has this experience on the train:

“They then began to play vulgar jazz tunes on a portable gramophone, a noise which Albert found more supportable than their chatter.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose 😀

Novella a Day in May 2019 #19

The Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Theriault (2016, trans. John Cullen 2017) 197 pages

(This post contains spoilers for The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman so don’t read on if you’ve any plans to read that novella.)

As Naomi pointed out, last year’s NADIM didn’t include a single Canadian author, so I’d planned on a few this year. But as my first post for NADIM 2019 explained, the best laid plans… Still, I have managed to include one, and here it is 😊

I really liked The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman when I read it a few years back. This sequel is told from the point of view of Tania, the waitress who loves Bilodo (the title character of the first book) and picks up the story shortly before Bilodo’s accident, carrying the tale on further.

As readers of the first book will know, Bilodo’s quiet, gentle existence appeals to Tania as she brings him his lunch each day:

“Tania could happily imagine him leading a monastic existence dedicated to calligraphy, saving himself physically and spiritually for the fortunate pilgrimess who would know how to find a pathway to his soul – a role for which Tania considered herself eminently qualified.”

Unfortunately Bilodo has no idea of her feelings until a cruel practical joke. Before they can talk it through, Bilodo is hit by a truck. This is where the first novella ends. In this sequel, he is given CPR by Tania and ultimately survives, but with no memory of recent years. Tania convinces him they were a couple, and engaged to be married.

“For that was the way she saw the matter: a case of confusion on the part of Destiny. In Tania’s eyes, she and Bilodo had been fated to meet and fall in love, and their botched romantic union stemmed from a karmic dysfunction which she felt it her legitimate right to remedy.”

And this is where my problems with this sequel begin. I wasn’t happy that the weird, metaphysical ending of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman seemed to be undermined and explained away, but Theriault does rescue this by the end of The Postman’s Fiancee, so I can let that go…

My main reservation was with what Tania is doing. In The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman Bilodo isn’t behaving well: he’s steaming open people’s private letters and reading them before he delivers their post. Not great, but within that novella it’s sort of OK. But Tania is manipulating and deceiving someone she professes to love, while they have amnesia. There’s really nothing that makes that OK. While I don’t mind reading about people not behaving well, here it made me uncomfortable because I think we’re supposed to be rooting for Tania and for her and Bilodo to get together. And while Theriault is a highly accomplished and subtle writer, I couldn’t quite embrace the circumstances in this story.

Tania isn’t despicable so she does have reservations about what she’s doing:

“Wasn’t she wrong to interfere with his mind that way, and by doing so wasn’t she committing some kind of mental rape?”

But she finds herself unable to stop. What readers of the first novella know, and what Tania comes to realise, is that Bilodo’s life was a bit more complicated than the monastic existence she’d imagined for him. As the circumstances of Bilodo’s life start to catch up with them, how much longer will Tania be able to sustain the fiction of the life she desperately wants? And will Bilodo ever regain his memory?

The Postman’s Fiancee is about loneliness and the fantasies we project for ourselves and on to others. It’s about recognising people for who they are and all their complications, rather than who we wish they were. It’s well written, nicely paced and with excellent characterisation and so I do still recommend this both as a sequel and as a stand-alone novella, but the actions of poor despairing Tania did limit my enjoyment of it somewhat.