Novella a Day in May #21

The Third Miss Symons – FM Mayor (1913, 144 pages)

FM Mayor tells the life story of Henrietta (Etta) Symons, from birth to death at the latter part of the nineteenth century. Despite doing this in such a short space, she manages an in-depth portrait of an unappealing woman.

“At five her life obtained its zenith. She became a very pretty, charming little girl […] When she was eight her zenith was past, and her plain stage began.  Her charm departed never to return.”

Her charm departs and what is left is a grumpy woman, ordinary and without any redeeming talents or qualities. FM Mayor is compassionate towards Etta, but clear-sighted and unsentimental.

“This was the problem: Why was it that people did not love her? – she to whom love was so much that if she did not have it, nothing else in the world was worth having.”

It’s certainly true that Henrietta is treated unfairly by people and experiences injustice, but it is also clear that if only she could be a little more pleasant to people, her life would be vastly improved. The Third Miss Symons is most definitely an example that you get back what you put out in life, and what Henrietta gets back is distance and indifference at best.

“She would have been astonished if she had known what an infinitesimal difference she made to their lives”

Yet it is not a depressing tale, although it certainly veers towards it at times. For a start, Mayor has taken a woman so easily disregarded in art, literature and society and given Henrietta her own story. She is the waspish spinster, the homemaker (for her parents and brothers), unmarried, childless, failure even in her attempts to do charitable good works. For centuries the judgement from society has been that such women have no value. Yet Mayor, in her concentration on Henrietta, insists that her value is recognised, and that there is acknowledgement of the society and culture that has contributed towards Henrietta’s frustrations.

“throughout her fairly long, dull life Henrietta was always cursed with her tidy little income.”

“Bad health is another resource for unoccupied women, and it certainly occurred to her as an occupation, but she realised that it and roving cannot be combined, and of the two she preferred roving.”

Henrietta can only really concentrate on her misery. If only she had a vocation, she would be different and her life would be different. But Mayor will not let Henrietta or the reader off so easy. Henrietta will remain unfulfilled.

“She was not one of those women whom nothing will satisfy but marriage; on the whole she did not care very much for men. She wanted what she had always wanted, something to love and something to love her.”

I couldn’t help thinking she should have become a dog breeder.

Mayor is entirely non-didactic and the portrait of Henrietta is unblinking, but the sadness is rescued from harshness by a good dose of humour.

“When in doubt, go abroad. She went abroad again for three months. Her companion was picked up from nowhere in particular, an odd woman like herself. They went to Italy. Neither of them cared in the smallest degree for sculpture, architecture, painting, archaeology, poetry, history, politics, scenery, language or foreigners.”

The Third Miss Symons is a compassionate, wise novel, psychologically astute and ultimately very moving. If you’d like to spend some time with grumpy, intractable Henrietta, and I highly recommend you do, you can read the novel at Project Gutenberg here.

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Novella a Day in May #20

The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (2009, trans. Martin Aitken 2012, 189 pages)

This novella is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. The Murder of Halland is part of their Small Epic series.

The story opens with a domestic scene, Bess and her partner Halland watching a detective series before he goes to bed and she returns to her study to continue her work as a successful novelist. By the third page however, she is woken by a man at the door claiming he is arresting her for the murder of her husband: Halland has been shot dead in the town square outside their flat.

“The wet cobbles glistened in the morning light. Normally, the square would be deserted. Now it was filling with people. Roses bloomed against the yellow and whitewashed walls.”

While The Murder of Halland could be classed as a crime novel, I think this is misleading.  The focus is not on finding out who killed Halland but rather the grief of Bess as she ricochets around the small town in confusion, discovering Halland wasn’t quite who she thought he was and wondering if she is grieving in the right way.

“I could see why Halland had hung up the picture. It was our first year together and we were happy. Anyone could see that. At least I could, now. Halland’s hair had turned completely white during his illness, but here his long mane was dark and only just starting to turn in grey. I traced the sharp line of his nose with my finger, his full mouth. He was looking at me, saying something. What did we say to each other in those days? What did we ever say? I couldn’t remember us talking. Did we even say good morning? Yes, we said good morning.”

Bess’ detached narration makes The Murder of Halland an unsettling read. We know it was not a happy relationship, but we don’t know exactly why. We don’t know in what way Halland was ill. All Bess’ relationships seem to occur at a step removed: she has tense phone calls with her mother, a half-hearted reconciliation with her grandfather, an estranged daughter who arrives back in her life but they don’t explore what this means for either of them…

This strange detachment meant that I started to doubt Bess’ reliability as a narrator. When I read crime fiction it’s weirdly, for comfort, partly because I stick to Golden Age, and partly for all the ends to be tied up nice and neatly.  The Murder of Halland is not this type of novel. It leaves the reader with many more questions than answers, most of all through it’s “WHAT????” ending . Surprisingly, I didn’t think this made for an unsatisfactory read. The Murder of Halland is an intriguing character study at a moment of crisis, as complicated and unresolved as life itself.

Novella a Day in May #19

The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer (1962) 144 pages

The Pumpkin Eater begins with a woman speaking to her psychiatrist, a silent interlocutor with whom she reflects on the pressures her unhappy marriage exerted on her mental health. We come to know her as Mrs Armitage, wife of a successful screen writer, Jake Armitage, who is selfish and unfaithful. Although Mrs Armitage has been married before, she feels as trapped in this marriage as any 1960s wife who would be reluctant to ask for a divorce.

“It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my mind, and inseparable. The sleeping man was no longer accessible, no longer lovable. He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown. It was Jake I was frightened of; Jake who terrified me; Jake who in the end would survive. He rolled over, his mouth slightly open, and began to snore.”

Mrs Armitage lives in London while they are building a big glass tower of a family home in the countryside. Jake frequently travels, leaving her with their ever-increasing number of children.  As tensions between them increase, Mortimer brilliantly portrays  “the complex, subtle and occasionally tragic conversations which are the last resort of communication between men and women.”

It is thought that this novel was semi-autobiographical, detailing the disintegration of the author’s marriage to John Mortimer, and it is absolutely scathing in its treatment of the male protagonist:

“His eyes were still quite empty, and I realised now that they never changed, even in love.”

However, Mortimer does not just tear Jake/John apart, The Pumpkin Eater is better than that. She is interested in the destructiveness of human relationships, with those we claim to love.

“We should have been locked up while it lasted, or allowed to kill each other physically. But if the choice had been given, it would not have been each other we would have killed, it would have been ourselves.”

I’ve made this sound heavier than it is; I think Mortimer writes this unflinching dissection of a marriage with a heavy dose of bone-dry humour. Ultimately, The Pumpkin Eater is, if not exactly optimistic, about how we survive such pain and how it possible to endure.

 “I began, very tentatively, to believe in myself. It was as though I were feeling my own face with my fingertips in the dark.”

Novella a Day in May #18

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry (2010, trans. Sian Reynolds 2013) 92 pages

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry is a monologue delivered by a librarian to a reader who she discovers has been locked in the library overnight, when she opens up in the morning. The librarian is middle-aged and frustrated about a plethora of things, including her job:

“Being a librarian isn’t an especially high-level job I can tell you. Pretty close to being in a factory. I’m a cultural assembly line worker.”

She is committed to librarianship however, and throughout the novella her love of books emerges, as does her appreciation of the Dewey decimal system:

“they didn’t just classify by author, they sometimes put books on the shelf by size, or date of acquisition. Now I think of it, the confusion it must have caused. Glad I didn’t live then, I couldn’t have put up with that kind of anarchy.”

The reader remains a silent interlocutor as the librarian spills out all her feelings. Although she claims she has given up on love, you get the sense this isn’t quite true:

 “One of my favourite authors, you’ve already gathered that, is Guy de Maupassant. Now there’s a man for you. Just imagine, he wrote two hundred and ninety short stories and seven novels in ten years. And then on Sundays, he went rowing on the Seine. A real force of nature, eh? He must have had terrific biceps and been fantastically intelligent.”

There are also her unrequited feelings for a regular library reader:

“With that lovely neck of his. It would disappoint me if a man as clever as Martin were to be in love. But you have to be prepared for anything.”

The librarian is a funny and acerbic narrator:

“That’s another reason I don’t go travelling. Napoleon’s always been there first. I can’t stand it.”

She is slightly self-deceiving but she is also wise, sad, honest and above all, entertaining. I enjoyed my short time in her company, mostly because The Library of Unrequited Love is actually about a love that is always fulfilled, over and over: the love of books.

“Book and reader, if they meet up at the right moment in a person’s life, it can make sparks fly, set you alight, change your life.”

Novella a Day in May #17

The Final Solution – Michael Chabon (2005, 127 pages)

An elderly once-famous detective has retired to Sussex to keep bees. Sound familiar? The detective is never identified by name, but it’s reasonable to assume he’s Sherlock Holmes.

“Even on a sultry afternoon lie this one, when cold and damp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could be a lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair, negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter – newspapers both cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles of salve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates of crumbs – that made treacherous the crossing of his parlour, and open his front door to the world.”

Chabon is brilliant at capturing the frailties and fears of old age and fading faculties:

“The memory of the taste of scotch was in his mouth lie the smell of burning leaves lingering on a woollen scarf. But the cords that held him together were so few and threadbare that he feared to loosen them.”

“Over his bearing, his speech, the tweed suit and tatterdemalion Inverness there hung, like the odour of Turkish shag, all the vanished vigour and rectitude of the Empire.”

It is 1944, and the old man is asked to investigate the disappearance of a parrot, which has been reeling off lists of numbers of great interest to various shady persons. The parrot is the only friend of a mute Jewish boy, and shortly after it disappears a lodger at the same premises of the boy is found murdered.

The old man relishes the opportunity to use his much-lauded skills again. Yet while it is a mystery novella, this is not the main point of the story. Rather it is about how some things are so huge – wars, the Holocaust –  they defy reason and straightforward explanation. Answers can be comforting, but sometimes they are not there to be found.

 “A delicate, inexorable lattice of inferences began to assemble themselves, like a crystal, in the old man’s mind, shivering, catching in the glints and surmises. It was the deepest pleasure life could afford, this deductive crystallisation, the paroxysm of guesswork, and one that he had lived without for a terribly long time.”

Novella a Day in May #16

The Comfort of Strangers – Ian McEwan  (1981, 100 pages)

The Comfort of Strangers was Ian McEwan’s second novel, and details a holiday taken by Colin and Mary in an unnamed European city (probably Venice).

They have been together for many years but do not live together. McEwan expertly establishes a couple who share a certain co-dependency and claustrophobia – at least during this holiday – but seem to lack intimacy.

“Colin stood in front of the mirror, listening, and for no particular reason began to shave for the second time that day. Since their arrival, they had established a well-ordered ritual of sleep, preceded on only one occasion by sex, and now the calm, self-obsessed interlude during which they carefully groomed themselves before their dinner-time stroll through the city. In this time of preparation, they moved slowly and rarely spoke. They used expensive, duty-free colognes and powders on their bodies, they chose their clothes meticulously and without consulting the other, as though somewhere among the thousands they were soon to join, there waited someone who cared how they appeared.”

They get lost that evening and are rescued by Robert, a forceful man who tells them a tale from his past. They end up staying with Robert and his wife Caroline in their villa, and the other couple’s relationship emerges as complex and disturbed.

“Caroline spoke cautiously, her face tensed as though she expected at any moment a loud explosion. ‘I hope you don’t mind, there’s something I should tell you. It’s only fair. You see, I came in and looked at you while you were sleeping. I sat on the trunk about half an hour. I hope you’re not angry.’

Mary swallowed and said, uncertainly, ‘No.’”

I can’t say more for fear of spoilers, but will say that McEwan’s considered, cool style lends itself well to a tense, dark tale.

The Comfort of Strangers was adapted into a film in 1990. Having viewed this trailer I’m not sure I’ll be watching it, but I do recommend the trailer itself which is hilarious, enjoy!

Novella a Day in May #15

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) 123 pages

The Bookshop was Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel (I reviewed her first here) and her first to be nominated for the Booker, which she later won with Offshore. It’s set in 1959 in the small Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough. This is not a picturesque seaside resort but a damp, isolated place:

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold.”

Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in Hardborough and buys The Old House, a 500 year old derelict property:

“The Old House was not haunted in a touching manner. It was infested with a poltergeist which, together with the damp and an unsolved question about the drains, partly accounted for the difficulty in selling the property. The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though perhaps he alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”

Florence is a lonely widow, but she is not a pushover. As the forces of the town (mainly Mrs Gamart who wants The Old House for an arts centre for no other reason it seems than she is bored and used to getting what she wants) conspire against her, she doesn’t give up. Astutely, she acquires several copies of a book she has never read by an author she has never heard of, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and it causes quite the stir, raising much-needed profits for the shop.

She also has her allies. The reclusive Mr Brundish, proudly from an old Suffolk family, is on her side. Christine Gipping, an eleven year old with 2 broken front teeth, proves a tenacious keeper of Florence’s lending library and not easily put off by supernatural elements:

“Florence did not expect her assistant to return; but she came back the next afternoon, with the suggestion that if they had any more trouble they could both of them kneel down and say the Lord’s prayer. Her mother had advised that it would be a waste of time consulting the Vicar.”

The Bookshop is an absolute gem. The portraits of the inhabitants of Hardborough fully realised and idiosyncratic yet believable. The plot is simple but taut, the writing witty. Fitzgerald achieves a perfect balance of compassion without sentimentality.

“She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to matters of self-preservation.”