Novella a Day in May 2019 #29

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages

Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.

The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.

“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’

Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”

Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.

“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’

‘And what trade would that be?’

‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’

‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’

‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”

Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.

The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.

However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.

“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”

Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.

It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.

I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly:

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #13

Scars on the Soul – Francoise Sagan (1972 trans. Joanna Kilmartin 1974) 124 pages

This is a strange novella. It’s a story of a Swedish brother and sister living in France, and an extended reflection on Sagan’s writing life: a direct address to the reader.

“It isn’t literature, it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else.”

Sagan tells the story of Sebastian and Eleanor van Milhelm who are entirely feckless and devoted to one another.

“Life without her, drink without her, were like lukewarm water, Not a bad thing, all said and done, to have one’s life circumscribed to that extent by someone who – whatever she might say – was as much his slave as he was hers.”

While they are not quite incestuous, they certainly have an unhealthy attachment to one another. They move around living off their looks, finding benefactors who will pay for their lifestyle so that neither have to get jobs.

“ ‘Someone’ being that providential person who, because of their charm, their wit, their luck, would act as temporary provider for brother and sister. This person so far had never failed to materialise and was usually discovered by Sebastian, Eleanor, as in this case, being too lazy to go out.”

Yet the van Milhelms are not despicable. They are not malicious or even particularly manipulative; there is the sense that those they live off share an understanding whereby everyone knows what the deal is. There is a sense of ennui as their lives are essentially empty, yet it’s a sad story rather than a depressing one.

Scars on the Soul is certainly a post-modern novella, drawing attention to the art of Sagan as a writer and the artifice of the novel.

“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress. Nevertheless, this blow-by-blow account of eroticism has irritated me. I’m returning to my van Milhelms ‘who frequently indulge in that sort of thing but never talk about it.’”

I think this novella wouldn’t be for everyone, as it is neither one thing nor the other – not fiction or non-fiction, not short story or essay. Yet I found it satisfying. I was invested in the van Milhelms story and I enjoyed Sagan’s witty reflections on writing and her fame after many years (this was written in her late 30s after the success of Bonjour Tristesse at the prodigiously young age of 18). It’s not something to read when you want a meaty, plot-driven story but Sagan is a hugely talented, skilled writer and there is much of interest here both in the fiction and in the portrait of one writer’s life.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #5

Breaking Away – Anna Gavalda (2009, trans. Alison Anderson 2011) 143 pages

Breaking Away is a simply plotted novella which appears deceptively straightforward in its storytelling, but builds towards a meaningful resolution.

Garance is in her late twenties and cadges a lift to a wedding with her brother Simon and annoying sister in law Carine. The characterisation of Carine starts the novella off on an enjoyably bitchy note as the chaotic Garance, who has stayed up all night playing poker and is waxing her legs on the backseat, offends beauty pharmacist Carine’s sensibilities.

“Carine is utterly perplexed. She consoles herself by stirring sugarless sugar into a coffee without caffeine.”

They stop and pick up another sibling, Lola, who likes to conspire with Garance to wind up Carine. At which point I began to feel for Carine – maybe she wouldn’t be such a nightmare if the siblings weren’t so cliquey and excluding. At this point though, the portrait of Carine does modify slightly.

“She may be a first class pain but she does like to please others. Credit where credit is due.

And she really doesn’t like to leave pores in a state of shock. It breaks her heart.”

Their fourth sibling, Vincent, isn’t at the wedding, so the three of them leave Carine and bunk off to go and collect him. Garance reflects on her various siblings’ trials and tribulations and how their upbringing has influenced who they are. She decides her parents are culpable:

 “Because they’re the ones who taught us about books and music. Who talked to us about other things and forced us to see things in a different light. To aim higher and further. But they also forgot to give us confidence, because they thought that would come naturally. That we had a special gift for life, and compliments might spoil our egos.

They got it wrong.

The confidence never came.

So here we are. Sublime losers.”

But the humour in the novella stops it being self-pitying. In fact, the four of them are doing OK. They’re just enjoying taking a rare moment to spend time together.

Breaking Away captures a moment in time for the four siblings, and has an elegiac quality, for time past and relationships that must inevitably change. The tone isn’t sad however, more resolute; it’s about how love endures beyond all the external changes.

“What we were experiencing at that moment – something all four of us were aware of – was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people.”

To end, plenty of songs are name-checked in Breaking Away, including this one which “taught us more English than all our teachers put together”:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #2

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2014, trans. Ros Schwartz 2015) 194 pages

Easily the worst part of my day is my commute. If London rush hour had existed in fourteenth century Italy, I’m sure Dante would have made it one of his circles of hell.

But if Guylain Vignolles was on my morning tube, I’m sure things would be vastly improved. This titular hero is thirty-six years old and lives alone save for a goldfish named Rouget de Lisle V. He finds people difficult and so he has become something of a loner.

“His aim was to be neither good-looking nor ugly, neither fat nor thin. Just a vague shape hovering on the edge of people’s field of vision. To blend into his surroundings until he negated himself, remaining a remote place never visited.”

However, there is one point in his day when he does not blend into his surroundings. On his morning commuter train he reads the passengers excerpts from random books. They are pages he has rescued from his job at a book-pulping plant, a job he hates. Stealing the pages away from under the surveillance cameras of his horrible boss and disturbingly enthusiastic colleague is an act of rebellion, of resistance against the disregard shown to the books and all they contain.

“When the train pulled out of the station and the passengers alighted, an outside observer would have had no trouble noticing how Guylain’s listeners stood out from the rest of the commuters. Their faces did not wear that off-putting mask of indifference. They all had the contented look of an infant that has drunk its fill of milk.”

Despite his odd manner and social reluctance, Guylain does have friends. There is the security guard who only speaks in a very particular poetic style:

“The day he discovered the alexandrine, Yvon Grimbert had fallen head over heels in love. Faithfully serving the twelve-syllable line had become his sole mission on earth.”

There is also his ex-boss, who had a terrible accident at work:

“Giuseppe Carminetti, former chief operator of the TERN treatment and recycling company, ex-alcoholic and ex-biped, was going to do his utmost to recover the books that contained what was left of his pins.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Giuseppe’s legs were pulped along with some books and subsequently turned into paper. He is now fixated on hunting down all the books that were printed on such paper, thereby reclaiming his legs.

You may have realised by now that you need a pretty high tolerance for whimsy when reading The Reader on the 6.27. I have a high threshold and so I really enjoyed this novella. The idiosyncratic characters are still believable, and their relationships touching. The power of the spoken word and of literature in all its forms is comically evoked – particularly when Guylain gets recruited to read at a retirement home – but is still a powerful message.

Guylain’s reading matter changes when he finds a memory stick in his usual seat which contains the diary of Julie. While it’s undoubtedly intrusive that he reads the diary its believable that he is trying to do so in order to return the stick to its owner.

Unlike with whimsy, my tolerance for male protagonists falling in love with objectified female fantasy figures is rock-bottom. For me, Didierlaurent got the balance for this part of the story right, and Julie has strong, authentic female voice.

There’s no sense at any time that this sweet story isn’t going to play out in a truly cockle-warming way so it’s not a surprising read, but then it’s not trying to be. A tale of outsiders who, though they would never realise it, are absolutely charming.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #1

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2010) 125 pages

Dear Reader, I’ve been somewhat absent from the blogosphere recently and I’ve really missed it. This was because, like a lunatic, at the end of March I decided on the spur of the moment to apply for a PhD which caught my eye. I had no plans for further study and so this meant April was spent in whirlwind of desperately trying to get my reading up to date, meeting with old tutors to remind them who on earth I am and begging for a reference, and then writing my application. The deadline is this Friday but I’ve now submitted my application and I’m hoping I might regain my sanity in the meantime. I don’t think I’ll get it, but my tutors have been really supportive and its good to shake things up now and again.

Aaaaaaannnnyway, I really enjoyed blogging on a novella a day in May last year, so I’m throwing myself back into it this year. I had such plans…. NADIM this year was going to be carefully thought through, with a good spread of countries (last year I ignored the southern hemisphere completely and lovely Naomi pointed out I’d also skipped Canada) and a wonderful balance of styles and subjects… yeah, that’s not happening. Instead this month (and I really hope to make it to the end) will be hastily cobbled together posts which completely fail to do the wonderful form of the novella any justice at all. But I still hope I manage to spread some novella love along the way 😊

I thought it apt to start with one from a publishing house that has done so much to champion the form: Peirene Press, who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. I’m a big fan of theirs and so I swooped down on Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman when I saw it in my favourite charity bookshop.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is set over the course of one afternoon in Rome in 1943. Margherita is 19 years old, pregnant and alone as her husband is serving in the German army in Tunisia. She feels alien in a city where she doesn’t speak the language, and she is walking to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church.

“the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like

a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, facades, ruins and street corners, of endless number of pilgrimage sites for cultured visitors, which she walked past in ignorance, and of the faces of people in the streets, which were difficult to make out, in these stormy times of a far-off war which was drawing nearer every day”

And now, bear with me as I break something to you which you may have gathered from the quote above, which sounds awful but I promise it isn’t: the entire novella is one sentence. Wait, come back! It’s ok, really. Trust me 😉

There are paragraphs which make the whole thing easier, and Delius, possibly because he is a poet, has a great ear for rhythm. This means the sentence, broken by commas, works well in capturing the sense of someone walking, their thoughts falling into the pattern of their steps. I thought it was really effective and such an impressive feat of translation by Jamie Bulloch too.

“for two months she had crossed the Tiber almost every day via the Ponte Margherita, as if that were totally normal, but nothing was totally normal, especially not in these times, each day was a gift, each of the child’s movements in her belly a gift, each verse from the Bible and each glance across the Tiber”

Throughout her journey across the city, we learn about Margherita’s life in Germany and her new marriage. She is religious – daughter of and wife to clergymen – but not given to much reflection, preferring to stay silent in political discussions. Her husband and father are somewhat sceptical of the Reich, but Hitler has been in power throughout Margherita’s childhood and adolescence, she was part of the League of German Girls and it is only now, away from home, that she finds herself beginning to feel confused.

“On her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think, and how to cope with her ambivalent feelings”

Even though nothing of great note happens in the course of the novel, there is still an effective and believable character arc. Cut adrift, Margherita is beginning to learn who she is. There is a sense that this naïve, unquestioning woman is potentially quite steely, and as readers we know she will need that in the months and years to come.

 “She sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and her faith, because feelings were forbidden in wartime, you were not allowed to rejoice with happiness, you had to swallow your sadness, and like a soldier you were forced to conceal the language of the heart”

Novella a Day in May #1

For a while now I’ve been enamoured of the novella. I enjoy sparse writing styles (not so good at this myself 😉) and at its best a novella gives us a narrative distilled to its essence for maximum impact. To spread novella love I’ve decided to post about a novella each day for the whole month. There’s no fixed definition of a novella so for my purposes I’ve decided its longer than 70 pages and shorter than 200. This will definitely work! It won’t peter out and die in a heap by 5 May at all! Onwards…

The Game of Cards – Adolf Schroder (trans. Andrew Brown, 2008) 143 pages

The Game of Cards  is not ostensibly gothic or a thriller, and yet it is both these things. The story of how student Markus Hauser is employed by Selma Bruhns for a week to put several trunks worth of letters into chronological order is truly creepy and suspense-filled.

Selma is a terse, uncommunicative employer, who lives in an old house with a vast number of cats at varying stages of disease. Markus is constantly at the point of leaving, unable to stomach the “stench” of the house, the feral occupants, his awkward employer and the seemingly pointless nature of his repetitive task:

“He squatted down between the piles of letters lying on the floor, but when her resumed his work…looking for the pile in which he was putting the letters from 1943, laying the pages of the letter on it and reaching out for the next one, he paused, as if he’d only just realised that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing”

Gradually however, Markus is drawn into the letters, all written to a woman named Almut.  Very little is given away, but Markus finds himself compelled to continue, without really understanding why.

 “Words from the letters that he had read came alive. He found himself in streets where he had never been, heard the shrieking and whistling of creatures that he could not see but whose presence he surmised, felt on his skin the burning sun whose strength he had never yet felt, saw a woman coming up to him who spoke in a language that he did not understand.”

This chronology is interspersed with the investigation being conducted by Superintendent Berger, who suspects Markus of having strangled Selma with her own scarf on his last day of work. Thus we are drawn into not only the mystery of who Almut is and why Selma is obsessively writing to her, but also who killed Selma and why. Schroder jumps between the two timelines without preamble and so the reader is drawn into the disorienting, imperfectly understood situation of the all the characters.

 “With a sudden move that took Markus by surprise, she threw the animal towards him, it crashed into his chest, and only because Markus reacted quickly and caught the animal could he prevent I from falling onto the ground.

‘You are working slowly and without much concentration,’ said Selma Bruhns, turning round and stepping into the house.”

There is also the question of what happened – and what the stake was – in the titular match between Markus and Selma…

The Game of Cards is a deeply disturbing read, and a powerful portrait of enduring psychological trauma. It will stay with me for a long time.

The Joke – Milan Kundera (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #47)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Joke (1967; trans. Michael Henry Heim 1982*)  is the first Milan Kundera I’ve read, as I found his massive intellectual-philosopher reputation intimidating to my tiny brain.  However, I found this, his first novel, very readable so who knows, maybe I will tackle the cumbersomely-titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being at some point?

Ludvik lives in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and is sulking when he sends his girlfriend, Marketa a facetious postcard:

“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”

Unfortunately, as we who live in the age of twitter know, irony is not always apparent in the written word and the authorities do not appreciate his sentiments. He is thrown out of the Party and sent to a labour camp with other political dissidents.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Ludvik, his friend Jaroslav who is interested in Moravian culture, lecturer Kostka who is Christian in the face of Ludvik’s atheism, and journalist Helena who is used cruelly to facilitate a revenge act.

As Ludvik looks back on his interrupted career and the injustice he has suffered, Kundera offers an incisive commentary on the effect of repressive regimes, but also questions how far all of us can lose sight of ourselves in the face of societal pressures:

“When the Comrades branded my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times) I actually believed them. I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, and that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong, and I, an individual, might be right. I began keeping tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.”

Ludvik attempts to enact a revenge for his treatment, but it does not go as planned. He realises that the man who has become the focus of his anger is only a man, and that the issues are larger than a single person.

“How would I explain I used my hatred to balance out the weight of evil I bore as a youth? How would I explain I considered him the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known? How would I explain I needed to hate him?”

Overall, the sense is of an almost Beckettian absurdity. There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world. Kundera evokes this lightly, so The Joke is not a heavy read, although it considers huge themes. While the politics are particularly relevant to Europe in the last century, the story moves beyond the specific to challenge the role of the individual within structures in which we live, how much agency we have, and what responsibility that brings with it.

“what if history plays jokes? And all at once I realise how powerless I was to revoke my own joke: I myself and my life as a whole had been involved in a joke much more vast (all-embracing) and absolutely irrevocable.”

Kundera has been exiled in France since 1975 after criticising the repressive nature of the then Czech government. The Joke is not self-righteous or overly polemical: it portrays, Kundera writes in the introduction, a man “condemned to triviality”.  While this ironical awareness distanced me from Ludvik somewhat and stopped me totally loving this novel, it also prevents The Joke being pompous, and instead funny, sad, tragic and wise.

To end, an apt song which I hope a book blogger who likes singers called Barry will enjoy even though it’snot Barry singing, and a video that is most definitely of a certain era (it wasn’t all repressive politics in the 1960s kids, there were psychotropic drugs too!):

*It’s worth seeking out a later translation of the novel, as Kundera was unhappy with the first English translations but has authorised the later ones