Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

Sleepless Nights is a fictional autobiography, told by a woman with the same name as the author. It begins:

“It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and grey squares and diamonds. How nice it is – this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.”

The distorted memory means the reminiscences, memories and life story are like the crochet blanket: a series of separate pieces that come together to form a whole. So what we have are memories that dart back and forth across the woman’s life, a memory from marriage prompting a memory from childhood, prompting a memory of a neighbour, interspersed with a letter to a friend, prompting a memory of a bohemian young lifestyle in New York…

It is very cleverly written. It feels more coherent than I expected when I began the novella, and it effectively conveys the way memory works: we don’t sit and remember the beginning of our lives, working through sequentially to the current day.

“I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness. Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honourable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.”

I sat and read this straight through, but you could also just dip in for a paragraph and out again. Hardwick is master of the astonishing image:

“It has happened that someone I do not know is staying in the apartment with me. One of those charitable actions insisted upon by a friend. The stranger, thin as the elegant crane outside the window, casts a shadow because she has arrived when I was thinking about the transformations of memory. She fills the space with both the old and the new twilight, the space reserved for thoughts of my mother.”

Sleepless Nights has been published by NYRB Classics, always a reliable choice. I read it in an old VMC edition, which told me it was hailed as a literary masterpiece. I think if I was being super-picky, this might be my slight reservation. Its hugely impressive as a piece of writing but it didn’t fully move me. This is obviously a very personal thing, but for me to love a book I need strong characterisation. The narrator remained slightly enigmatic: she emerged to a degree from her memories but often she was in the shadows of them, the light cast on other people.

While enjoying a somewhat grim, dingy time as a young woman in New York, there are memories of seeing Billie Holliday live. Hardwick captures her talent, the tragedy, glamour and grit of her life very effectively. While she doesn’t shy away from what addiction did to the singer, she allows her some beautiful images too.

“Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café, the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make up, in long silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.”

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

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 #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 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”

“I don’t know what London’s coming to — the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” (Noël Coward)

It was the autumn equinox last week here in the UK, which means summer for us is officially over and everyone’s back at work. For this reason I thought I’d look at the theme of London as it’s where I live and work, alongside eleventy-million others. Those heady summer days are rapidly becoming a distant memory under the realities of train strikes (salt rubbed into the wound of a service so bad it often seems like Southern rail are running a surrealist immersive art installation they’ve forgotten to tell anyone about) and falling temperatures. For this reason, and after the tribulations of The Notebook last week, I’ve chosen 2 comic novels for a bit of light relief.

Firstly, NW by Zadie Smith (2012) or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Zadie Smith, if you will. This is Smith’s fourth novel (she recently published her fifth, Swing Time) and it’s the first of her much-lauded fiction that I’ve truly enjoyed. Until this point I always preferred her journalism and essays, but NW is the point at which her fiction really grabbed me.

Set in the part of London whose postcode gives the book its title, NW experiments with various forms, hopping between stream-of-consciousness, text-speak, first and third person, diagrams… It is a successful approach, creating the multiple voices and sensory overload that London offers, without descending into a chaotic mess. Edgware Road:

“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life size porcelain tiger, gold taps.”

Leah, Natalie (who used to be called Keisha), Felix and Nathan grew up on the same Caldwell estate and went to the same school. As adults, their lives have diverged, but they all still live in the area (Willesden) and their stories overlap and layer one another, broadening each of their individual tales.  Leah and Natalie are each other’s oldest friend.  Both are married – more or less happily – and employed, building their lives. But whereas Natalie spent the 90s knuckling down to work and is now a successful barrister, Leah spent it enjoying rave culture and now has a socially responsible but low-paid job, which creates a tension in their relationship:

“Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How did you get to be so full? And why so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.”

Of course, when we get to Natalie’s version of the story Leah has alluded to, we realise all is not as it seems. Natalie is not entirely happy; she has not shrugged off Caldwell, nor does she entirely want to. There are areas of her life where she still refers to herself as Keisha, and when she gives birth to the first of her beautiful children it is her childhood friends and family that give most comfort:

“People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people.”

Another section of the novel follows recovering addict Felix around the borough. He is emerging from a destructive life into something more positive.  As he moves around the area, between the people of his old life and new, his story simultaneously captures the transformation which his home town is undergoing:

“He steadied himself with a hand on the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognise it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shops, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pub by the refits.”

Nathan meanwhile, beautiful and talented at school, now a physical wreck, has not managed to pull himself out of the sort of life Felix had been living. NW is funny and sad, effectively capturing born –and-bred Londoners at a specific time in an ever-changing city. As a born-and-bred Londoner myself, around the same age as Zadie Smith and therefore her protagonists, I thought it was highly effective in capturing place, time and voice(s). I still think Zadie Smith’s editor needs to be heavier-handed, and one of the characters makes a leap at the end that I thought didn’t quite hold up, but NW means I’m now really looking forward to reading Swing Time.

Not the only member of her family to engage with ideas around language, here is Zadie’s brother Ben aka comedian/rapper/actor Doc Brown, proving that apparently the whole family are good-looking, talented and witty, damn them (little bit rude and mild swears):

Secondly, Capital by John Lanchester (2012). In 2010 former journalist Lanchester wrote a non-fiction book, Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010) about the credit crunch. This is a fictional look at the same time, through the residents of Pepys Road in south-west London.  Pepys Road, like much of London, has seen the value of the property rise exponentially:

“For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop of their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had already become central actors in their own right.”

Hence Capital is about the capital city, and also about the financial capital which the city propagates and runs on.

“She wasn’t sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes, the shops, the talk, the very air. People got it and spent it and thought about it and talked about it all the time. It was brash and horrible and vulgar, but also exciting and energetic and shameless and new”

In Mr Phillips, Lanchester wrote a slim novel detailing one man’s life over one day. By contrast, this is a 577 page (in my edition) novel takes in the lives of many: Petunia, an elderly lady who has lived in Pepys Road most of her life and her grandson, a Banksy-style artist; Roger and Arabella, a city worker and his materialist wife, their Hungarian nanny and Polish builder; the British Muslim family who run the corner shop; the Senegalese footballer whose club owns one of the houses; the Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden, ticketing the Aston Martins and Jeeps in the road.

Unsurprisingly, it is Roger and Arabella who are most affected by the financial collapse.  At the start of the novel Roger is anticipating his million-pound bonus:

“His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money’, but it did not pay even for his two mortgages. The house in Pepys Road was double-fronted and had cost £2,500,000, which at the time had felt like the top of the market, even though prices had risen a great deal since then. They had converted the loft, dug out the basement, redone all the wiring and plumbing because there was no point in not doing it, knocked through the downstairs, added…”

The chapter continues in the vein, listing all their running costs and conspicuous consumption before concluding “it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Good grief. Arabella’s whole existence revolves around spending money – she doesn’t work, a nanny takes the kids out all day, (“Matya had no theories about children, she took them as she found them, but it seemed to her that many of the children she had looked after were both spoilt and neglected.”) she has no hobbies or interests and seems to define herself through what she owns, so Roger and Arabella’s entire lives pretty much rest on his bonus.

Meanwhile, someone is sending postcards to the residents of the street, which only say “We Want What You Have”. The campaign escalates and the various residents start to feel uneasy:

“the thought of other people wishing they had your level of material affluence was an idea you could sit in front of, like a hearth fire. But this wasn’t like that. This was more like having someone keeping an eye on you and secretly wishing you ill.”

Detective Inspector Mill is called in to investigate:

“His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get into his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.”

Underestimate this unlikely copper at your peril, though.  Mill’s investigation forms the background mystery to the novel, but really this is a story about the variety of overlapping lives that take place in a typical London street: their hopes, triumphs, tragedies and the banal stuff in between. It’s a clever novel and extremely well-written, the pace doesn’t flag and I cared about all the characters (even a tiny bit about Arabella, who is clearly deeply unhappy and has no idea why). Unlike NW, there is one consistent authorial voice, but similarly to NW, Capital succeeds in capturing some of the complexity of a huge city and its many residents.

Capital was adapted into a 3-part BBC drama last year, starring the brilliant Toby Jones as Roger and a great turn by Rachel Stirling as the terrible Arabella: