“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent van Gogh)

This is my contribution to Small Press September, hosted by Bibliosa. Do head over to her blog to read all about it and join in! The novels are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr.Rosalind Harvey, 2011), which I picked up after reading Shoshi’s excellent review.  It is published by And Other Stories, a not-for-private-profit company which concentrates mainly on translated fiction. That sentence makes me feel better about the world 🙂

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Back to the novel: Tochtli (rabbit in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico), tells us about his love of samurai films, hats, learning new words, and his life as the young son of a drug baron, Yolcaut (rattlesnake).

“I think we have a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection from all over the world and all periods of the world. Although now more than new hats what I want is Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I’ve already written it down on the list of things I want and given it to Miztli. That’s how we always do it, because I don’t go out much, so Miztli buys me all the things I want on orders from Yolcaut.”

The isolation is a necessary part of his father’s business, whose paranoia is an occupational hazard that is no doubt keeping them all alive. The tragic effect that this is having on young Tochtli becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. Tochtli accepts his life, knowing no different, but to the adult reader he displays worrying signs of severe anxiety: wanting his head shaved because he doesn’t want ‘dead’ hair on him, compulsively wearing hats, constant severe stomach pains, and later, after he sees something his father tried to keep hidden, selective mutism. He also takes violence pretty much in his stride:

“One of the things I’ve learnt from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brains they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, though it might be fun to watch.”

Although dealing with extremely serious subject matter, there is humour is the novel, such as Tochtli’s description of the preparation for a drug run to Liberia which he also goes on in order to get one of his beloved pygmy hippos:

“By the way, Franklin Gomez started being Franklin Gomez yesterday in the airport. That’s what his passport from the country of Honduras says: Franklin Gomez. There were problems because Franklin Gomez didn’t want to be Franklin Gomez. Until Winston Lopez convinced him.”

In such a short tale (70 pages in my edition)Villalobos effectively widens the narrative of drug trade away from the usual barons/dealers/ users paradigm to show how the fallout from the industry can reach far and wide, including devastating those too young to have a choice about their own involvement. It is a truly moving story, not about drugs (you can read an article by the author where he refutes the term narcoliteratura here), but about children trying to cope with the messy, corrupt world adults create around them: sadly, pretty much a universal theme.

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy's Castle hat

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy’s Castle hat

Secondly, The Notebook by Agota Kristof (1986, tr. Alan Sheridan, 1989) published by CB editions,  a publishing house which focuses on short fiction, poetry and translations. Kristof was Hungarian but was exiled to French-speaking Switzerland in 1956, and wrote this, her first novel, in French.

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Like Down the Rabbit Hole, The Notebook is told from a child’s point of view, in this instance twin boys – we never know their individual names and they always use the first-person plural – who are evacuated to live with their maternal grandmother in the countryside of an unnamed nation, but which is generally thought to be Hungary.

“We call her Grandmother. People call her the Witch. She calls us ‘sons of a bitch’…Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating and drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt.”

This woman shows them no love or affection (although as the novel progresses we learn to recognise the small signs that she does care for them) and life is tough. They work on her smallholding and undertake various psychological ‘exercises’ to try and adjust to their straightened circumstances.

“ ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ When we remember these words, our eyes fill with tears. We must forget these words because, now, nobody says such words to us and because our memory of them is too heavy a burden to bear. So we begin our exercise again in a different way…By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.”

The tone of the narration is astonishing. As the boys become more and more detached in an effort to preserve themselves from the horrors they witness, the reader is faced with filling in the gaps regarding what is happening. The delivery is so matter-of-fact that more the once I found myself stopping, thinking ‘Wait a minute, what the…’, going back and finding that something devastating had been described and I’d nearly missed it.

“Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.”

The Notebook is a shattering work, and a challenging read. Human relationships are warped under the pressures of war. More than once, these pretty, golden twins get drawn into adult sex games. A young girl who is named after her birth anomaly – Harelip is apparently her given name – engages in some truly upsetting sexual acts. A neighbour behaves with horrific cruelty toward a group of starving people (presumably Jewish prisoners) and the boys wreak a terrible revenge (which they never admit in the text but you know what has happened and why). It is a difficult read but a powerful one, which does not shy away from the damage done when the acts of nations cause individuals to lose sight of their humanity. It is a political book, but not a polemical one: the twins’ equanimity leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“Later, we have our own army and government again, but our army and government are controlled by our Liberators. Their flag flies over all the public buildings. The photograph of their leader is displayed everywhere. They teach us their songs and their dances; they show us their films in our cinemas. In the schools, the language of our liberators is compulsory; other foreign languages are forbidden.”

Highly recommended, but go in prepared – brilliantly written and completely brutal.

The Notebook was adapted into a film in 2013, which completely passed me by. From this trailer it looks excellent, and thankfully laws protecting children and animals means certain scenes are guaranteed to have not been filmed, surely?

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” (William Shakespeare)

Last week I looked at The Enchanted April, so this week for May Day I thought I’d look at another Virago that helpfully has the current month in the title, Frost in May by Antonia White (1933). Virago was founded in 1973, with the Modern Classics imprint starting in 1978 “dedicated to the rediscovery and celebration of women writers, challenging the narrow definition of Classic”. Frost in May was the first Modern Classic title, so for this post I’ve paired it with the first Persephone title, as Persephone, founded in 1998, have a similar remit to publish lost or out of print books which are mainly written by women.

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Frost in May is Antonia White’s autobiographical first novel, telling the story of Nanda Gray and her schooling at the Convent of the Five Wounds from the ages of 9 to 14. Nanda begins school as a devout child, finding her way in Catholicism:

“St Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was ‘belly’, a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.”

White charts Nanda’s development throughout her school career.  She is from an ordinary middle-class family, her father a recent convert, and the other girls from aristocratic European Catholic families are glamorous and much more worldly:

“Leonie and Rosario were seasoned retreatants. They went into this solitary confinement with as little fuss as old soldiers going into camp. Rosario supplied herself with a great deal of delicate needlework if a vaguely devotional nature, while Leonie announced frankly that she was going to use her notebook to compose a blank verse tragedy on the death of Socrates.”

As Nanda becomes older, she begins to struggle with her faith, although there is never a sense that she will abandon it all together. Rather it is the story of a young person trying to find a true sense of meaning within her faith, rather than without it.

“She had often been rewarded by a real sense of pleasure in the spiritual company of Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints. But over and over again she encountered those arid patches where the whole of religious life seemed a monstrous and meaningless complication.”

If this sounds like it has no place in today’s secular world, I’ve not done Frost in May justice. The novel is about a young person’s growing realisation of self, explored with sensitivity. As a heathen book lover, I related to Nanda’s discovery of poetry:

“She read on and on, enraptured. She could not understand half, but it excited her oddly, like words in a foreign language sung to a beautiful air. She followed the poem vaguely as she followed the Latin in her missal, guessing, inventing meanings for herself, intoxicated by the mere rush of words. And yet she felt she did understand, not with her eyes or her brain, but with some faculty she did not even know she possessed.”

Frost in May is a short novel and a quick read, and I can see both why it was marginalised and why Virago chose it to launch its Modern Classics imprint. It is easy to overlook: a school story in which little happens, five years in a young girl’s life and no intrusive authorial voice to proclaim any wider profundity beyond the immediate story. Yet it has plenty to say about what is profound for the individual, the influences and experiences that shape us and leave an indelible mark. White’s light touch should not be mistaken for a lack of something to say.

“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and reset in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has quite been broken, my dear child, do you?”

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Secondly, William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919) who was a suffragette and wrote this novel during the last year of World War I. The eponymous Mr Tully is a young man who prior to the war is a socialist, fired less by idealism and more by the need for something with which to occupy himself.

“The gentlest of creatures by nature and in private life, he grew to delight in denunciation, and under its ceaseless influence the world divided itself into two well-marked camps; the good and enlightened who agreed with him, and the fool and miscreants who did not…in short, he became a politician.”

William meets and marries a similarly dim suffragette, Griselda, and Hamilton’s satire of their unthinking politicking is relentless.  They are shown as well-meaning but avoiding any challenge to their ideals and any opportunity for genuine original thought. When a certain archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo, they pay it little mind as it does directly affect their parochial politics, and they head off on honeymoon to Ardennes. When they emerge from the Forest of Arden three weeks later, they are captured by soldiers and face a traumatic awakening as to the state of the world:

“So they trotted down the valley, humiliated, dishevelled, indignant, but still incredulous – while their world crumbled about them and Europe thundered and bled.”

Hamilton does not baulk from the realities of war – of which she had first-hand experience – and it is shown as bloody and brutal. The satire falls away as William becomes the everyman caught up in circumstances far beyond his control.

“It had not seemed to him possible that a man could disagree with him honestly and out of the core of his heart; it had not seemed to him possible that the righteous could be righteous and yet err. He knew now, as by lightening flash, that he, Faraday, a thousand others, throwing scorn from a thousand platforms on the idea of a European War, had been madly, wildly, ridiculously wrong – and the knowledge stunned and blinded him.”

Hamilton’s master stroke is that the things she satirised – William and Griselda’s lack of understanding, ignorance and youthful certainties – become the very things that drive home the human tragedy of the war. They are ordinary people who just wanted to live the life they imagined for themselves, and their powerlessness and profound losses are what makes this so very sad. The devastation of World War I is left in no doubt.

After all this talk of devastation, let’s pick ourselves up with some love poetry: the wonderful Harriet Walter reading the sonnet from which this post takes its title:

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #41)

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.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan is a short novel (108 pages in my edition, the Penguin translation by Irene Ash), published in 1954 when the author was 18.  Yes, 18.  Apparently she failed to pass her exams for the Sorbonne and so decided to write a novel instead. As you do. And it’s a modern classic. I’m pretty sure I hate this woman.  Rest assured it’s jealousy plain and simple, not xenophobia – there’s a lot of nonsense talked about British attitudes to our neighbours across Le Manche, but despite the fact that I would be at least 5kg lighter if France wasn’t there (je t’aime fromage bleu)I for one am a true Francophile.  They are a great nation that has provided the world with at least two things guaranteed to cause uncontrollable dribbling in this blogger:

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Almond croissants (or croissants aux amandes if you will) (Image from www.belleepooque.co.uk)

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Vincent Cassel (Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/277745501994347016/)

To those of you concerned that I am objectifying Mr Cassel, I would just like to reassure you that I’m objectifying the croissant so much more, believe me.

Now, where was I?  Oh yes, the extraordinary talent of Francoise Sagan.  While the protagonist is a precocious 17 year old, Cecile, (so far, so thinly disguised autobiography) the psychological insights into the characters are sophisticated and you don’t feel like you’re reading someone’s juvenilia.  Cecile is holidaying in the south of France with her father, an entirely vacuous widower whose temperament she shares:

“I soon noticed that he lived with a woman.  It took me rather longer to realise that it was a different one every six months.  But gradually his charm, my new easy life, and my own disposition led me to accept it.  He was a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.  It was easy to love him, for he was kind, generous, gay, and full of affection for me.  I cannot imagine a better or more amusing friend.”

And that is just the problem – he is a friend, not a parent.  He treats Cecile as a co-conspirator in life, buying her inappropriate dresses and taking her to casinos, talking to her as an equal:

 “He refused categorically all notions of fidelity and serious commitments.  He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile…I knew in his case they did not exclude either tenderness or devotion; feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined they should be transient…I was not at the age where fidelity was attractive.  I knew very little about love.”

Into this self-serving world comes Anne, a friend of Cecile’s dead mother.  She is cool and controlled:

“I think she rather despised us for our love of diversion and frivolity, as she despised all extremes.”

Yet, despite their differences, Cecile admires Anne and her father decides to marry this woman so different from himself.   The decision does not sit well with Cecile:

 “I thought of the lunch I had endured with clenched teeth, tortured by a feeling of resentment for which I despised and ridiculed myself.  Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself.  I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost.”

I don’t want to seem ageist, but clearly I am, as this self-ironising tone was not what I expected from such a young author.  Cecile is spoilt and self-focused, and decides to split up her father and Anne so that her life can continue how she wants it to.  She constantly vacillates, changing her mind and feelings with each moment, but her machinations regarding Anne move inexorably forward. The consequences are dramatic and will force Cecile to leave her childhood behind forever:

“Then gradually I begin to think of something else. But I do not like to take refuge in forgetfulness and frivolity instead of facing my memories and fighting them.”

Bonjour Tristesse is a melancholic novel (the title means Hello Sadness) about the prices we pay for the things we think we want.  Francoise Sagan creates a memorable protagonist in Cecile and an affecting story within remarkably few words.

To end, the poster of the film adaptation made just four years after publication:

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(Image from: http://docublogger.typepad.com/seberg/page/2/ )