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.

Colette Week: Day 7 – The Last of Cheri (1926)

I thought it would be apt to finish Colette Week with a novel concerned with endings: The Last of Cheri (La Fin de Cheri). Here’s a reminder of my decidedly kitsch edition because it’s just so bad:

Thankfully I’m not quite so shallow as to let a hideous cover affect my enjoyment of Colette’s glorious writing (almost shallow enough, but not quite). The Last of Cheri is set 6 years later than Cheri, just after the end of World War I. He is no longer quite the callow youth he was: his affair with Lea and his experience of fighting in the trenches have left him cynical and damaged.

“he had come to scorn the truth ever since the day when, years ago, it had suddenly fallen from his mouth like a belch, to spatter and wound one whom he had loved.”

But, as the French wisely say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Cheri is still directionless, still without anything to live for beyond himself. Meanwhile his mother and wife have found purpose in war. Edmee is a nurse and consumed by her work at the hospital and extra-marital affairs, which Cheri agrees to.

“Cheri pulled out the small flat key on the end of its thin gold chain. ‘Here we go. In for another carefully measured dose of love. …’”

Cheri’s old friend Desmond is here too, still reprehensible, but like the women in Cheri’s life, having found purpose, setting up a popular nightclub where people try and forget what they and France have been through:

“They danced at Desmond’s, night and day, as people dance after war: the men, young and old, free from the burden of thinking and being frightened — empty-minded, innocent; the women, given over to a pleasure far greater than any more definite sensual delight, to the company of men: that is to say, to physical contact with them, their smell, their tonic sweat, the certain proof of which tingled in every inch of their bodies — the certainty of being the prey of a man wholly alive and vital, and of succumbing in his arms to rhythms as personal, as intimate, as those of sleep.”

If Cheri was told primarily from Lea’s perspective, The Last of Cheri is from Cheri’s perspective and Colette captures this wonderfully. Given that Cheri is so lost and directionless, the novella never appears so. The writing is insightful without being heavy-handedly psychological, and although set in town, Colette’s feel for the natural world remains:

“He noticed that the rosy tints of the sky were wonderfully reflected in the rain-filled gutters and on the blue backs of the low- skimming swallows. And now, because the evening was fresh, and because all the impressions he was bringing away with him were slipping back perfidiously into the recesses of his mind – there to assume their final shape and intensity — he came to believe that he had forgotten all about them, and he felt happy.”

This feeling of happiness is brief though, and occurs after a distressing meeting with Lea, so the reader knows Cheri is deluding himself. Like everyone else, Lea has moved on and is in a very different place, happy and fulfilled.

Poor Cheri. He is utterly lost and ricochets around without any idea as to how to remedy his emptiness. The crisis of meaning of a rich, good-looking playboy could test the reader’s patience, but Colette’s writing meant I had real sympathy for him. His life from the start meant he didn’t stand much of a chance:

“His childhood as a bastard, his long adolescence as a ward, had taught him that his world, though people thought of it as reckless, was governed by a code almost as narrow-minded as middle-class prejudice. In it, Cheri had learned that love is a question of money, infidelity, betrayals, and cowardly resignation. But now he was well on the way to forgetting the rules he had been taught, and to be repelled by acts of silent condescension.”

So, that’s the end of Colette week on the blog. I’ve really enjoyed submerging myself in her writing this week and I hope I’ve managed to convey just a tiny bit of how good she is. She has a deep understanding of people and a wonderful sympathy with the natural world. I find her evocative and capable of great artistry but with a real lightness of touch. Plus she wrote a lot of novellas, which always gets my vote 😊 She was a prolific writer so there’s plenty more to explore, which I’m really looking forward to.

Image from here

Colette Week: Day 6 – Cheri (1920)

I’m ending the week with Colette’s two novels about a beautiful young man, Cheri and The Last of Cheri (tomorrow). Before we go on, look at this awful book cover:

It’s the nearest I’ve come to being embarrassed to read a book in public (I still did it though 😀 )

My aesthetic qualms aside, let’s get back to Cheri. It’s a beautifully written, minutely observed novel and so the quotes are lengthy, as I inadequately attempt to give a sense of Colette’s mastery.

Fred Peloux, known to most as Cheri, is in his mid-twenties and his lover, Lea, is nearing 50.

“At the age of forty-nine, Leonie Vallon, called Lea de Lonval, was nearing the end of a successful career as a richly kept courtesan. She was a good creature, and life had spared her the more flattering catastrophes and exalted sufferings. She made a secret of the date of her birth; but willingly admitted — with a look of voluptuous condescension for Cheri’s special benefit — that she was approaching the age when she could indulge in a few creature comforts. She liked order, fine linen, wines in their prime, and carefully planned meals at home. From an idolised young blonde she had become a rich middle-aged demi-mondaine without ever attracting any outrageous publicity.”

They have been together for six years, since Cheri was 19. His mother, Charlotte, was also a courtesan and Cheri’s paternity is unknown. His beauty is astonishing but his personality is lacking.

‘Why is he so ugly when he laughs? — he who’s the very picture of beauty!’ She thought for a moment, then finished aloud: “It’s because you look so ill-natured when you’re joking. You never laugh except unkindly — at people, and that makes you ugly. You’re often ugly.”

Charlotte is determined to get Cheri married, and Lea claims she is at ease with this; she never anticipated her relationship with Cheri would be a long one. Charlotte and Lea have an antagonistic relationship but one of mutual understanding.

“They had known each other for twenty-five years. Theirs was the hostile intimacy of light women, enriched and then cast aside by one man, ruined by another: the tetchy affection of rivals stalking one another’s first wrinkle or white hair. Theirs was the friendship of two practical women of the world, both adepts at the money game; but one of them a miser, and the other a sybarite. These bonds count. Rather late in their day, a stronger bond had come to link them more closely: Cheri.”

Cheri marries a young woman named Edmée, but it is not a love match. He ends up listless and unhappy, disappearing for 3 months to live in Paris with his friend/hanger-on Desmond, denying his jealousy regarding the rumour that Lea has left the city with a new lover. It is an existence entirely empty and wholly unsatisfying to him. Cheri is worshipped for his looks and youthful energy but he is a deeply inadequate human being. His is an unexamined life, without purpose or meaning.

“For a moment he gave way to self-pity and self-contempt. How many good things had he missed by leading such a pointless life — a young man with lots of money and little heart! Then he stopped thinking for a moment, or possibly for an hour. Next, he persuaded himself there was nothing in the world he wanted, not even to go and see Lea.”

In this short novel Colette documents the evolving relationship between Lea and Cheri, and its sad conclusion. It is an insightful character study of the main protagonists, and an unblinking dissection of a relationship that is doomed to failure despite the deep love between Cheri and Lea. It will not survive societal pressures, nor the lack of humanity and compassion within Cheri.

“An undecipherable thought appeared in the depths of his eyes; their shape, their dark wallflower hue, their harsh or languorous glint, were used only to win love, never to reveal his mind. From sheets crumpled as though by a storm, rose his naked body, broad- shouldered, slim-waisted; and his whole being breathed forth the melancholy of perfect works of art.”

Cheri has been adapted quite a few times (hence my awful book cover). Here’s the trailer for the 2009 film directed by Stephen Frears:

Colette Week: Day 5 – Ripening Seed (1923)

I’ve a stinking cold Reader, please bear with me if this post is even more rambling and incoherent than usual…

Ripening Seed (original title: Le Ble en Herbe trans. Roger Senhouse 1955) has a subtitle on my old orange Penguin edition ‘An idyllic tale of a modern Daphnis and Chloe’, which I think is misleading. I didn’t find the tale idyllic; Colette is far too psychologically astute for that. So although its about a young couple discovering themselves and their love for each other over a long hot summer, its about pain as well as joys, and how the two can be hard to disentangle. It has similarities to Daphnis and Chloe, but departs from that story too.

Vinca “the Periwinkle, with eyes the colour of April showers” and Philippe who “radiated intolerance and a sort of traditional despair…for the period when body and soul are like buds ready to burst into flower” have known each other for years as their families holiday together in Brittany each year. Now Vinca is 15 and Philippe is 16, their feelings are starting to change toward one another. So far, theirs is a chaste romance, full of high adolescent feeling but without physical expression.

I’m not really in the market for teen romance – even Romeo and Juliet tries my patience – but Colette held me with this. Her evocative depictions of nature are to the fore as she captures a hot coastal summer:

“An offshore breeze wafted the scent of the new-mown after-crop, farmyard smells, and fragrance of bruised mint: little by little, along the level of the sea, a dusty pink was usurping the domain of blue unchallenged since the early morning […] the bleat of a goat and the tinkle of the cracked bell round its neck were enough to make the corners of his mouth quiver with anguish and his eyes fill with tears of pleasure. He did not let his eyes linger on the rocks where Vinca was roaming”

I also didn’t mind Vinca and Philippe’s contrariness towards one another. It seemed very believable for two young people who don’t know what to do with their feelings.

“There were still times when they could forget their love, despite the force that daily increased its tentacle hold and slowly but surely sapped their mutual trust and gentleness; and despite their very love itself, though it was changing the essence of their tender affection as coloured water changes the complexion of the rose that drinks it.”

Philippe is seduced by the older Mme Dalleray and so for the latter half of the novel the reader is waiting for the fallout from this sexual awakening away from Vinca. The title in French is from the phrase ‘manger son blé en herbe’/’to eat the wheat that has just sprouted’. In other words, people who are impatient end up denying themselves the benefit of a situation they should have let develop. As I mentioned at the start of this post, this is a story that deals with the pain of love as much as the joys…

Ripening Seed is a novella (122 pages in my edition) focused on building atmosphere and capturing a moment in time for two young protagonists. It’s beautifully written and Colette drew me into Vinca and Philippe’s world from the start.

Le Ble en Herbe has been adapted for the screen a few times (of course it has, young good-looking people in love a cinematic mainstay). Here’s a clip from the 1954 version:

Colette Week: Day 4 – Claudine and Annie (1903)

In Claudine and Annie, original title Claudine s’en va (trans. Antonia White 1962), we hear someone else’s impression of the free-spirited heroine, as the novel is told from the point of view of Annie, a very different woman to Claudine.

“I don’t know anything…except how to obey. He has taught me that and I achieve obedience as the sole task of my existence…assiduously…joyfully.”

He is her husband, Alain, who she has loved since childhood and has left her for many months in order to travel to Brazil and claim a legacy. We never meet Alain but he seems fairly repulsive, including saying that she shouldn’t take his rare compliments to heart, as:

“It is my own work I’m admiring; a lovable child, fashioned little by little into and without great difficulty into an irreproachable young woman and an accomplished housewife.”

He is controlling and has left her a list of instructions, including:

“Only one call on Renaud and Claudine, too fantastically unconventional a couple”

Thankfully, for those of us who are so fond of Claudine from the previous novels, Annie ends up disregarding this advice. She and Claudine get on well, spending time together as Claudine is part of Marthe’s, Annie’s sister-in-law, social circle.

“I was animated by an indiscreet curiosity, as if, by questioning Claudine, I was about to discover the secret, the ‘recipe’ of her lucky disposition that detached her from everything, and made her indifferent to gossip, petty quarrels, even to conventions.”

Claudine is attracted to Annie, but she and Renaud have an agreement to just have two people in their marriage since the Rezi drama, so nothing romantic occurs. From Annie we learn they are a devoted and very happy couple. Annie’s marriage, by contrast, is crumbling:

“Shattered, I searched obstinately for one memory in our past as a young married couple that could give me back the husband I believed I had. Nothing, I could find nothing – only my whipped child’s submissiveness, only his cold condescending smile.”

Marthe and her social set are not a happy bunch (apart from Renaud and Claudine). There are infidelities, relentless bitching, worries about money… and yet Annie has her eyes opened to the nature of her relationship with Alain and she cannot turn back.  Realistically, Annie is not ecstatic at her new life; she only knows it must happen.

“In those days which seem strangely far away I was more meek than terrified and almost happy in a timid, colourless way. Is my lot any better today, wandering hither and thither, demoralised yet more self-willed? It’s a very arduous problem for such a tired brain.”

Although I missed Claudine in this novella as the focus is very much on Annie, I still enjoyed this greatly. It was entertaining to see a character we know so well from a first-person point of view depicted through the eyes of Annie. I thought the voice of Annie was distinct from Claudine and of course I was rooting for her to leave Alain.

The story is fairly slight, but at just over 100 pages it is well-paced and suits its novella length. The final sentence was pitch perfect and such a satisfying ending to Annie’s story despite – or perhaps because of – many  unanswered questions.

And so I bid farewell to Claudine and I’m so sorry to see her go. Tomorrow, a stand-alone novella – is it any wonder I love Colette so much when her novels are so blissfully short? 🙂

Colette Week: Day 3 – Claudine Married (1902)

*This post contains spoilers for Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married*

Claudine Married, original title Claudine en menage (trans. Antonia White 1960), continues the story of Claudine after she and Renaud return from honeymoon. It begins:

“Definitely, there is something wrong with our married life. Renaud knows nothing about it yet; how should he know?”

Claudine is finding it hard to adapt to married life, much as she loves her husband. It’s hardly surprising, given that she is young and inexperienced – though not naïve – and has married a man twice her age. She is growing up, and I found her more likable in this novel than the previous two, as she acknowledges her cruelty and disregard for others’ feelings in the past, particularly poor Luce. But she still has her childlike moments:

“Without listening to him, I suddenly put the ruby in my mouth, ‘because it ought to melt and taste like a raspberry fruit drop’! Renaud, baffled by this new way of appreciating precious stones, bought me sweets the following day. Honestly, they gave me as much pleasure as the jewel.”

The start of the novel has some particularly unsavoury scenes to my twenty-first century sensibilities, when Claudine and Renaud return to her old school and sexually tease/demand kisses from the young adolescents there. It was really unpleasant, but thankfully soon over, and Renaud’s voyeuristic enjoyment of Claudine’s lesbian encounters sets the scene for later in the novel.

Claudine has to learn to adapt to a shared life, and she struggles with this. Renaud is not quite what she hoped he would be:

“I hoped so ardently that Renaud’s will would curb mine, that his tenacity would eventually overcome my fits of rebellion; in short, that his character would match the expression of his eyes, accustomed to command and fascinate. Renaud’s will, Renaud’s tenacity! He is suppler than a flame, just as burning, just as flickering; he envelopes me without dominating me, Alas! Are you to remain your own mistress forever, Claudine?”

They are also temperamentally incompatible: Renaud is urbane and sociable and enjoys travelling while Claudine likes being at home in the country.

“There is nothing nomadic about me, except my mind.”

They enjoy their sex life, but even at these moments of closeness there are distances to be traversed:

 “To him [sexual] pleasure is something gay and lenient and facile, whereas it shatters me and plunges me into a mysterious despair that I seek and also fear.”

Colette is candid about sex in Claudine Married. It is not portrayed explicitly but it is dealt with directly. This includes when Claudine meets the charming Rezi:

 “All her movements, the turn of her hips, the arching of her neck, the quick raising of her arm to her hair, the sway of her seated body, all described curves so nearly circular that I could see the design of interlacing rings, like the perfect spiral of seashells, that her gentle movements left traced on the air.”

They begin an affair, fully endorsed by Renaud, who provides somewhere for them to go. This is partly because he is titillated by it, and partly because his view of sex is phallocentric and so he does not take same-sex attraction between women seriously (while he is homophobic towards his gay son):

“You women can do anything. It’s charming and of no consequence whatever…”

The change from menage to menage a trois with the shallow Rezi has disaster written all over it, and Claudine knows it:

“I know that common sense, because it is my own particular brand; it allows me, precisely one minute before fatal blunders, to enjoy the lucid pleasure of telling myself: ‘This is a fatal blunder.’”

When the inevitable blow comes, Claudine returns to her beloved Montigny and Colette’s beautiful depictions of nature are once more to the fore:

“I had been able to bathe my bear hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun…I was penetrated with sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden”

Claudine Married is a witty novel about the ways we blunder about in our close relationships. Claudine loves Renaud but is bored in their marriage; she admits she doesn’t love Rezi but is in sexual thrall to her. How it all plays out is believable and sad, without being tragic or overblown. The ending wasn’t to my taste but is probably more in keeping with the early-twentieth century time of writing.

The novella also has plenty to say about gender roles and how male and female sexuality is treated differently by society, but does so lightly and I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel which seemed remarkably forward-thinking.

Colette is such a beautiful writer and Claudine’s voice was as distinct as ever. I’ll be sorry to leave her behind after Claudine and Annie, of which more tomorrow 😊

Colette Week: Day 2 – Claudine in Paris (1901)

As the title of Claudine in Paris (Claudine à Paris trans. Antonia White, 1958) suggests, Claudine has left Montigny for the capital. She is recovering from a severe illness which has seen her long hair chopped off due to matting, and she is finding it hard to adjust to her new looks and new home:

“I can’t conceive that people live in Paris for pleasure, of their own free will, but I do begin to understand that one can get interested in what goes on inside these huge six-surveyed boxes”

Some things haven’t changed: she and her father are still bonded by affection but talk at cross-purposes:

“No doubt he neglects Moliere as not being sufficiently concerned with slugs”

Claudine could be annoying: she’s precocious and pretty self-obsessed in the way teenagers can be, but I still liked her. She’s funny, she’s witty, and she’s aware of her own shortcomings:

“Claudine, old thing, will you never cure yourself of that itch to meddle in things that don’t concern you, that rather despicable little wish to show you’re artful and knowledgeable and understand heaps of things beyond your age? This urge to astonish people, this crave to disturb people’s peace of mind and upset too-placid lives will play you a nasty trick one of these days.”

Claudine finds her claims of broadminded libertarianism butting against her experience in Paris. Although she is fine with her cousin being gay, she is shocked to find an old school friend with very few prospects deciding to be kept by her old, overweight ‘uncle’.

“In your heart of hearts Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

This short novel follows Claudine getting to know her extended family, gaining in confidence as she negotiates the city, and working out who she is growing into. It’s an affectionate portrait of someone on the brink of adulthood, showing how its possible to be childlike and a knowing adult at the same time, moving between the two in an instant.

Claudine falls in love in Paris, with someone who, as a reader, I thought wholly unsuitable. Was I right? Tomorrow I’ll let you know when I look at Claudine Married

Colette Week: Day 1 – Claudine at School (1900)

Last year I undertook to blog on a Novella a Day in May, which I really enjoyed. I’m hoping to do it again this year, but I fear I may end up delaying it until 2020. To tide me over I’m going to do a mini-version with a favourite writer who wrote short novels: Colette each day for a week, starting today as it’s her birthday.

Image from here

I’ll begin obviously, with Colette’s first novel, Claudine a l’ecole which I read in English translation, Claudine at School (trans. Antonia White 1956). Claudine is fifteen and in her final year at school. She lives in Burgundy with her father, who is distant but loving, interested mainly in slugs. As a result, Claudine is left to her own devices; her voice is strong and distinctive but she can also be something of a bitch, manipulating people and freely giving out slaps and other violence to her classmates.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside which Colette clearly had great feeling for:

“The charm, the delight of this countryside composed of hills and valleys so narrow that some are ravines, lies in the woods – the deep, encroaching woods that ripple and wave away into the distance as far as you can see….Green meadows make rifts in them here and there, so do little plots of cultivation.”

A new teacher arrives at the school, Aimee Lanthenay, and Claudine is immediately entranced:

“My English mistress seemed adorable to me that night under the library lamp. Her cat’s eyes shone like pure gold, at once malicious and caressing, and I admired them, not without reminding myself that they were neither kind nor frank nor trustworthy. But they sparkled so brilliantly in her fresh face and she seemed so utterly at ease in this warm, softly-lit room that I already felt ready to love her so much, so very much, with all my irrational heart. Yes, I’ve known perfectly well, for a long time, that I have an irrational heart. But knowing it doesn’t stop me in the least.”

Claudine is aware of her own attractions and confident in them, including her appeal to the school’s District Superintendent Dutertre, who she sees clear-sightedly as something of a lech. Ultimately however, she loses Aimee to her Headmistress:

“The class was well-trained now. All the girls even down to those in the Third Division knew that, during recreation, they must never enter a classroom in which the mistresses had shut themselves up… we found them so tenderly entwined, or so absorbed in their whisperings, or else Madame Sergent holding her little Aimee on her lap with such a total lack of reserve that even the stupidest were nonplussed”

The treatment of sexual attraction between women is dealt with frankly in the novel. It is never apologised for, explained away as schoolgirl crushes, or treated as anything extraordinary. Claudine is at once inexperienced but wise and somewhat cynical beyond her years:

“In a week she will possess another fiancée who will leave her at the end of three months; she is not cunning enough to hold the boys and not practical enough to get herself married. And, as she obstinately insists on remaining virtuous, this may go on for a long time.”

The plot is minimal, the novel is Claudine’s diary of her final school year and all that entails. Yet Claudine’s distinctive voice propelled me along as I wanted to see what the precocious teenager would do next.

“Papa was sending me to Paris to a rich childless aunt… How should I do without the country; with this hunger for green, growing things that never left me?”

The answer to that question tomorrow 😊

“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” (Nawal El Saadawi)

August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!

This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.

Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”

Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:

“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”

His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:

“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”

But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.

“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”

Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.

“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”

[…]

“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”

Secondly, the short story collection She Has No Place in Paradise by Nawal El Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987) Set in Egypt, it is another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀

I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.

Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:

“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”

It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.

“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”

Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.

“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”

By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.

El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.

She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.

To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain:

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.”