Novella a Day in May 2019 #23

The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna (1975, trans. Herbert Lomas 1995) 135 pages

Following on from The Cat yesterday, I thought I’d look at another novella about a relationship with an animal today; the international bestseller about a man who leaves his life behind after injuring a wild hare.

Vatanen is a journalist deeply unhappy with his career, metropolitan life, and his marriage.

“Their flat had become an extravagant farrago of shallow and meretricious interior-decoration tips from women’s magazines. A pseudo-radicalism governed the design, with huge posters and clumsy modularised furniture. It was difficult to inhabit the rooms without injury; all items were at odds. The home was distinctly reminiscent of Vatanen’s marriage.”

The novel opens with him in a car with his photographer, hitting a hare with their car. The hare limps off and Vatanen follows it. He splints its leg and takes care of it, deciding never to return to his life.

What follows is a series of episodes in which Vanaten meets various eccentric characters as he travels further north in Finland, having adventures and finding the presence of the hare promotes honest and open conversations with people.

“If it’s difficult to teach an old dog to sit, as they say, then it’s even more difficult to teach an old Lapland roue to swim.”

The Year of the Hare is picaresque, and the emphasis is on the escapades rather than the characters. I didn’t feel I really knew Vananten any better by the end of the novella, but it had been mostly fun spending time with him and the hare.

I say mostly, because there were a couple of episodes I had to skip. These involved cruelty to animals. There was one particularly horrible incident where Vatanen tortures a raven, and there’s an extended bear hunt towards the end. But skipping over these parts still left a lot to enjoy, and the sense of Finland and its landscape is beautifully evoked.

“When, that evening, Vatanen slowly ski’d back from Vittumainen Ghyll to Laahkima Gorge, accompanied by his hare, he no longer thought about Kaartinen’s strange world. There was a half-moon, and the stars were glimmering faintly in the frozen evening. He had his own world, this one, and it was fine to be here, living alone in one’s own way. The hare ambled silently along the trail ahead of the skier, like a pathfinder. Vatanen sang to it.”

A slightly bonkers, occasionally surreal tale about following your own path and keeping an open mind as to who might accompany you part of the way.

The Year of the Hare was made into a film two years after publication, but I can’t find a trailer for that Finnish version. Its been a bestseller in France, so here is a trailer for the French film adaptation from 2006. Christophe Lambert is immediately too likeable as Vatanen but the atmosphere and scenery look spot-on:

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #22

The Cat – Colette (1933, trans. Antonia White, 1953) 96 pages

Back in January when I wasn’t sure I’d manage NADIM this year (I’m still not sure – 9 posts to go!) I did a week of novellas by Colette. I loved immersing myself in her writing that week so I couldn’t resist including another of her novellas this month.

The Cat is familiar Colette territory: a young, slightly feckless couple failing to communicate. The difference is that there are three beings in this marriage: Alain, Camille, and Alain’s Russian Blue cat Saha.

Alain is from old money that is rapidly dwindling; Camille is new money that is much more abundant.

“Alain listened to her, not bored, but not indulgent either. He had known her for several years and classified her as a typical modern girl. He knew the way she drove a car, a little to fast and a little too well; her eye alert and her scarlet mouth always ready to swear violently at a taxi driver. He knew that she lied unblushingly”

They desire one another but they don’t communicate in any meaningful way. Alain almost seems to despise Camille at times – finding her tacky and invasive – unlike his pedigree cat, whom he adores. The three of them move temporarily to a friend’s flat while their home is being refurbished:

“He was incessantly and increasingly aware of his repugnance at the idea of making a place for this young woman, this outsider, in his own home. He nursed this resentment and fed it with secret soliloquies and the sullen contemplation of their new dwelling.”

For Camille, the resentments and disappointments which begin to build in their marriage become focussed towards Saha. As she points out, it is worse than another woman. Saha isn’t a competitor, but Alain loves her unconditionally and has an easy sensual relationship with his cat, whereas his sexual relationship with Camille is complicated by his feelings of contempt.

“As soon as he turned out the light, the cat began to trample delicately on her friend’s chest. Each time she pressed down her feet, one single claw pierced the silk of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure.”

Spoiler alert: I must admit I did what I never do and skipped to the end of this story before reading very far, to check the cat wasn’t killed. I couldn’t face a story where that happened. But thankfully Colette is more subtle than that. Saha doesn’t die, which means the failures in the human relationship occur not in the rage of grief, but in something more subdued and sadder. Saha is a focus for the confused, antagonistic feelings the young couple have for one another. The cat brings these feelings to the surface more quickly than perhaps they would have done without her, but there is no doubt they would have occurred at some point.

You don’t need to be a cat lover to enjoy this story. It is a study of a young, naïve, selfish couple and the unthinking damage they do to one another, while professing their love. This being Colette, alongside the psychological insights, there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world:

“High in the sky a hazy moon held court, looking larger than usual through the mist of the first warm days. A single tree – a poplar with newly opened glossy leaves – caught the moonlight and trickled with as many sparkles as a waterfall. A silver shadow leapt out of a clump of bushes and glided like a fish against Alain’s ankles.

‘Ah! There you are Saha! I was looking for you. Why didn’t you appear at table tonight?’”

To end, here’s the lady herself with a couple of her beloved pets:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #21

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (1963, trans. Elizabeth Rokkan 1966) 176 pages

This novella is like the titular structure: impressive, delicate, beautiful and disturbing. It’s impossible to review without giving away plot points, so apologies in advance and do skip to just the quotes if you don’t want to know but still want an idea of the gorgeous writing!

The Ice Palace tells the story of two eleven-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is a leader among her peers, newcomer Unn is quiet and shy. She stands alone at break times, yet the popular Siss finds herself drawn to Unn.

The girls have a deep unspoken bond that they don’t understand themselves. The first time Siss goes to Unn’s house after school, they have an almost spiritual experience gazing into a mirror together. Unn wants to tell Siss something, but Siss feels overwhelmed and leaves, thinking:

“You can tell me more another time. Whenever you like another time. We couldn’t have gone further this evening. It had been a great deal as it was. But if they were to go further it would make things impossible. Home again as quickly as she could. Otherwise they might get involved in something that would shatter it for all of them. Instead they had shone into each other’s eyes.”

The next day, Unn feels too embarrassed to see Siss again, and decides to visit the local Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall.

“She lay flat on the ice, not yet feeling the cold. Her slim body was a shadow with distorted human form down on the bottom.

Then she changed her position on the shining glass mirror. The delicate bracken still stood in the block of ice in a blaze of light.”

The natural descriptions are stunning, but never overwhelm the narrative:

“Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.”

Unn goes missing, and it doesn’t take much for the villagers to work out where she might be. Finding her proves impossible though:

“The men continued to search. They had life and light on their side. They were visiting an unknown fortress, and it looked like the fortress of death. If one of them struck the wall with his stick it proved to be as hard as rock. The blow recoiled and vibrated in his arm. Nothing opened up. They struck all the same.”

Siss is devasted. She makes Unn a promise that sees her withdraw from her family and friends, taking Unn’s place alone at the edge of the playground.

“I promise to think about no-one but you. To think about everything I know about you. To think about you at home and at school, and on the way to school. To think about you all day long, and if I wake up at night.”

The Ice Palace is a novel that doesn’t spell out its characters’ feelings but leaves you in no doubt as to how strong they are. It is a study of grief in pre-adolescents; Unn is an orphan and Siss is overwhelmed by her feelings when Unn goes missing. The atmosphere of a Norwegian village in winter is beautifully evoked and it is haunting without being creepy. The novella doesn’t give trite answers but instead asks how we learn to live with pain, with the things to which there are no answers.

“Slowly the palace changes colour. The shining green ice whitens in the warmth of the sun. The transparent chambers and domes grow dim as if filled with steam, concealing all they may possess, drawing a cover over themselves and concealing it. The whole palace draws the white colour over itself and starts to dissolve on the surface. Inside it is still ringing hard. The ice no longer sends out lightening among the fields. But shines, whiter than before, shines quietly.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #19

The Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Theriault (2016, trans. John Cullen 2017) 197 pages

(This post contains spoilers for The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman so don’t read on if you’ve any plans to read that novella.)

As Naomi pointed out, last year’s NADIM didn’t include a single Canadian author, so I’d planned on a few this year. But as my first post for NADIM 2019 explained, the best laid plans… Still, I have managed to include one, and here it is 😊

I really liked The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman when I read it a few years back. This sequel is told from the point of view of Tania, the waitress who loves Bilodo (the title character of the first book) and picks up the story shortly before Bilodo’s accident, carrying the tale on further.

As readers of the first book will know, Bilodo’s quiet, gentle existence appeals to Tania as she brings him his lunch each day:

“Tania could happily imagine him leading a monastic existence dedicated to calligraphy, saving himself physically and spiritually for the fortunate pilgrimess who would know how to find a pathway to his soul – a role for which Tania considered herself eminently qualified.”

Unfortunately Bilodo has no idea of her feelings until a cruel practical joke. Before they can talk it through, Bilodo is hit by a truck. This is where the first novella ends. In this sequel, he is given CPR by Tania and ultimately survives, but with no memory of recent years. Tania convinces him they were a couple, and engaged to be married.

“For that was the way she saw the matter: a case of confusion on the part of Destiny. In Tania’s eyes, she and Bilodo had been fated to meet and fall in love, and their botched romantic union stemmed from a karmic dysfunction which she felt it her legitimate right to remedy.”

And this is where my problems with this sequel begin. I wasn’t happy that the weird, metaphysical ending of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman seemed to be undermined and explained away, but Theriault does rescue this by the end of The Postman’s Fiancee, so I can let that go…

My main reservation was with what Tania is doing. In The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman Bilodo isn’t behaving well: he’s steaming open people’s private letters and reading them before he delivers their post. Not great, but within that novella it’s sort of OK. But Tania is manipulating and deceiving someone she professes to love, while they have amnesia. There’s really nothing that makes that OK. While I don’t mind reading about people not behaving well, here it made me uncomfortable because I think we’re supposed to be rooting for Tania and for her and Bilodo to get together. And while Theriault is a highly accomplished and subtle writer, I couldn’t quite embrace the circumstances in this story.

Tania isn’t despicable so she does have reservations about what she’s doing:

“Wasn’t she wrong to interfere with his mind that way, and by doing so wasn’t she committing some kind of mental rape?”

But she finds herself unable to stop. What readers of the first novella know, and what Tania comes to realise, is that Bilodo’s life was a bit more complicated than the monastic existence she’d imagined for him. As the circumstances of Bilodo’s life start to catch up with them, how much longer will Tania be able to sustain the fiction of the life she desperately wants? And will Bilodo ever regain his memory?

The Postman’s Fiancee is about loneliness and the fantasies we project for ourselves and on to others. It’s about recognising people for who they are and all their complications, rather than who we wish they were. It’s well written, nicely paced and with excellent characterisation and so I do still recommend this both as a sequel and as a stand-alone novella, but the actions of poor despairing Tania did limit my enjoyment of it somewhat.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #18

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena (2015, trans. Margita Gailitis 2018 ) 190 pages

Soviet Milk is published by the wonderful Peirene Press, as part of their Home in Exile series. Set in Latvia, it’s another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Marina Sofia posted at the start of the month on how stories that tend to be translated from the former Eastern bloc tend to be grim and hard-going, not reflective of the scope of literature of those countries at all. Unfortunately, Soviet Milk does not buck this trend. It’s an excellently-written novella though, and compelling portrait of a mother/daughter relationship and the impact of the state on people’s lives.

The imagery of milk is woven throughout the narrative and begins with a young single mother refusing to breastfeed her child:

“my mother was a young doctor. Perhaps she knew that her milk would have caused more harm than good to her child. How else to explain her disappearance from home immediately after giving birth? She was missing for five days. She returned with aching breasts. Her milk had stopped flowing.”

The narrative alternates between the mother and daughter. The mother is hard-working, committed to her gynaecology practice, but also distant and depressed.

“Having witnessed my father’s physical suffering, I decided to become a doctor. I’m not sure I loved him. Sometimes I felt sorry for him. Sometimes I hated him because I suspected that his self-destructive gene was deeply implanted in me and that with time it would grow and strengthen, no matter how hard I fought it.”

The daughter grows up a very different character. She is cared for by her grandmother and step-grandfather, and is a happy child, taking joy in simple pleasures. She is aware of her mother’s troubles though:

 “I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh, where she practised injections. I remember her in bed with blue lips from the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.”

But only possibly…her mother definitely self-medicates with various substances, and tries to overdose more than once. Her life isn’t laid out explicitly – we never know who the father of her child is – but she certainly struggles with life under communist rule.

“My mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen. Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence. We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.”

The story follows the banishment of the mother from Riga to an obscure part of the Latvian countryside, where she continues her gynaecological practice but without the research and clinical developments she so highly valued in the city. The daughter begins to recognise the limitations the state places on their lives, whilst simultaneously caring for her unpredictable, unhappy mother.

Although very much about Soviet rule, there is much in Soviet Milk that is universal: familial relationships, mental health, the impact of addiction beyond the addict, struggling against the forces that govern and circumscribe our lives. Yet however much I rail against the political nightmare we’re currently in, I don’t truly feel my existence is Orwellian, unlike the mother who finds a section of 1984:

“The whole dialogue sounded as if the speaker was standing right beside me, in my narrow room, as if he was describing my life right now.”

If Soviet Milk was solely from the mother’s perspective, it would be very bleak indeed. But the daughter has a teenager’s exuberance, and is living at a time when Gorbachev has just come into power…

A powerful, highly readable novella about two very different women.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (2014, trans. Charlotte Collins 2015) 149 pages

After the traumas of The Blind Owl yesterday, lets all recuperate in a beautiful Austrian village😊 But that’s not to say that A Whole Life is a comfort read; it’s exactly what the title says – the tale of one man’s whole life, containing tragedy and joy.

Andreas Egger arrives in the village as a young orphan, at the start of the twentieth century. His uncle doesn’t really want him and he is bullied violently by him until he gets old enough to demand it stop, but not before his leg has been broken and badly reset, leaving him with a lifelong limp.

Nonetheless he is a strong and valued manual labourer in the village, later working for the cable car company, shinning up and down the mountains. Egger is a loner but not lonely; ultimately he is a man of the valley, mountains and meadow of his village.

“Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.”

From this small village Egger witnesses the many and rapid changes of the twentieth century. He participates in some – his only protracted period of time away is when he is a prisoner of war – but mostly he just observes. There are the major upheavals:

“The mayor was no longer a Nazi these days, geraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”

And also the social shifts, such as the quiet village becoming beset by tourists:

 “He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.”

Egger also experiences some major changes in his personal life, but to avoid spoilers I won’t give details. I’ve seen A Whole Life compared to Stoner and while I do love Stoner I think this is quite different. Although both are about male, twentieth-century, somewhat isolated lives, I didn’t find this nearly so sad.

“Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.”

A beautifully written novella which demonstrates how a life can look quiet and small from the outside but be entirely rich and fulfilling. Above all, it’s about walking your own path.

“And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down onto one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone badly after all.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #15

The Blind Owl – Sadeq Hedayat (1937, trans. DP Costello 1957) 106 pages

This was a really challenging read, and though an astounding work, I was grateful for the novella length as it was tough to take.

Sadeq Hedayat was an Iranian writer and is considered an innovative titan of Persian literature; he’s a best-selling author in his home country. This novel was initially banned on publication, and according to Wiki there is still censorship of his work (I’ve not linked to the Wiki page because much to my horror there’s a picture of his dead body on it). Sadly, he died by suicide, and The Blind Owl certainly feels authentic in its portrayal of someone losing all sense of reality and suffering mental ill health. I’m giving this post a trigger warning for some pretty disturbing imagery in the third quote, although I’ve not picked the worst in the novella, I wanted to give a true sense of it.

“Will anyone ever penetrate the secret of this disease which transcends ordinary experience, this reverberation of the shadow of the mind, which manifests itself in a state of coma like that between death and resurrection, when one is neither asleep nor awake?”

The unnamed narrator earns his living by painting pen cases. He may or may not have killed someone:

“How could I have resisted it, I, an artist, shut up in a room with a dead body? The thought aroused in me a particular sensation of delight.”

It’s a disorienting narrative. It’s not clear what is true or false: the events described could be entirely in the man’s head and what The Blind Owl describes is him lying on his bed, thinking/hallucinating. It’s a stream of extremely disturbed consciousness. Images and events recur and shift slightly, adding to a sense of disorientation and being witness to someone’s spiralling thoughts.

“A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this: that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived. My heart had always been at odds not only with my body but with my mind, and there was absolutely no compatibility between them. I had always been in a state of decomposition and gradual disintegration. At time I conceived thought which I myself felt to be inconceivable.”

The narrator has no compassion for humanity and this is what adds to making The Blind Owl such a tough read. He is misanthropic, and so the coldly related details of violence, dead bodies and decomposition are truly horrifying.

I don’t want to put people off reading The Blind Owl because it is truly a brilliant piece of writing, but definitely one for when you’re strong enough to take it, with a comforting escapist read lined up for afterwards.

“Am I a being separate and apart from the rest of creation? I do not know. But when I looked in the mirror a moment ago I did not recognise myself.”