Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

Highland Fling was Nancy Mitford’s first novel and while not as sparkling as her later works there’s still much to enjoy here. It’s familiar Mitford territory: insane upper classes, Bright Young Things, serious issues treated lightly, light issues treated seriously, and it all works out in the end.

Walter is married to Sally and is entirely useless with money, powering through both their allowances so that he has to ponder “why shouldn’t I do some work? If you come to think of it, lots of people do. I might bring out a book of poems in handwriting with corrections.”

Thankfully for the reading public, they are asked instead to look after Sally’s relative’s enormous country pile in Scotland. They take their friend Albert, who has no idea what to do with himself after Eton and Oxford until “It had come to him during the night that he wished to be a great abstract painter”; and Jane, who “had taste without much intellect, her brain was like a mirror, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of her more intelligent friends and the books she read.”

Keeping company with these Bright Young Things are all the ancient types who descend on Dulloch Castle every year for the shooting season.

“Lord Prague, it may be noted, was to all intents and purposes dead, except on shooting days when he would come to life in the most astonishing manner”

There’s also the massively racist General Murgatroyd who is violent to his dog and didn’t get the come-uppance I’d hoped for (his racism is never condoned, although some portraits of Scottish locals leave a lot to be desired), Lady Prague who is astonishingly rude to all, and Lady Brenda who has the appearance of “an overbred horse”, not helped by her habit of blowing smoke through her nostrils.

What follows is this unlikely crowd getting on each other’s nerves, lying about a missing picnic, getting pregnant, getting engaged…

Thankfully the blood sports are not described in great detail, it’s more about the ridiculous antics of people on the shoot. I do wish someone had rescued Murgatroyd’s poor dog though.

Obviously you need a high tolerance for silly toffs to read Mitford. I enjoy her writing and I did think this was fun, but as I said at the start, not quite as incisive or as funny as she would later achieve.

“Nobody dies in childbirth now, my dear. It’s considered quite vieux jeu.”

To end, something that was absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but did make me smile. For those of us irritated by schoolkids playing music out loud on their mobile phones on public transport, Albert has this experience on the train:

“They then began to play vulgar jazz tunes on a portable gramophone, a noise which Albert found more supportable than their chatter.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose 😀

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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 #17

Crimson – Niviaq Korneliussen (2014, trans. Anna Halager, 2018) 175 pages

I think Crimson might be the first ever literature I’ve read by a Greenlandic author, and as such its  another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Unfortunately, I think I might be a bit too old for this novella. My twenties were a lot of fun and a lot of stress; I have colleagues in their twenties and I enjoy their company but I’ve absolutely no desire to recapture or relive that time. So Crimson’s tales of five Greenlandic twentysomethings getting drunk, sleeping around, falling in and out of love and desperately trying to work out who they are held my attention, but didn’t really engage me beyond that.

Each section focuses on a different character. Fia is repulsed by her boyfriend’s penis and dumps him, but it is only when she sees Sara that she admits she is attracted to women.

“ ‘It’s over’ were my final words.

Then, just like that, I was free.

But the word ‘free’ didn’t bring with it ‘relief’.”

Instead Fia finds herself in the bewildering situation of living temporarily with her brother’s best friend, and trying to manage her feelings for Sara, who has a partner.

Inuk is Fia’s brother. He feels stifled by his home and flees to Denmark after his affair with a famous married man is exposed:

“Greenland is not my home. I feel sorry for Greenlanders. I’m ashamed of being a Greenlander. But I’m a Greenlander. I can’t laugh with Danes.

[…]

I’m terribly homesick but I don’t know what sort of home I’m longing for.”

Arnaq is Inuk’s best friend and Fia’s flatmate. She’s relentlessly social and struggling:

“My chapped lips are the colour of red wine, My hair is still partying. My makeup is smeared all over my face and I have huge bags under my eyes. My body is trying so hard to stay alive that I can’t concentrate on my polluted mind. I drink what’s left of the Coke, lie down on my bed and take out my mobile to check the time.”

Ivik is Sara’s partner and struggling with gender identity. Their story includes graphics of phone screens, showing how the drama of young lives is often played out by technology. But this prosaic language exists alongside the poetic as Ivik works out what they need:

“The sun brightens my eyes, which have only seen the world in black for a long, long time. I can smell the previously frozen earth melting. The warm breeze sounds like a song.”

Finally Sara, partner of Ivik and lust-object of Fia, tells her tale and brings the stories together. Sections of her narrative end with meaningless hashtags which was really annoying, e.g. #dontgotogether or #1#2. If the hashtags had been witty or expanding the perpsective this could have worked better.

Sara, who until this point has been somewhat idealised through the eyes of others, is shown to have her own problems, with feelings of dirtiness and unworthiness. Her sister has just had a baby and Sara notices the obsession with gender that this involves. It’s also a very modern birth announcement via Facebook, where Sara stalks Fia:

“She finally changed her profile picture. I’m unable to see all her photos because we’re not friends on Facebook, so I gaze at her new profile picture for quite a while. I catch myself smiling. I hover over ‘Add friend’ for a long time. No, if she was really interested, she would have sent a friend request. I log off. Go to Google. Google knows everything.”

I only write about books I recommend and it’s undoubtedly great to hear a young Greenlandic voice. Korneliussen was only 24 when she wrote this and she translated it herself into Danish. The writing sometimes seemed to me naïve and bit clunky, but as I said, I’m probably not the target audience for this novella. I’m grateful to Virago for giving English-speaking readers this opportunity to hear her, even if the subject matter bored me slightly. I’d definitely still be interested to see what Korneliussen writes in future.

To end, the title comes from the Joan Jett classic which means a lot to Fia and Sara:

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.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #14

The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan (2012, 156 pages)

I was first made aware of Donal Ryan on Cathy’s blog when she reviewed his short story collection, A Slanting of the Sun and the writing sounded wonderful. The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s first novel and was longlisted for the Man Booker and Guardian First Book Award, winning won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It reminded me of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, in that it builds a picture of a community in quiet crisis through a variety of viewpoints. However, whereas McGregor uses omniscient narration, Ryan has each of the 21 chapters narrated by a different person. He manages this brilliantly, keeping the story flowing but still managing to convey different voices without jarring.

The story begins with Bobby Mahon:

“My father still lives back on the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead.”

This opening paragraph introduces many themes in the novel: families, abuse, inheritance (financial and psychological), uncomfortable but inescapable feelings. Each person in the story is linked to the others either directly or indirectly, and through their individual stories we get a rich portrait of a town, the people in it, and their shared lives.

It is a resolutely contemporary story. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has had a devastating effect, and everyone is reeling. Bobby was foreman for Pokey Burke, the local building contractor who has fled leaving unpaid builders, unregistered for government help, destitute. There is a ghost town of a new estate with only two residents in it.

Young Brian is thinking of trying Australia for work. He has a good mind but sees no future in study, nor in Ireland itself, especially since breaking up with his girlfriend.

“On an intellectual level, I couldn’t give a shite about her. It’s a strange dichotomy, so it is; feeling and knowing; the feeling feels truer than the knowing of its falseness. Jaysus, I should write this shite down and send it Pawsy before I go.”

Ryan never deals in stereotypes despite many recognisable characters. There is Brian’s postmodern musings, and Lily, the aging town prostitute’s poetic and tender feelings for her children.

“I love all my children the same way a swallow loves the blue sky; I have no choice in the matter. Like the men that came to my door, nature overpowers me.”

The character studies are individual and collective, like the town. So we learn more about how highly Bobby is thought of in the community, despite him introducing himself to the reader in that first chapter as damaged and failing. The builders respect him, women find him attractive, he’s a sporting hero and his wife is devoted. Long-time resident Bridie sums it up:

“There’s something in that boy, the way he looks at you while he’s talking, sort of embarrassed so that you want to hug him, and with a distance in his eyes even when he’s looking straight at you, that makes you think there’s a fierce sadness and a kind of rare goodness in him.”

It is what happens to Bobby that forms the plot of the novella.

The Spinning Heart ends on a note of hope but you still know things could go badly wrong. Ryan manages to convey the toughness of contemporary lives in dire straits caused by family histories and contemporary political mismanagement, without ever being didactic or depressing. It’s unflinching but hugely compassionate.

“the dead stillness I’d assume, the way I’d almost hold my breath while he spoke, it was the very same as when I’d be trying not to startle a wild animal”

And now I really must get to A Slanting of the Sun which I’ve been meaning to read ever since Cathy’s post…