This is my contribution to Dewithon 2023, hosted by the lovely Paula over at Book Jotter. Dewithon is an annual celebration of literature by and about writers from Wales – I’ve interpreted the brief pretty broadly this year as I’ve picked a novel by a Dutch writer, but it evokes its North Wales setting beautifully.
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (2010 trans. David Colmer 2012) is a quiet, melancholic novel, that shows without telling. I’d previously read The Twin by this author and found this similar in its themes of isolation and troubled relationships, and a refusal to judge its protagonists.
Emilie rents a cottage in rural Wales, fleeing from her husband in Amsterdam after her affair with a student at the university where she taught is exposed. Her backstory is revealed gradually, without explanations of how or why things happened. We just know how it is she has found herself somewhere unexpected and unplanned.
Bakker maintains a delicate balance between a recognisable portrait of this part of Wales, capturing its beauty without sentimentality; and then also having a slightly surreal, unpredictable element threatening to break through at various times too:
“It was just those geese; they were peculiar. Had she rented the geese too? And one morning a large flock of black sheep suddenly appeared in the field beside the road, every one with a white blaze and a long white-tipped tail. On her land. Who did they belong to?”
“Then she saw the mountain for the first time and realised what a vast landscape existed behind her house and how small an area she had moved in until that moment. […] The next day she bought an Ordnance Survey map at an outdoor shop in Caernarfon. Scale: 1-25,000.”
There is quite an emphasis on Emilie’s body and at first I approached this with some weariness, but it became apparent that this focus was there for a reason. Emilie seems to be very reliant on paracetamol…
Other characters cross her path: a slightly menacing neighbour, a doctor addicted to his cigarettes, a chatty hairdresser, as well as a young man, Bradwen, who turns up with his dog Sam and then never leaves. Emilie and Bradwen both seem to need something which the other provides, without anything being agreed or explicitly stated.
“I don’t think I want to know anything about him at all, she thought. He just has to be here.”
There is also a thread of tension as Emilie’s husband leaves home with a police detective in order to find her. His relationship with his in-laws provides some humour in what is otherwise quite a sombre novel (aside from some pithy observations on the vagaries of Escape to the Country):
“‘If you ask me, you’ve got plenty to hide,’ the mother said. ‘You turned out to be an arsonist, after all.’
The husband sighed.”
There is very little plot in The Detour but I found it a compelling read and whizzed through it in a couple of hours. Bakker trusts his readers not to need everything spelled out for them, and he creates complex, flawed characters that are presented as they are, without asking the reader to like or dislike them. He obviously has a great affection for Wales too, so I’m pleased to have read this for Dewithon 2023.
“That mountain, she thought, I have to keep an eye on Mount Snowdon, then I’ll know where I am.”
You can read an interview with Gerbrand Bakker about The Detour with Wales Arts Review here.
To end, this has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but I’m finally getting properly back to theatre-going after being somewhat intermittent since lockdown lifted. Recently I saw Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which I completely loved. Among a hugely talented cast, I thought Faith Omole particularly shone:
Mallika’s annual Book and Author Anniversaries post alerted me to the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of Colette’s birthday, and the perfect prompt for me to get two of her books out of the TBR (in Women’s Press editions which pleases me – how I regret clearing out loads of my The Women’s Press books when I was trying to streamline before a move one time. Never get rid of books kids – better to die under a toppling pile than live with regret 😉 )
Firstly, Duo and it’s short sequel Le Toutounier (1934 & 1939; trans. Margaret Crosland 1974). Duo follows the discovery by Michel and immediate aftermath of his wife Alice’s short-lived affair with a colleague. They are on holiday in the south of France, somewhat isolated and under the watchful eye of Michel’s family retainer Maria. The novel is primarily dialogue between the couple as they try and decide what remains for them.
Colette’s love of the natural world is very much in evidence as she captures their holiday home and Alice’s feelings of suffocation:
“On the poplars the golden bronze of the new leaves still wrongfully occupied the place of the green. A crabapple tree, its white petals lined with bright red, had defeated the somewhat sickly Judas tree and the syringas in their attempt to escape the destructive shade of the shiny aucubas, extended their slender branches and their butter white stars through the broad grasping leaves, which were mottled like snakes.”
Her precise descriptions of people and their mannerisms also suit this tale especially well, expertly capturing the tension and careful watchfulness between two people fearful of their disintegrating relationship.
“He caressed her with a few crude words, which she heard with a quiver of her eyelashes, as though he had shaken a bunch of flowers over her. They both accepted these exchanges, which were caused by chance, travel, a sudden change of season.”
Michel and Alice don’t tear each other apart, but at the same time their relationship seems doomed. However, the precision and containment of the story to a few days in a specific place, doesn’t make for a heavy or oppressive read. Colette’s humour is always present, with some surprising phrases:
“Out of modesty the servant placed a saucepan lid over the milk.”
During Duo, we learn something of Alice’s family, her sisters Colombe, Hermine and Bizoute.
“When I think about my family as much as that, it’s because I’m finding Michel terribly boring.”
In Le Toutounier she visits their stuffy, smoke-filled Paris apartment with the titular “huge, indestructible sofa of English origin, battered down like a forest road in the rainy season.”
It’s a short novel (80 pages) and I can see why it was put in the same volume as Duo as I think it is best read following on from its predecessor, forming a portrait of an interlude in Alice’s life.
Bizoute is away from home, leaving Colombe and Hermine together with their complicated love lives. Neither of them are with available men and the situation escalates. But the focus in Le Toutounier is not on relationships between the sexes but rather between the sisters, and what it means for women in a family to be close to one another. As so often, Colette focuses her sensual descriptions on women, showing appreciation but not sentimentality:
“The fine woollen dressing gown with a pattern of embossed stitching fell over her quivering shoulders, and it’s pink glow rose to her cheeks, where the makeup had lost its delicate morning colour beneath successive layers of powder.”
Secondly, Break of Day (1928, trans. Enid McLeod 1949) which nowadays would probably be called autofiction, occupying a place between biography and outright fiction. ‘Colette’ spends the summer in Provence, contemplating her past and wondering about the future. All her preoccupations are here – the natural world, animals:
“After dinner I mustn’t forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven’t yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, or strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted … for whom? I don’t know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the months when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic arm chair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road”
Men and women:
“My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved.”
“When a man’s glance is following certain household preparations, especially those for a meal, there is apt to be a look on his face that combines religious attention, boredom and fear.”
“On an autumn morning she was the first and only one to see herself reflected in the first disc of ephemeral ice in the well bucket, before her nail cracked it.”
“She would, alas, have judged us plainly, with that divine cruelty of hers which was innocent of wrath.”
Break of Day is fairly plotless save for a slight drama with two young people, but not quite stream of consciousness either, written in a more structured style. If you enjoy Colette’s writing then this is a little gem, but definitely not one to read when you want to be pulled along by a cracking yarn.
Overall the sense is of Colette (author/character) coming to terms with the last part of her life, with aging and with what remains. It isn’t sad but it has a melancholy quality, although I sensed few regrets and an acceptance of how her life had been lived so far and how it would continue.
“Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognised the road back.”
I loved all of these reads. It’s been a while since I picked up Colette and I wondered why I’d left it so long. She’s funny, incisive, precise, sensual, and absolutely in command of her own voice. There’s no-one like her.
To end, a 1970s performance to match my 1970s editions, about the breaking of day:
For my second contribution to Annabel’s Nordic FINDS month I’m looking at the second and third instalments in Ragnar Jónasson’s Hidden Iceland series, The Island and The Mist.
I know I enjoyed the first instalment of this series featuring police detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir, The Darkness, but I can’t remember anything about it. Thankfully you don’t need to have read it (or remember it) to enjoy the sequels.
These are quick, straightforward reads. Sometimes I find the phrasing a bit too straightforward with some clichéd phrases – I don’t know if this is Jónasson’s style or a translation decision – but Hulda is an appealing lead and the emphasis is on the mystery not sensationalist gore, which is very welcome. I’m not a big reader of contemporary crime so I don’t want an overly convoluted plot and I want characters that behave like real people in real (admittedly extreme) circumstances, both which The Island and The Mist deliver.
The Island (2016, trans. Victoria Cribb 2019) starts with a brief, highly unnerving prologue in 1988, before taking us back a year to 1987. Benedikt and his unnamed girlfriend are staying at her family’s holiday home:
“He was going to enjoy their stay, this weekend adventure in the middle of nowhere. The sense of isolation was enhanced by the thought that nobody knew they were there; they had a whole valley to themselves. It really was like a dream.”
This being a crime novel, anything idyllic fills the reader with a sense of deep foreboding and sure enough, the girl is found murdered. Hulda is a CID detective, tenacious and thorough, but she’s up against a traditional, sexist system:
“Her boss, Snorri, was an old school detective, quiet yet firm, with an aversion to modern technology”
He’s kind, but he tells her in no uncertain terms that her colleague Lýdur will be promoted above her, what with him having the obligatory Y chromosome and all. We see Lýdurtake some very dubious decisions in his investigation into the girl’s murder.
Fast forward to 1997: Hulda has experienced a horrific family tragedy, and is living alone in a small, expensive flat in Reykjavik. Four friends – Dagur, Alexandra, Klara and (eek!) Benedikt are having a reunion on a remote island:
It was her first visit to the Westman Islands, the little archipelago of some fifteen volcanic islands and innumerable stacks and skerries that jutted dramatically out of the sea off the south coast of Iceland. […] Now, Heimaey was home to a thriving fishing industry but Alexandra could see the volcanic cone, still brown and ominously bare of vegetation, brooding above the white buildings of the town.
Only three of them will return.
Hulda, now middle-aged and wondering what her career has left to offer her, is dispatched to investigate. Inevitably she has to dig up what happened ten years previously and whether the motive for the latest murder lies in the past. An additional complication is that Lýdur is now her boss with his own reasons for wanting Hulda to reach conclusions as quickly and thoughtlessly as he does. But Hulda is her own woman and we’re never in any doubt she’ll find her way to the truth.
Although I did guess whodunit, there was an additional twist that took me by surprise and was genuinely a bit shocking.
If I rarely read contemporary crime, I never read contemporary thrillers, but this is what The Mist (2017, trans. Victoria Cribb 2020) turned out to be, and I really enjoyed it. I think it helped that it’s a quick read; I probably couldn’t have sustained a long, tense story. The first two thirds of the novel are the deeply tense unfolding of events, and the last third is Hulda piecing together the crime scene in a fairly straightforward way.
It’s set around the same time as the opening events of The Island – Christmas 1987/February 1988 – and so at first I wondered if the UK publishing of these books was out of order, in the same way as Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series, but looking at publication dates it seems he decided to move back and forth in time with Hulda.
Hulda has hit a dead-end with her investigation of a young woman’s disappearance, and so she is sent to investigate a crime scene in a remote farmhouse in the east of the country. We’re then taken back to two months previously: Erla and Einar live in the farmhouse on land that Einar’s family have farmed for generations. Erla loves her husband but has always missed city life in Reykjavik.
“She was overwhelmed by the familiar feeling of emptiness that assailed her whenever something ran out and she knew she had no chance of replacing it. She was stranded here. To describe the feeling as emptiness didn’t really do it justice; it would be true to say she felt almost like a prisoner up here in the wilderness.
All talk of claustrophobia was forbidden on farm, though; it was a feeling they had to ignore, because otherwise it could so easily have become unbearable.
Erla and Einar’s familiar Christmas routine is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, Leó. How he has reached them and what he is doing stranded in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard at a time when nearly everyone is at home, he can’t really explain. To send him away would be to send him to his death, and so Einar invites him to stay, despite Erla’s deep mistrust of the unknown man.
“It would be a white Christmas, as usual. Stiflingly white. And now this intruder had entered their peaceful home and poisoned the atmosphere. You couldn’t describe it any other way. He’d poisoned it. The wind whined outside – hardly a harbinger of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.”
The strain builds between the three people as they spend the night together in the remote, old-fashioned farmhouse, with electricity and phone lines both down and the snow relentlessly falling. Jónasson expertly maintains the tension, exacerbated by the persistent, inhospitable weather.
“In winter, not a day passed when she didn’t witness something that sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the isolation, the silence, the damned darkness, they all combined to amplify every creak of the floorboards and walls, the moaning of the wind, the flicker of light and shadow, to the extent that she sometimes wondered if maybe she should believe in ghosts after all; if maybe that would make life bearable.”
Despite the minor reservations I mentioned earlier I do enjoy Jónasson’s writing. Hulda is believable and although she’s a-detective-with-a-tragic-past-who’s-overinvested-in-their-work she’s not destructive or self-pitying. She’s honest and humane and likable. In The Mist we learn more about what happened to bring her to the circumstances of The Island.
“But then that’s what her job was like at times, a game played out in the grey borderlands between day and night. No victory was ever sweet enough; her work was never really done. She could expect no praise or reward. The riddle had been solved to general indifference.”
But a large part of the appeal for me is that Jónasson is great at evoking the Icelandic landscape. I never feel like the stories could occur anywhere else.
“Ellidaey appeared ahead, looking just like the pictures she’d seen; the single white speck shining amidst the green pasture gradually resolving itself into a house. Behind it the grassy slope reared up like a crest of a wave. As they drew closer, the black cliffs with their splashes of white bird droppings didn’t look as if they offered the visitor anyway up from the sea.”
To end, one of my favourite songs, which conveniently happens to be about mist (and also shares a name with my friend’s childhood hamster) :
This meant that I have finally pulled a book from the TBR that has been languishing there for years: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist (1999 trans. Tiina Nunnally 2001). A historical novel set in the 18th-century Danish courts, it tells the story of King Christian VII’s mental ill health, his marriage to Caroline Mathilde (sister to George III) and her affair with the titular German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee.
TVOTRP is hugely lauded, winning the August prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This meant I went in with unfairly high expectations and at first I wasn’t sure this novel was for me. I suppose TVOTRP would be classed as a documentary novel, and initially I found this style distancing. However, by the end I was very much involved in this sad tale of people sacrificed to political power struggles where there is no room for humanity.
Even if the historical events are unfamiliar, the reader knows it will end with the execution of Struensee, as this is where the novel begins. We’re then taken back to his arrival at court, a man of the Enlightenment, viewed with some degree of suspicion by those resistant to change.
King Frederik V dies in his forties, and there is a vivid scene of him on his deathbed with his son, being abusive until the end. Christian is sixteen when he becomes King Christian VII and he is already struggling to comprehend reality.
“Christian explained, in a stubborn attempt to make sense of things, that he understood the court to be a theatre, that he had to learn his lines, and that he would be punished if he didn’t know them by heart.”
But was he one person or two?”
Enquist demonstrates so clearly that it would be some sort miracle if Christian managed to stay well in the environment of the court. He is not only abused by his family but by the courtiers; he is physically and mentally tortured.
Caroline Mathilde is 15 when they marry.
“Afterwards everyone agreed that it was unfortunate that she did indeed have talents. If the proper assessment had been made from the outset, namely that she possessed some talents, then the entire catastrophe might have been averted.
But no one could have predicted this.”
These teenagers are not expected to rule Denmark. They are expected to be figureheads and provide heirs, and not get in the way of the power-hungry politicians that surround them. When Struensee arrives in court, he poses a huge threat despite not appearing to want power at all. Firstly, he genuinely cares about Christian:
“It was understood that something had happened. The German doctor with the blonde hair, the quick but wary smile and the kindly eyes, had become somebody. Since he had no title and could not be placed within a precise hierarchy, this caused uneasiness.
Attempts were made to decipher him. He was not easy to decipher. He was friendly, discreet, and refused to make use of his power, or at least what was considered to be power.
People didn’t understand him.”
Secondly, he is a man of the Enlightenment, deeply threatening to Puritan courtiers like the advisor Guldberg, who is slowly growing his influence. Thirdly, he sleeps with the Queen:
“Christian, Caroline Mathilde, Struensee. Those three.
They seem to be observing each other with curiosity and suspicion. The court observed them too. As they observed the court. Everyone seemed to be waiting.”
The tension builds as the reader knows this situation will absolutely not be tolerated. And it seems such a travesty. The King is happy and cared for; the Queen is happy and fulfilled; the person taking decisions on behalf of the ruler is progressive, liberal, and trying to improve the situation of the masses. Why not let it continue?
Struensee is not naïve and he is filled with a sense of foreboding. Meanwhile, Caroline Mathilde seems to believe they can outwit the malevolent forces that are closing in…
“Her analysis surprised him.
He thought that her extremely lucid, extremely brutal view of the mechanisms of power had been born at the English court. No, she told him, I lived in a cloister. Then where had she learned all this? She was not one of those that Brandt, with some scorn, used to call ‘the female schemers’.
Struensee understood that she saw a different kind of pattern to his.”
The style of TVOTRP is really interesting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a documentary style, but with an omniscient narrator so there is space given to the feelings and motivations of all the characters. The sentences are generally choppy, but often also poetic. Enquist balances these opposing approaches expertly. I never quite got past that initial distance I felt and so this stopped me absolutely loving the novel, but I did think it was an excellent and compassionate exploration of the pressures of public life and the dangers for those trying to change entrenched power structures.
Although not a depressing novel, it did seem desperately sad, for all concerned.
“The revolution that Struensee initiated was quickly stopped. It took only a few weeks for everything to revert to the way it was before, or to even earlier times. It was as if his 632 decrees, issued during the two years known as the ‘Struensee era’ were paper swallows, some which landed, while others were still hovering low over the surface of the field and hadn’t yet managed to alight on the Danish landscape.”
To end, I saw A Royal Affair (which tells the same story but isn’t an adaptation of this novel) when it came out in 2012. I don’t remember much of it now but I do remember enjoying it and thinking all three leads were excellent. From this trailer I would say Christian is portrayed less sympathetically than Enquist saw him, but it definitely looks worth a re-watch:
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles – Giorgio Bassani (1958 trans. Jamie McKendrick 2012) 125 pages
I’ve been meaning to read Giorgio Bassani for a while and have The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the TBR. This project in May seemed the ideal opportunity to read the first of his novels set in Ferrara, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. From this first encounter I can say I found Bassani to be a truly devastating writer.
The titular eyewear belongs to Dr Athos Fadigati, who has left Venice to settle in Ferrara. His story is told by a narrator looking back to when he was a young man and knew the doctor:
“It was in 1919, just after the other war. Because of my age, I who write this can only offer a rather vague and confused picture of that period. The town centre caffes spilt over with officers in uniform; lorries bedecked with flags continually passed by […] in front of the north face of the castle, a huge, scarlet advertising banner had been unfurled, inviting the friends and enemies of Socialism to come together to drink APERITIF LENIN”
The doctor is well-liked in the town, affable and competent at his work, a breath of fresh air after the old-fashioned medics previously available. In a small town though, people take an interest in everyone’s business, and no-one can work out why Dr Fadigati is single, or where he goes of an evening. When they realise he is gay, no-one cares so long as he is discreet. An insidious homophobia that can easily become explicit and threatening.
“Yes – they said – now that his secret was no longer a secret, now that everything was as clear as could be, at least one could be sure how to behave towards him. By day, in the light of the sun, to show him every respect; in the evening, even if pressed chest to chest against him in the throng of Via San Romano, to show no sign of recognising him.”
Dr Fadigati starts commuting to Bologna along with the young university students of the town. He is such a sweet, kind man, who only wants to connect with others.
“He was happy, in the end, with the least thing, or so it seemed. He wanted no more than to stay there, in our third-class compartment, with the air of an old man silently warming his hands in front of a big fire.”
Unfortunately, the students – who have known him and been cared for by him their whole lives – do not always behave well: “little by little, without meaning to, all of us began to show him scant respect”. This includes a humiliating exchange with one of the young men, Deliliers, who doesn’t respect the doctor’s privacy and alludes to his sexuality in derogatory ways.
Things escalate during the annual family holiday to Riccione. The narrator sees the doctor and Deliliers together, and the town can no longer ignore the doctor’s sexuality. Around the same time, the narrator faces increasing antisemitism, demonstrated by fellow holiday-maker Signora Lavezzoli’s support of Hitler. The family find themselves treading a similar tightrope to the one Dr Fadigati has had to navigate, trying to stay safe amongst a discriminatory and prejudiced society.
“Romantic, patriotic, politically naive and inexperienced like so many Jews of his generation, my father, returning from the Front in 1919, had also enrolled in the Fascist Party. He had thus been a Fascist ‘from the very beginning’, and at heart had remained one despite his meekness and honesty. But since Mussolini, after the early scuffles, had begun to reach an agreement with Hitler, my father had started to feel uneasy.”
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles makes full use of the reader’s knowledge of history. It is a deeply upsetting read, showing how quickly unspoken prejudice can escalate and be supported by wider political and legal frameworks. It demonstrates how easy it is for ordinary people to become part of widespread evil – one of the narrator’s friends decides to join the government, not through any ideological belief but because it is a useful opportunity. The ease with which it happens and the casual acceptance of the racial laws, is horribly believable.
Bassani uses the story of Dr Fadigati to fully drive home the consequences of the rise of Fascism and Nazism. It’s remarkable in portraying the tragedy that ensues in a deeply emotional but also carefully restrained way.
“The setting sun, cleaving through a dark cope of cloud that lay low on the horizon, vividly lit up everything: the Jewish cemetery at my feet the apse and bell tower of the Church of San Cristoforo only a little further on, and in the background high above the vista of brown roofs, the distant bulk of the Estense Castle and the Duomo. It was enough for me to recover the ancient, maternal visage of my hometown, to reclaim it once again all for myself, that atrocious feeling of exclusion that had tormented me in the last days to fall away instantly. The future of persecution and massacres that perhaps awaited us – since childhood I had heard them spoken of as always a possible eventuality for us Jews – no longer made me afraid.”
I’m so glad I finally picked up Bassani and I’ll be returning to him for sure. Just as soon as I’ve recovered from this novella, which could take some time…
The novella opens with Thérèse Desqueyroux being acquitted of trying to poison her husband.
“The smell of fog and of baking bread was not merely the ordinary evening smell of an insignificant country town, it was the sweet savour of life given back to her at long last. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the perfume of the sleeping earth, of wet, green grass. She tried not to listen to the little man with the short legs who never once addressed his daughter.”
As she journeys back to her home among pine forests in Landes in south-west France, she reflects on her marriage to Bernard and life so far.
“All around us was the silence: the silence of Argelouse! People who have never lived in that lost corner of the heath-country can have no idea what silence means. It stands like a wall about the house, and the house itself seems as though it was set solid in the dense mass of the forest, whence comes no sign of life, save occasionally the hooting of an owl. (At night I could almost believe that I heard the sob I was at such pains to stifle.)”
There is never any doubt that she tried to poison him. Her family know it and Bernard knows it. However, there is never an obvious reason given for her drastic action. It was an unhappy marriage, a strategic match between Catholic middle-class families, but Thérèse seems to have gone along with it happily enough, mainly due to her fondness for Bernard’s sister Anne (some commentators have suggested Thérèse is gay). She doesn’t love Bernard and she feels no desire for him, but surely history would be littered with bumped-off spouses if that were a reason for murder.
“When all was said, Bernard wasn’t so bad. There was nothing she detested more in novels than the delineation of extraordinary people who had no resemblance to anyone whom one met in normal life.”
When she returns to her husband, she is surprised to learn that the plan is for her to stay, but on what terms?
Thérèse Desqueyroux is a beautifully written, intriguing novel that raises questions without seeking trite answers, including who pays the price for male power; how to create agency when you have almost no choices; the nature of justice.
‘But if I did give you a reason it would seem untrue the moment I got it into words…’
As the cover of the Penguin Classics edition shows, this novella was adapted to film (for the second time) in 2012. This trailer suggests a wonderfully shot, faithful adaptation:
Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante (1992 trans. Anne Goldstein 2006) 139 pages
Although the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet baffled me a bit, I had better luck with her stand-alone novella The Lost Daughter. This meant I was keen to try Troubling Love, and having finished it I did think that maybe I should give the quartet another try…
Delia’s mother Amalia has died in odd circumstances – drowned, found wearing only her bra, a glamourous one that Delia thinks it out of keeping with her mother’s style. As she returns home to Naples from Rome for the funeral, Delia finds herself reflecting on her past and trying to piece together what happened with her mother, both then and more recently.
“The streets of topographic memory seemed to me unstable, like a carbonated drink that, if shaken, bubbles up and overflows. I felt the city coming apart in the heat, in the dusty grey light, and I went over in my mind the story of childhood and adolescence that impelled me to wander along the Veterinaria to the Botanic Gardens, or over the cobbles of the market of Sant’Antonio Abate, which were always damp and strewn with rotting vegetables.”
Delia reflects on her childhood and her abusive father, who possessively and violently guarded his attractive wife. Delia’s memories of her painful home life are conflicted and contradictory. She despises her father but also harbours a lot of anger and resentment towards her mother.
“We, on the other hand, thought that our father, because of everything he did to her, should leave the house one morning and be burned to death or crushed or drowned. We thought it and hated her, because she was the linchpin of these thoughts.”
The past and present become overlaid as Delia visits her (still violent) father and meets a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in years. She chases a man through the streets thinking he has the answers as to what her mother was doing before she died. As she explores further, memory and identity become confused and less clearly delineated.
“Sometimes that place, which belonged to a less reliable memory, consisted of a dimly lighted staircase and a wrought-iron banister. At other times it was a patch of light striped by bars and covered by a fine screen, which I observed crouching underground, in the company of a child named Antonio, who held me tightly by the hand. The sounds that accompanied it, like the soundtrack of a film, were pure commotion, sudden banging, as of things formerly in order that abruptly collapse.”
Troubling Love isn’t so much a mystery story as an exploration of grief, memory, identity, and the slippery nature of all of these things. It doesn’t offer easy answers. It looks at how so much of this is bound up with family, and how this can be difficult to reconcile.
“Childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the past tense: at least, mine was like that.”
Troubling Love was adapted to film in 1995. I’ve not seen it, but the trailer looks faithful:
Sphinx – Anne Garréta (2015, trans.Emma Ramadan 2015) 121 pages
Sphinx is a novella which details a young protagonist falling in love with A***. Anne Garréta is a member of the OuLiPo and the particular constraint that she writes to in Sphinx is for both for lover and beloved to be genderless.
The narrator is taken to a club on Place Pigalle where they immediately fall for the charms of the dancer A***. Garréta evokes a seedy and glamorous nightlife that is both enticing and repellent:
“The wheezing of the ceiling fan, the rumble from the nearby stage, the sight of the red velvet sofa covered in holes, burned through buy cigarettes, and the feeling of exile between blue walls defiled with the imprints of dirty hands, brought me all the closer to that single, splenetic feeling so difficult to define: melancholia. I relished it to the point of drunkenness.”
Sphinx is a love story which I felt engages the mind rather than the emotions of the reader. This is because the narrator – although currently working as a DJ – is an academic and seems to approach documenting affairs of the heart in the same way as they would writing a research paper.
“I can’t define A*** as being anything other than both frivolous and serious, residing in the subtle dimension of presence without insistence.”
This includes some overblown, tortured sentences at times:
“Is there anything more vertiginous than gustative reminiscence?”
In her fascinating translators note at the end of the novella, Emma Ramadan explains how the constraints around gender (which is much more demanding for a French writer than an English-language writer) means that this tone needs to be adopted, and then:
“It becomes part of the narrator’s identity – he or she is a rather pretentious bourgeois(e) scholar who does not shy away from praising his or her own intelligence”
So although not overt, there is a thread of humour running through Sphinx, whereby we are not supposed to take the narrator nearly as seriously as they take themselves. And it is a novella that is definitely all about the narrator, not about A***. While limiting the characterisation of A*** serves the constraints around which Sphinx is written, it also succeeds in capturing the self-obsession that can be projected onto a supposed loved one.
“Perhaps I had only ever delighted in my own suffering, which I considered the purification of passions that, deep down I judged as absurd.”
Although Sphinx made me think more than it made me feel, and generally I hope for a reading experience that does both, I did find myself drawn into the narrator’s story, in spite of their distancing voice. I also thought the night-time scene was captured beautifully.
“I was about to turn 23, and for the three years the night crowd had passed before my eyes, I had seen reputations be made and dismantled. I had seen temporary passions transport places and individuals to the apex, and then, burning what they had once adored, those notorious night owls who make up the club scene would abandon them for no apparent reason for other idols destined for glory just as brief.”
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill – Dimitri Verhulst (2006 trans. David Colmer 2009) 145 pages
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill has been on my radar since Kate’s review four years ago – I’m slow but I get there in the end, hopefully 😉
It’s a fable, but a recognisably real one. The titular beauty lives with her husband “in a house that could have been lifted from a biscuit tin” on top of a hill on the outskirts of the remote town of Oucwègne, where there has only been one female baby in recent generations.
When her husband dies, the townsfolk – including the vet who doubles as the town doctor, the man who pays his local shop tab in full after decades, overseen by a cow who is mayor – expect Madame Verona to leave. Instead she stays, mourning her husband, waiting out her time and growing old with her memories.
“the trees had their rings; Madame Verona did not begrudge her skin its wrinkles, the signature of all her days.”
Until one snowy day, she burns the last of the logs her husband cut for her and descends the hill into the town, knowing she will not have the strength to return.
“She is counting on strength of will to die today”
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill has its share of whimsy but it also has a spikiness to it and it isn’t remotely sentimental. It’s about the different ways we live alongside grief, and how a life with a lot of sadness does not mean a life of misery.
“The one characteristic element with which she would summarise her eighty-two years of existence was that dogs had always sought out her company.”
Love – Hanne Ørstavik (1997, trans. Martin Aitken, 2018) 136 pages
It’s been six years since I read Hanne Ørstavik’s powerful novella The Blue Room and I had high expectations when I picked up Love from one of my favourite publishers AndOtherStories.
Like The Blue Room, Love features a dysfunctional parent/child relationship, although not one as determinedly destructive as Johanne and her mother in The Blue Room. Whereas that was suffocating and controlling, Jon and his mother Vibeke are almost at the opposite extreme with a child at risk of neglect.
I don’t have kids but I would say that having your eight year-old son roam the snowy streets in northern Norway alone in the depths of the night with no gloves on, while you prevaricate over whether to sleep with a man who picked you up at a funfair, is probably not the best parenting style…
Jon is waiting for his mother Vibeke to return from work. Tomorrow is his birthday and he believes she is going to bake him a cake.
“And then she comes, and he recognises the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself.”
Although in the same house and having dinner together, they’re not overly communicative. Vibeke has a shower and makes herself look good should she bump into her attractive work colleague in town. Jon leaves the house, returns again, then leaves again, with Vibeke only vaguely conscious of his whereabouts.
The town is far north and it has been snowing. Jon wanders the dark streets:
“Sounds become weightless in the cold. Everything does. As if he were a bubble of air himself, ready at any moment to float into the sky and vanish into the firmament.”
Meanwhile Vibeke has found the library closed, so she wanders round the newly arrived fairground. An attractive fairground worker picks her up and takes her back to his caravan.
“She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.”
We know Vibeke had Jon when she was young and that it has been the two of them for a while. However, Vibeke seems pretty oblivious not only to the safety of her son but to the feelings and motivations of other people. Despite being attracted to one another, the situation between Vibeke and the man never really takes off. She keeps holding back because she thinks that talking too much has hampered previous relationships.
“My mistake is to think too much when I talk, it slows everything down, repartee just isn’t there for me.”
However, there comes a point where you do actually have to communicate in some way. When they go to a bar and he chats to the barmaid, then disappears back inside leaving Vibeke in the car outside, she thinks:
“Maybe he’s working on keeping a hold on himself, and the control he thereby achieves is something he needs to cling to.”
Um, no. He’s just lost interest and moved onto the next pretty and more available girl.
Meanwhile Jon has spent some time with a schoolfriend (whose parents are happy to have him leave and wander back home alone at midnight) and ends up getting into a stranger’s car, which at least offsets hypothermia for a while.
Although remarkably self-possessed and bright, Jon is clearly suffering from his mother’s lack of care. He is trying to stop himself blinking and people comment it.
“He wishes no one noticed and that what was wrong with him was under his clothes or inside him.”
Throughout, he clings to the idea that Vibeke is at home baking him a birthday cake which I found completely heart-breaking.
The narrative of Love alternates between Vibeke and Jon almost paragraph by paragraph. This isn’t nearly as confusing as it sounds, it works well as the two of them have evenings that echo and reflect each other in surprising ways. They also both put themselves in risky situations and the story is tense and very believable. It’s a novella that creeps under your skin and stays there.
“She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes and a warm nightdress on.”