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 😊

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus)

I don’t normally do book haul posts but I thought I would just this once, to celebrate the end of my 2018 book-buying ban, which much to my amazement I stuck to for the entire year – not one book did I buy. (Actually, that’s not strictly true, I bought 6 books during the year, but all for other people, and not in a cheating I’ll-read-this-first-then-give-it-away-and-claim-it-was-a-present-all-along way, honest!)

But before I sound too smug (and I do feel pretty smug tbh, I have terrible willpower and never manage to stick to any resolution), it wasn’t a total success. The aim of the ban was for me to read the unread books I own, as my flat was starting to look like this:

There’s definitely a vast improvement, but the discovery of the library fiction section and a terrible reading slump in the latter part of the year meant I didn’t get through as many books as I hoped. So while the ban is over I’m planning to still try and exercise some restraint and get that TBR pile down further.

Anyhoo, on 1 January I ordered some books online which are winging their way to me, and then yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I set foot in the lovely bibliophile’s crack den charity book shop which is almost directly opposite my flat. This is what I came away with:

Yes, 10 books is me exercising restraint. You can see where the need for the ban came from, can’t you? And to be honest, I’m slightly regretting not buying the five or so (OK, it was more like 15) books I additionally considered but returned to the shelves because I am a whole new woman.

The first thing that caught my eye was this little collection of mini-plays by Michael Frayn, out on display because it was in a gimmicky sleeve and who’s going to fall for that and decide they immediately need this book? *cough*

I enjoy reading plays and Michael Frayn is a safe pair of hands, so I think this will be fun.

One of the many joys of charity bookshops is hunting down those green Viragos, and I found a lovely pair of GB Sterns in great condition. I’ve never read any GB Stern but I remembered her name from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Part of my new-found restraint would generally include not buying more than one book by an author I’ve not read, but that lasted all of 5 minutes. They were green Viragos! In lovely condition! My willpower can only take so much…

These are the first two in the Rakonitz chronicles and the blurb on the back is really tempting, so I’m looking forward to these.

I bought one more green Virago:

I’m not a massive fan of Shaw but the blurb on the back says ‘Shaw’s view was that the false idealisation of women by men enslaved both sexes’ and he’s dismantling this in a comic way, so maybe this will be where I learn to like him.

Sticking with the theme of buying books because I trust the publishers, I picked up these by NYRB and Peirene:

The Delius is apparently a single 117-page long sentence, which frankly sounds horrific, but I trust Peirene and the translator is Jamie Bulloch who does great work so I’m still hopeful. And I do love a novella, which leads me to these:

The Auschwitz Violin, to my cynical mind, looked like an awful lot of other books with similar titles/themes which publishers love, but its novella length means I’ll give it a go, and it does look promising. The Vesaas I’ve never heard of but the reviews quoted on the back cover are rapturous and I enjoy Scandinavian literature so I’m looking forward to this.

Finally, I was pleased to come across Jill by Philip Larkin because Ali’s review last month reminded me that I wanted to read some of Larkin’s prose. Infuriatingly, that mark on the cover was caused by me trying to peel a label off, which I did carefully but it still damaged the cover:

When I’m in charge of the world, stickers will be banned from book covers, that’s a promise. Then I’ll try and sort out world peace and stuff, it’s all about priorities 😀

And there was no way I was going to let Black Narcissus pass me by, having enjoyed two Rumer Godden novels so much last month, and being a big fan of the film.

So, that’s my first book haul of the year! Looking back on the 2018 ban I would say I’ve learnt these things:

  • At the ripe old age of 41 I can still surprise myself
  • I might actually have some willpower after all
  • Its satisfying to see the TBR diminishing
  • I’m never going to not have piles of books
  • Which means I need to move somewhere with really cheap property prices to house them all
  • I still can’t be trusted in a charity bookshop

How about you, dear reader? Any bookish resolutions for 2019? Have you read any of my haul? Where would recommend I start?

Here’s to a wonderful year ahead with many great reads for all of us 😊 Apropos of absolutely nothing, but just because I’ve been listening to her a lot since 2019 started, here is Kate Bush doing a reggae cover of an Elton John song whilst playing a ukulele*. Because she can, because she’s awesome:

*Thank you Fiction Fan (see comments below)

“Isn’t it confoundedly easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t burdened with the slightest idea that Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante or Napoleon ever lived?” (Stefan Zweig, Chess Story)

Yet again I’m posting late for a readathon. I hope Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life I will allow for my tardiness with this late entry for German Literature Month 2018.  I really need to get a grip on my blogging!

I had a couple of DNFs in my reading for GLM 2018, which really isn’t like me. One novel I suspect will never be for me, the other I think just the timing was wrong. Either way, it was with some relief that I turned to the safest of hands, Stefan Zweig, to finish my GLM reading on a high.

Image from here

In Fantastic Night and Other Stories (1906-1929 trans. Anthea Bell 2004) the wonderful Pushkin Press have collected together five of Zweig’s short stories which are compulsively readable. I don’t want to say too much as Zweig is such a subtle writer that the joy, I think, is going into his writing without an idea of plot or subject, to just see how he unfurls a story of such beauty and psychological insight before you. So I’ll just give a flavour of the first two, the longest in the collection.

In the titular story, a series of events in one evening sees a nihilistic playboy learn the value of living beyond one’s own pleasures:

“Those yearnings that then stirred unconsciously in me at many moments of half-realisation were not really wishes, but only the wish for wishes, a craving for desires that would be stronger, wilder, more ambitious, less easily satisfied, a wish to live more and perhaps suffer more as well.”

Such is the skill of Zweig’s writing that this spoilt and vacuous man undergoes a transformative experience without it seeming rushed or contrived.

“Life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.”

Letter From an Unknown Woman I knew from the Max Ophuls 1948 film, starring the luminous Joan Fontaine (some kind soul has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube here); I had no idea it was based on a Zweig short story.

The premise is as simple as the title suggests: a man receives a letter from a woman he has no memory of, proclaiming her enduring love for him. Her young son has died from influenza and she is writing a letter to him to be sent after she has also succumbed to the virus.

Once again, Zweig manages a feat of characterisation. A woman spends her life devoted to a man who does not know of her existence: how is she not a doormat, the tale ridiculous and sentimental? Primarily because the woman is determined and unapologetic. She has a strength that comes through so clearly and is undeniable.

“I know that what I am writing here is a record of grotesque absurdities, of a girl’s extravagant fantasies. I ought to be ashamed of them, but I am not ashamed, for never was my love purer and more passionate than at this time. I could spend hours, days, in telling you how I lived with you though you hardly knew me by sight.”

She never makes excuses, for her life spent in this unrequited state or for her work as a prostitute, which she views as reasonable and profitable for her. She also does not make excuses for the object of her affection, who she sees clear-sightedly:

“You did not recognise me, either then or later. How can I describe my disappointment? This was the first of such disappointments: the first time I had to endure what has always been my fate; that you have never recognised me. I must die, unrecognised […] I understand now, (you have taught me!) that a girl’s or woman’s face must be for man something extraordinarily mutable. It is usually nothing more than the reflection of moods which pass as swiftly as an image vanishes from a mirror.”

She is also never bitter. There is no regret or rancour in her words. She chose her love, and lived it as fulfilled as it could be, given the man it was for:

“You care only for what comes and goes easily, for that which is light of touch, is imponderable. You dread being involved in anyone else’s destiny. You like to give yourself freely to the world – but not to make any sacrifices.”

These words are not angry, but just stating fact. Zweig demonstrates why she loves him, what makes him compelling to her, and why these same traits mean he can never love her back.

Zweig’s short stories are masterful. How he manages to get so much telling detail, such beauty and such insight into such economical writing is truly astonishing.

Secondly, Beware of Pity (1939) which was Zweig’s longest work, telling the story of the soldier Anton Hofmiller, who asks a young girl to dance at a party in the second decade of the twentieth century, unaware that she has a spinal cord injury which means she walks with braces and crutches.

“I had never been deeply moved by anything…Now, all of a sudden, something had happened to change me – nothing outwardly visible, nothing of any apparent importance. But that one angry look, when I had seen hitherto unsuspected depths of human suffering in a lame girl’s eyes, had split something apart in me, and now a sudden warmth was streaming through me, causing mysterious fever that seemed to me inexplicable…All I understood of it at first was that I had broken out of the charmed circle within which I had lived at my ease until now, and I was on new ground which, like everything new, was both exciting and disturbing.”

Out of pity, he repeatedly visits Edith Kekesfalva and is drawn into her life, and that of her father, a rich man driven to distraction over the fate served to his daughter:

“His obstinacy, his egocentric obsession, as if nothing in this world, which is full to the brim of unhappiness anyway, exists but his own and his child’s misfortune”

Hofmiller is callow; he doesn’t know what to do with the situation he finds himself in. The family doctor, Dr Condor, tries to warn him:

“pity is a double-edged weapon. If you don’t know how to handle it you had better not touch it, and above all you must steel your heart against it.”

But Hofmiller blunders onwards into more than one “compassionate lie” which will see all their lives unravel. How he behaves is completely believable, completely understandable, and completely devastating. For the modern reader who may not make such ableist assumptions as Hofmiller, certain situations that he crashes into seem to a certain extent avoidable, but he is naïve and well-meaning and completely oblivious.

Beware of Pity is a devastating read. The title warns of impending tragedy, but Zweig takes it a step further, by framing the story as a man looking back over what happened to a time before World War I, when World War II is just about to start. He shows how such notions of pity, honour and tragedy become swallowed whole under the terror and mass devastation of mechanised warfare. Ultimately though, Zweig suggests the need to keep hold of our humanity in such circumstances, however painful it may be.

“There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one at counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.” 

To end, an Anglophone artist who was hugely influenced by German culture, singing one of his most famous songs in German:

“Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.” (Cornelia Funke)

Oh dear, I still haven’t quite got my blogging momentum back. I planned a few posts for German Literature Month 2018, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life but here we are at the end of the month and this is my first. Somehow I have a feeling improving my blogging is definitely going to feature on my New Year’s resolution list…

It certainly isn’t lack of good reading that is the cause of my blogging dip, as I really loved Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon (2010, trans. Donal McLaughlin 2012), from the ever-reliable publisher AndOtherStories. It also fits with my love of novellas at only 172 pages long, and is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit, as much to my own surprise, I’ve not been to Switzerland yet.

The premise of the novel is incredibly simple: octogenarian widower Lukas Zbinden is walking down the stairs of the retirement home where he lives, holding onto the arm of a new carer, Kazim. As they make their way down seemingly interminable flights, Lukas recounts his life. Kazim is a silent interlocutor, as you feel many people are with Lukas Zbinden. He was happily married, to a woman who converted him to the joys of walking, although she preferred country walks and her irrepressible husband prefers sociable city walks:

“Emilie always said the one really essential thing was to remain lively, active and interested, and always open to whatever’s going on both in nature and within oneself. We could talk much more about that Kazim, if we went for a walk.”

“Emilie liked trees standing randomly in a landscape; I like trees in rows. I’ve nothing against cow pastures being built on, even to be replaced by hangars and shopping streets providing free entertainment. I yearn for tranquillity but can’t actually bear it.”

Lukas is an entertaining, endearing man although not without his faults. He is still fully engaged with life, enjoying the people he shares the home with, poking his nose into their business, and trying to convert everyone to the joys of ambulation.

“Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away.”

He’s also aware of his own failings, and the progress of the title is psychological as well as physical. He misses his wife, he knows his relationship with his son isn’t that great, and he’s trying to be a better person.

“Emilie was so full of beautiful things she could share with others. Her whole life was sharing with others, just as I wish that for my own life. Believe me when I say that, it’s why I’m working on becoming inwardly rich. So that every time I’m with someone, I can share something with that person.”

Zbinden’s Progress was just the right book at the right time for me. Things are pretty bleak right now – watching the news is an endurance task. This novella is sweet but not sentimental, life-affirming but realistic. The overall message is that it’s never too late to reach out to people, to enrich your life and theirs with a connection. It’s also about how love, in its many forms, endures. And it’s about finding the right hobby:

“What counts is that you have the right leisure activity. An activity with which you can live when it gets very dark; that gives you support in the face of major challenges; for which there are no requirements in terms of age and ability; that requires no proof of an unimpaired ability to think; an activity during which you can die peacefully.”

Sounds like reading to me (so long as the dark is metaphorical not literal).

Zbinden’s Progress is funny and sad, but more the former than latter. It is about simple joys, and about finding what for you makes a life well lived.

“the end of my path is becoming more and more identifiable. I’ve started taking my leave of people, but they tell me it’s still too early for that.”

If I’ve failed to give you a good sense of this book, perhaps this will help – a pictorial representation by the author, helpfully enclosed with my copy:

Secondly, a book I read mainly for curiosity value, ThreePenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934, trans. Desmond I Versey with verses trans. Christopher Isherwood, 1937). I know Brecht mainly as a playwright, and I’ve seen ThreePenny Opera a few times so I was curious to see what he did with the characters in novel form.

Macheath, ‘Mack the Knife’ is still the main focus, his famous activities of the ThreePenny Opera shrouded in rumour as he has established himself as a businessman, running a series of ‘B Shops’ which sell stolen goods incredibly cheaply.  Brecht was a Marxist and his work is undoubtedly didactic, but he does it with bone-dry humour:

“years obscured by that semi-darkness which makes certain portions of the biographies of our great businessmen so poor in material; ‘giants of industry’ usually seem to rise, suddenly and astonishingly, ‘straight up’ out of the darkness after so-and-so many years of ‘hard and necessitous life’ – but whose life is usually not mentioned.”

Another businessman is Peachum, Polly’s father, who manages a group of professional beggars, ruthlessly and cynically:

 “After a victory one must send out mutilated, dirty, miserable soldiers begging; but after a defeat they must be smart and clean and spruce. That’s the whole art.”

Polly marries Macheath, and Peachum is not happy. He wanted her to marry a man named Coax, who is organising a shipping scam to rip off investors and the Navy.

“His daughter was to blame for everything. Through her boundless sensuality, doubtless inherited from her mother, and as a result of culpable inexperience, Polly had thrown herself into the arms of a more sinister individual. Why she had immediately married her lover was a mystery to him. He suspected something terrible.”

Everything and everyone is terrible in ThreePenny Novel. The corruption is relentless. The coveting and accumulation of money is the only motivator and is pursued without scruple, facilitated by the bankers and financiers. It is incredibly bleak: sociopathic Macheath rises to the top through entirely legal means.

In this world there is no room for morals, compassion, or consideration. I didn’t find it depressing though. ThreePenny Novel is a satire, and so it’s wry portrayal of people and events lightens it enough. I thought it was a bit overlong (as I nearly always do for anything over 200 pages) but on finishing the novel I did find myself questioning what I could do to be less of a cog in corrupt capitalist machines so it was certainly effective from the political point of view, comrades 😊

Brecht’s work may seem dated: a Marxist treatise set in late Victorian London. But I really don’t think it is. Judge for yourself if this still seems relevant:

“There are some people who have the capacity for remaining entirely uninfluenced by the feelings of others, who can remain completely immune from actualities and can speak their thoughts openly and freely, without regard for time and place. Such men are born to be leaders.”

To end, there was only one song I could possibly end on. Here it is in the 1989 version of The ThreePenny Opera (trigger warnings for mentions of rape, murder, blood, assault, and stylised violence):

Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

Novella a Day in May #31

The final post of Novella a Day in May! It’s time for dancing Brad:

No-one is more surprised than me to be here. I never thought I’d manage to post every day for a month. Massive thanks to everyone who has read, liked, commented and shared these posts, you are all fab! I never expected people to read this blog on such a regular basis.

I’ve really enjoyed my month of novellas and I hope I’ve managed to spread some novella love along the way.

I’ve never done a summary post before but then I’ve never posted every day for 31 days before, so here’s an attempt to squeeze all those novellas into a few stats before I go on to my final choice for the month.

The gender split in authors was fairly even: 15 female authors and 16 male. Pointless pie chart time:

The novellas ranged across 3 centuries, from 1860 to 2017.

The shortest novella was Journey into the Past at 84 pages and the longest was After Claude at 206, because I cheated my own criteria by 6 pages. The average number of pages of the novellas was 142. None of them were actually this long, which goes to show there’s no such thing as average 🙂

It was a good opportunity to read some of my favourite publishers: I read 9 by Virago, 5 by Pushkin Press, and 2 by Peirene, as well as novellas published by AndOtherStories, and New York Review of Books.

I visited 13 countries including France 3 times (4 times if I count Jean Rhys) and Denmark twice. Two countries were new stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit: Libya and Kyrgystan. Thirteen novellas were in translation and the rest were by English, Irish and American authors. The southern hemisphere was sadly neglected, but this does give me a reason to justify even more novella reading 😉

And now the bit I found hardest: trying to pick out favourites. I planned to try and pick out a top 5 but it’s proved impossible. However, special mention has to go to William Maxwell, who I wrote about yesterday. I thought They Came Like Swallows was a work of restrained beauty. He had a perfect understanding of the novella and used sparse words to convey a story at its absolute essence. Not a word was wasted and no further words were needed. It’s made me keen to hunt down the rest of his work.

And now, onto my final choice! A novella that the blogosphere told me was great last year and then I forgot about until Susan’s post reminded me of the paperback release, so off to the library I went…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (2016, trans. Misha Hoekstra 2017,188 pages)

Sonja is single, in her 40s, a translator of thrillers she finds gruesome and misogynistic. She is trying to build bridges with her distant sister, manage her massage therapist’s more esoteric suggestions, and learn to drive.

Sonja’s driving instructor Jytte screams instructions at her and won’t let her change gear, so she goes to see Folke, the head of the school,

“Sonja’s on the verge of tears. It happens unexpectedly; the sob sits in her throat and wants to come out. Folke’s hands move efficiently from side to side across the desk, and she longs to grasp one of them. Squeeze it, say ‘Thank you,’ from the heart. It doesn’t escape Sonja’s notice that she gets red in the face, because this sort of thing rarely happens. It almost never happens anymore – that someone wishes Sonja the best. She’s used to dealing with everything herself, and she’s reasonably good at it too.”

This captures much about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: Sonja is muddling through life and doing it more or less competently, but she feels awkward and displaced. She’s from Jutland (Folke observes “All the Jutlander’s I’ve met are a bit quirky” and a Danish friend tells me this is a common stereotype ) but has lived in Copenhagen for years, long enough to not feel at home in either the countryside or the city. She’s doing OK but she could be doing better, struggling with “the things she cannot find the language to say and the people she most wants to say them to.”

Sonja’s a strong character and immensely likeable with all her idiosyncrasies. She goes her own way and always has, but reflects that this may cause more harm than good:

“Mom did me a disservice believing I could just be myself. If I hadn’t been allowed to, then I’d be sitting right now with the whole package, but that train’s left the station. And if anyone does, Mom should know that you have to adapt if you’re going to entangle yourself in an intimate relationship. Kate knows that too. And Dad.”

There’s plenty of humour in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Not only at Sonja’s slightly blundering way through life, but also at the madness of Jytte screaming out her driving lessons; the awkwardness between Sonja and Folke; the flaky assertions of Ellen, the masseuse. But it’s not a whimsical novel and much of the humour is pretty sharp:

 “while Sonja does miss her sister, at the same time it ignites in her a yearning for fire”

I really enjoyed the short time I spent with Sonja. Nothing much happens, as in much of life, but there is a believable character arc for Sonja whereby things remain unresolved but improving – a happyish, unsentimental ending which made me smile.

To end, normal service will now be resumed on this blog: intermittent, unnecessarily verbose posts on two books linked by a theme, most likely with a cheesy late 20th century pop song shoehorned in. Here’s one such video to ease us in, chosen in honour of the fact that while Novella a Day in May is now over, I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m wondering if I’ve got it in me to do it again next year… what better way to express this than through song, while dressed in a flared satin and spangles jumpsuit twinset? Take it away, Gloria…