Novella a Day in May 2019 #10

The Hunting Gun – Yasushi Inoue (1949, trans. Michael Emmerich 2013) Pushkin Press 106 pages

Published by the wonderful Pushkin Press, The Hunting Gun tells of the fallout from an extramarital affair via three letters, from the daughter of the woman involved, the betrayed wife, and finally the woman herself when she knows she is going to soon die.

The letters are sent to a poet who has published the titular poem about a man he once saw.

“He had simply struck me, as he came along the path with his shotgun over his shoulder and a pipe in his mouth, as having a sort of pensiveness about him that one did not ordinarily see in hunters- an atmosphere that seemed, in the crisp early-winter morning air, so extraordinarily clean that after we had passed each other I couldn’t help turning back.”

The man, Misugi Josuke, recognised himself in poem and has sent three letters he received to the poet, in order to explain why he had that atmosphere about him.

The first letter is from Shoko, the daughter of Saiko, with whom Misugi had an affair. Shoko only learns about the affair from reading her mother’s diary.

“And then I heard, very distinctly, the sound of that stack of words I had seen in her diary the night before SIN SIN SIN, piled as high as the Eiffel Tower – crashing down on top of her. The whole weight of the building she had erected from her sins in the course of the past thirteen years, all those floors, was crushing her exhausted body, carrying it off.”

Shoko’s letter is full of anger and betrayal, at both her mother and Misugi, the family friend. In contrast, Misugi’s wife, Midori, is surprisingly measured and even funny. But she acknowledges she has known for many years, and the hurt is not as fresh as that first day.

“I am sure you have had the experience of going for a swim in the ocean in early autumn and discovering that each little movement you make causes you to feel the water’s chillness more intensely, and so you stand there without moving. That was precisely how I felt then: too frightened to move. Only later did I arrive at the happy conclusion that it was only right to deceive you the way you had deceived me.”

Finally we hear from Shaiko, mother to Shoko, best friend to Midori and lover of Misugi, writing a letter to be opened after her death.

“Even after I die, my life will still be waiting here hidden in this letter until it is time for you to read it, and the second you cut the seal and lower your eyes to read its first words, my life will flare up again and burn with all its former vigour, and then for fifteen or twenty minutes, until you read the very last word, my life will flow as it did when I was alive into every limb, every little corner of your body, and fill your heart with various emotions. A posthumous letter is an astonishing thing, don’t you think?”

The Hunting Gun is a short, simply constructed novel that manages to convey emotions and characterisation of real complexity. The affair is shown to involve so many more people than just the immediate couple, and how the fallout and hurt from such a betrayal cannot be anticipated. Inoue shows the capacity human beings have for causing deep, irreparable sadness in one another, but the tone is never judgemental. A beautifully observed novella.

“Why, when we had just formed a united front, so to speak, to battle for our love, why, at a moment that should have been the most fulfilling, did I tumble into that helpless solitude?”

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“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:

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…

Novella a Day in May #11

Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig (1976 German publication; trans. Anthea Bell, 2009) 84 pages

Although I’ve since read and blogged about The Post Office Girl, this was the first Stefan Zweig I’d read and at first I wondered why everyone rated him so highly as a writer. Then I realised what he was doing in Journey into the Past was immensely clever.

It tells the story of a love affair between a student, Ludwig, and the wife of his employer, who is not named. The story begins with them on a train in the 1920s, and with Ludwig’s thoughts travelling back into the past to remember how they first met before the First World War separated them.

At first, I thought the description of the affair overblown and naïve.

“From that first meeting he had loved this woman, but passionately as his feeling surged over him, following him even into his dreams, the crucial factor that would shake him to the core was still lacking – his conscious realisation that what, denying his true feelings, he still called admiration, respect and devotion was in fact love  – a burning, unbounded, absolute and passionate love.”

At this point I was thinking Zweig perhaps wasn’t for me 😉

But as the story developed – they admit their love but it remains unconsummated, he goes abroad and then war breaks out, separating them for longer than they ever anticipated – it dawned on me that this style choice was entirely deliberate and conscious.  What Zweig shows us is a world before modern technological warfare, a world that was brutally torn apart. These naïve young lovers are part of a society, a life, that was utterly destroyed.

So although we know they are reunited, it is not with the same youthful self-obsession or indulgent love that they had previously.

“‘Everything is just as it used to be, don’t you think?’ she began, determined to say something innocent and casual, although her voice was husky and shook a little.  However he did not echo her friendly, conversational tone, but gritted his teeth.

‘Oh yes, everything.’ Sudden inner rage forced the words abruptly and bitterly out of his mouth. ‘Everything is as it used to be except for us, except for us!’”

Journey into the Past is not a depressing book despite portraying losses that are glimpsed and barely articulated. It is about the impact of international conflict on the lives of individuals in the smallest, most profound ways. Zweig questions whether those loses can be overcome, and I still don’t know what I think.

I feel foolish for my initial impression of this novella: I hadn’t realised I was in the hands of a master.

Novella a Day in May #8

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia – Piero Chiara (1970, trans. Jill Foulston 2015) 122 pages

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia was initially published in an Italian newspaper as a serial and is now available in English translation thanks to Pushkin, as part of their Vertigo imprint. It is a quick, snappy crime thriller that does not aim for trite resolution but rather an exploration beneath the surface of a life to the murky depths.

Corrado Sciancalelpre is “blessed with a special form of intuition, that peculiar mental agility that enables great policemen to delve into the minds of criminals.”

Thankfully, he is also happy married and liked in the town in northern Lombardy where he works – no tortured alcoholic with a secret past here.

A powerful lawyer, Esengrini, asks Sciancalelpre to investigate the titular vanishing of his wife. Every Thursday, Guilia has been going to Milan to visit their daughter at boarding school, but now she has failed to return and two bags of her things are missing too. Sciancalelpre agrees and what follows is essentially a police procedural, but the short length of the story ensures the pacing remains tight.

Sciancalelpre is resolutely unsentimental but not without sympathy. The more he investigates, the more he feels for the missing woman:

“He didn’t say ‘Poor Signora Giulia to Esengrini when he visited him in his office every few days towards evening. With Esengrini, he spoke only of the undeniably disappointing results of a search conducted throughout the whole of Italy with Signora Giulia’s photo.”

It’s impossible to say much more about a crime novella without including spoilers. Suffice to say there are plenty of red herrings, people and relationships who are not what they seem. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is a diverting read, when you’re in the mood for a crime novel you’ll finish quickly. It is not a simple tale though, and the resolution is a complex one that leaves questions unanswered. This wasn’t a source of frustration but rather felt realistic.

I really enjoyed this, Chiara’s first novel to be translated into English despite his huge popularity in Italy, and I hope there will be many more translations to follow.

Novella a Day in May #5

Cliffs – Olivier Adam (2005, trans. Sue Rose, 2009) 147 pages

Set over the course of a single night, Cliffs shows the enduring damage caused to the child – now a grown man – of a parent who dies by suicide.

The narrator is sitting on a balcony on the Normandy coast in the middle of the night, gazing at the cliffs where his mother died, while his partner and child lie sleeping in the room behind him. As he sits and smokes, he reflects on his life with his abusive father and his traumatised brother:

“We weren’t supposed to breathe move speak feel. We weren’t supposed to need anything, pocket money or comfort or affection or smiles or advice, we weren’t supposed to expect anything except the slaps, smacks or wallops he dealt out”

Later he meets other damaged souls, drawn together by a mutual recognition:

 “We’ve grown up in fear of our fathers, the troubled silence of our mothers, the empty space formed by abstract, imaginary places, without edge or centre.”

Cliffs isn’t a depressing book; it is a story of survival, of endurance even when we are irrevocably damaged by experience.

 “This way of life didn’t cure me of anything, it was merely possible when I couldn’t cope with any other kind of life, particularly the one I’d just left behind. It was a life of silence, space and absence, of maintaining an acute presence within objects, the shifting play of light, the still motion of water, the perfumes, the texture of the air. It was a life in which I finally found a niche, quiet but peaceful, a body filled with air and fog, a mind completely given over to the noise of the sea and the wind, the company of birds.”

Cliffs is beautifully written, but the beauty in no way detracts from the raw hurt experienced by narrator. It is an intense read, haunting and memorable.

Novella a Day in May #1

For a while now I’ve been enamoured of the novella. I enjoy sparse writing styles (not so good at this myself 😉) and at its best a novella gives us a narrative distilled to its essence for maximum impact. To spread novella love I’ve decided to post about a novella each day for the whole month. There’s no fixed definition of a novella so for my purposes I’ve decided its longer than 70 pages and shorter than 200. This will definitely work! It won’t peter out and die in a heap by 5 May at all! Onwards…

The Game of Cards – Adolf Schroder (trans. Andrew Brown, 2008) 143 pages

The Game of Cards  is not ostensibly gothic or a thriller, and yet it is both these things. The story of how student Markus Hauser is employed by Selma Bruhns for a week to put several trunks worth of letters into chronological order is truly creepy and suspense-filled.

Selma is a terse, uncommunicative employer, who lives in an old house with a vast number of cats at varying stages of disease. Markus is constantly at the point of leaving, unable to stomach the “stench” of the house, the feral occupants, his awkward employer and the seemingly pointless nature of his repetitive task:

“He squatted down between the piles of letters lying on the floor, but when her resumed his work…looking for the pile in which he was putting the letters from 1943, laying the pages of the letter on it and reaching out for the next one, he paused, as if he’d only just realised that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing”

Gradually however, Markus is drawn into the letters, all written to a woman named Almut.  Very little is given away, but Markus finds himself compelled to continue, without really understanding why.

 “Words from the letters that he had read came alive. He found himself in streets where he had never been, heard the shrieking and whistling of creatures that he could not see but whose presence he surmised, felt on his skin the burning sun whose strength he had never yet felt, saw a woman coming up to him who spoke in a language that he did not understand.”

This chronology is interspersed with the investigation being conducted by Superintendent Berger, who suspects Markus of having strangled Selma with her own scarf on his last day of work. Thus we are drawn into not only the mystery of who Almut is and why Selma is obsessively writing to her, but also who killed Selma and why. Schroder jumps between the two timelines without preamble and so the reader is drawn into the disorienting, imperfectly understood situation of the all the characters.

 “With a sudden move that took Markus by surprise, she threw the animal towards him, it crashed into his chest, and only because Markus reacted quickly and caught the animal could he prevent I from falling onto the ground.

‘You are working slowly and without much concentration,’ said Selma Bruhns, turning round and stepping into the house.”

There is also the question of what happened – and what the stake was – in the titular match between Markus and Selma…

The Game of Cards is a deeply disturbing read, and a powerful portrait of enduring psychological trauma. It will stay with me for a long time.