The story opens with James Fenton and his wife Edna taking their usual Sunday stroll along Albert Embankment. A picture of middle-class contentment, but you know that this being du Maurier, anything remotely safe and familiar is about to be undermined.
And it is. Passing a nanny “pushing a pram containing identical twins with round faces like Dutch cheeses”, his wife mentions arranging dinner with their friends, and among all this domesticity Fenton suddenly feels entirely disassociated. He could kill someone.
“‘They don’t know,’ he thought, ‘those people inside, how one gesture of mine, now, at this minute, might alter their world. A knock on the door, and someone answers – a woman yawning, an old man in carpet slippers, a child sent by its parents in irritation; and according to what I will, what I decide, their whole future will be decided. Faces smashed in. Sudden murder. Theft. Fire.’ It was as simple as that.”
He decides he will murder someone entirely at random. In order to undertake his nefarious plan, he takes a room in a seedy flat, sublet by Madame Kaufman, a woman worn down by life, living with her small son Johnnie.
To justify his taking of the room he claims to be a painter, and goes as far as buying canvases and oils. At this point, his plan starts to go awry…
Everything that I love about du Maurier was in this story. The creepily destabilising of the familiar; the resolute ordinariness of evil; the sense that anything could happen and that whatever it is would be horribly believable. There was also some humour in the portrayal of the deeply unpleasant James Fenton:
“If there was one thing he could not stand it was a woman who argued, a woman who was self-assertive, a woman who nagged, a woman who stood upon her rights. Because of course they were not made for that. They were intended by their Creator to be pliable, and accommodating, and gentle, and meek. The trouble was that they were so seldom like that in reality.”
The end of the story completely reframed all that had gone before – du Maurier is certainly a writer that keeps her readers on their toes.
I’m really looking forward to finishing the collection once I’ve stopped consuming novellas at quite such a rapid rate. Many thanks Ali, for hosting this wonderful event, and a very happy birthday to you!
After bookish travels (sadly not actual travels) to Ireland and Wales in March, I thought I would start April with a visit to Scotland. As with actual travels, things did not go entirely plan…
I have piles of Scottish authors in the TBR but my initial choices did not work out. The first novel I chose was excellent but brutal, so I just wanted to leave it behind at the end and not blog about it. My second choice I thought was safe; an established and accomplished author. Unfortunately I chose a novel she wrote at age 21, before she realised that sentences need a coherent structure. I got so sick of re-reading to try and work out which pronoun referred to which character that it was a rare DNF for me.
Given my reading pace is so slow at the moment, I then panicked and chose a novella and a short story to try and get something read. Thankfully these turned out to be enjoyable reads 😊
Firstly, Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark’s final novel, The Finishing School (2005). The titular institution is College Sunrise, on the shores of Lake Geneva, run by Rowland and Nina Mahler, although by Rowland in name only:
“To conserve his literary strength, as he put it, he left nearly all the office work to Nina who spoke good French and was dealing with the bureaucratic side of the school and with the parents, employing a kind of impressive carelessness.”
Feckless Rowland is thrown of kilter by the arrival of Chris Wiley at the school:
“His own sense of security was so strong as to be unnoticeable. He knew himself. He felt his talent. It was all a question of time and exercise. Because he was himself unusual, Chris perceived everyone else to be so.”
Chris is writing a novel about Mary Queen of Scots, unhindered by the actual facts of what happened. Although Rowland is tutor to the young artistic students, Chris keeps his writing progress secret, fully aware that this stokes Rowland’s obsession with him.
In this short novel, the other pupils and staff at the school are sketched in lightly but enjoyably, such as Mary: “her ambition was to open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves”.
Not a great deal happens, but the tension builds as Rowland becomes more fixated on Chris, and the two end up in a co-dependent relationship, as Chris observes:
“I need his jealousy. His intense jealousy. I can’t work without it.”
This being Spark, I couldn’t guess which way the novel would end as she mixes the very dark with a lightness of touch:
“ ‘Too much individualism,’ thought Rowland. ‘He is impeding me. I wish he could peacefully die in his sleep.’”
I wouldn’t say The Finishing School was Spark at the height of her powers – I found it a diverting read and an enjoyable one, but for me, Spark at her best is breath-taking, almost shocking. If you’re already a fan, there’s still much to enjoy here though. The askance view of human relationships, the morbid alongside the comic, the skewering of pretentious writers, and the arresting non-sequiturs.
Secondly, Until Such Times by Inverness-born writer Jessie Kesson (1985), which I had as part of the anthology Infinite Riches: Virago Modern Classics Short Stories (ed. Lynn Knight, 1993). It was a pretty good match for Spark although I didn’t plan it as such, with some darkly comic characterisation and a very unnerving ending.
The bairn is taken to live with her Grandmother and Aunt Edith:
“But you weren’t here to stay forever! Your Aunt Ailsa had promised you that. You was only here to stay… ‘Until Such Times’, Aunt Ailsa had said on the day she took you to Grandmother’s house…”
We join her with the house in a vague state of uproar trying to prepare for a visit from Aunt Millie and Cousin Alice. There is a suggestion that the visitors are respectable and admirable, whereas the bairn and Aunt Ailsa are somehow disreputable.
The narrative moves back and forth, showing the reader more than the bairn understands about her family situation and expertly drawing the dynamics between Grandmother, Aunt and child. The tension for a child living in a strict household and the manipulations and judgements of the Aunt (who is somehow unwell but never quite clear how; she is referred to by an old-fashioned term no longer used) was so well evoked.
At only 11 pages long, Kesson shows all that can be achieved in a short story: well-drawn characters, social commentary, narrative tension and a recognisable world. The final sentence was a perfect ending. I thought Until Such Times was really impressive and I’ll definitely look out for more of Kesson’s work.
To end, a Scottish treat for my mother, who is a big fan:
August is Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal at Biblio. I’m hoping to post a few times this month but given my current blogging pace that may be a hope in vain! Anyway, I’m really pleased with the start I’ve made as it’s two authors I’ve not read before as well as two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.
Trigger warnings for pretty much everything: mentions of violence, genocide, rape, incest, and animal cruelty although I don’t go into detail for any of these.
Firstly, Our Lady of the Nile by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga (2012, trans. Melanie Mauthner 2014). Scholastique Mukasonga fled Rwanda for Burundi and has lived in France since 1992. 27 members of her family were killed in the Tutsi genocide in 1994. She set Our Lady of the Nile in 1979 and the future massacre haunts the story.
The titular school is in a remote region on a ridge of the Nile:
“There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred metres, the white teachers proudly proclaim […] ‘We’re so close to heaven,’ whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.
The school year coincides with the rainy season, so the lycée is often wrapped in clouds. Sometimes, not often, the sun peaks through and you can see as far as the big lake, the shiny blue puddle down the valley.”
This opening immediately put me in mind of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, and like Godden’s story there is a creeping oppression and tension amongst a group of women living together within an institution. Unlike Godden’s nuns though, the tension arises primarily from the wider political situation. Early in the story we meet class leader Gloriosa, who is wholly influenced by her father’s views on how to treat Tutsis.
“’The chiefs’ photos have suffered the social revolution,’ said Gloriosa, laughing. ‘A dash of ink, a slash of machete, that’s all it takes…and no more Tutsi.’”
That flippant mention of a machete is completely chilling. The girls are at that stage of adolescence where they are simultaneously naïve and aware of wider ramifications as they navigate one another, the attentions of men and the political situation.
As we follow the girls over the school year, the story is episodic and not told from one point of view, successfully building a picture of the remote community and the threats that exist within and without.
Two Tutsi girls, Veronica and Virginia have to manage Monsieur de Fontenaille, a coffee grower who idealises and objectifies their beauty; there is Father Herménégilde who is a paedophile in a position of power in the school; Gloriosa’s polemic about school quotas and Tutsis taking the place of Hutus is deeply disturbing and divisive.
The education of the girls also demonstrates the legacy of colonialism and how its brutality continues, how the genocide has its roots firmly in the past:
“History meant Europe, and Geography Africa […] it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history.”
“Because there were two races in Rwanda. Or three. The whites had said so; they were the ones who had discovered it.”
The story builds towards a denouement that is horribly predictable, terrifying and shocking. As part of these events, Gloriosa encourages a truly despicable violent act on a classmate that I’ve decided not to detail here. It’s not remotely sensationalist but it demonstrates the total horror that human beings can enact on each other.
Our Lady of the Nile is a stunning piece of writing, managing to convey the immeasurable costs of political violence with great humanity.
“It’s time we remembered who we are and where we are. We are at the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile, which trains Rwanda’s female elite. We’re the ones who’ve been chosen to spearhead women’s advancement. Let us be worthy of the trust placed in us by the majority people.”
My second choice doesn’t offer any reprieve from these brutal themes, as Cockfight by Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero (2018 trans. Frances Riddle 2021) is unflinching in its depiction of violence against women, animals, family members and of rape and incest.
I’m not going to go into too much detail from the stories as they are all such tough reads, but I’ll give an idea of a few of them. Ampuero is a compelling, precise writer and her stories pack a steely punch. If you feel able to read the stories I would urge you to do so, but they are definitely not for everyone and I certainly couldn’t have managed them last year when I was feeling a lot more fragile.
In the first story, Auction, a woman is kidnapped and offered up with others to the highest bidder. The situation reminds her of the cockfights she witnessed as a girl, having to clean up the remnants of the brutal sport.
“All these people, men and women alike, have been punched in the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the cockerels. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and cockerels. Come on, don’t be such a girl. They’re just cockfighters, dammit.”
The mutually reinforcing processes of patriarchy, misogyny, violence and commodification are drawn with ease, and played out in this situation in a visceral and degrading display.
Passion differs from the other stories in the collection, telling the story of (possibly) Mary Magdalen through a second-person narrative.
“You know, the only thing you know, is that you’re not going to be able to live without him. What you don’t know, and what you will never know, is that he loved you. That is something that can only be known by someone who has been loved before. You are not one of those people.”
In this story, Mary is the miracle-worker, abandoned by a man when she is no longer useful. Within the context of the collection, the story shows the long history of women being used and disregarded by those more powerful than they are.
Mourning was one of the most difficult reads, detailing the repulsive violence – physical and sexual – meted out by a brother on his sister. The brother dies and the two sisters rejoice:
“Marta said that at times like this – only at times like this – you need a man in the house, and Maria, who was standing on a chair with her skirts pulled up around her waist, started to laugh like a person possessed, and said no, that she preferred cockroaches, all the cockroaches in the world, over a man in the house.”
Ali and Coro are two linked stories that are incisive in detailing the hypocrisy and corruption that lies behind the moneyed façade of the rich.
“They grow up right there in the kitchen: eating with you until they get big, and then it seems weird to them that they love you so much, even though deep down they know you were their mother, and they see you one day in the future, once you’ve left, and they don’t know whether to cry or run into your arms like when they were little and fell down, or just nod their heads at you because now they’re little ladies and little gentleman of society who know you don’t greet the help with hugs and kisses.”
The collection ends with Other, which was probably the only story I read without flinching. The contents of a woman’s shopping basket distil the choices she has made, meaning she and her children constantly deny their own needs to meet those of an entirely selfish husband and father.
“He likes expensive fillets even though he won’t let go of one red cent for the rest of the month after buying them. So you grabbed three boxes of off-brand cereal instead, one for each child, and the worst brand of pads, the scratchy ones, the ones that come apart right away and cover your panties in little balls of fluff.”
Cockfight is fiercely feminist, urgent and unrelenting. Ampuero doesn’t waste a single word as she evokes everyday violence and degradation in non-sensationalist writing.
These are two brilliant works, stunning and important, but after I’d finished them I had to recover with a Golden Age mystery. I needed something where there was a guarantee that I wasn’t going to have to read graphic depictions of any sort of brutality. Having spent some time with Inspector Alleyn, I now feel ready to re-enter the fray!
As respite from my descriptions of two such harrowing works, here is a cheery number from an Ecuador-based band for you:
Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, drug use, swearing
This is my contribution to Lisa’s wonderful annual event, ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. I’m writing this hurriedly last minute to get it done in time, but do head over to Lisa’s blog to see all the great posts this week and from previous years too!
My reading and blogging has been so poor since the pandemic that I originally planned to post on this short story collection for ILW last year – oh dear. I’ve decided to take it as win that I’ve eventually managed to do so rather than focus on how long it took 😃
Eden Robinson is an Indigenous Canadian, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations. Waaaaaaay back in 2000 I read her first novel Monkey Beach and I thought it was one of the best things I read that year. Then inexplicably I have totally failed to read anything she published since. I’m really pleased that ILW prompted me to pick up her short story collection, Traplines (1996).
I’m a bit of a delicate flower at the moment but I think even if I was feeling super-robust, I still would have found Traplines a tough read. The stories are unflinching in their portrayal of human struggles; determinedly unsentimental, beautifully written and non-sensational. There are four in total so I’m going to focus on two and just give a brief flavour of the others.
The collection begins with the titular story, which I persevered with past the opening hunting scene (I can’t say the title didn’t warn me), only to have my heart torn into a million pieces. Will Bolton is a young man, sensitive, bright and observant:
“Tucca is still as we drive into it. The snow drugs it, makes it lazy. Houses puff cedar smoke and sweet, sharp smell gets in everyone’s clothes. At school in town, I can close my eyes and tell who’s from the village and who isn’t just by smelling them.”
He also has a chaotic home life, bullied and attacked by his older brother, who in turn is bullied and attacked by their father. Will constantly lives on a knife-edge, ready to duck at the next surprise blow.
“I back into the kitchen. He follows. I wait until he is near before I bend over and ram him. He’s slow because of the pot and slips to the floor […] Eric stands on the porch and laughs. I can’t wait until I’m bigger. I’d like to smear him against a wall. Let him see what it feels like. I’d like to smear him so bad.”
Mrs Smythe is Will’s English teacher and she sees his potential. She and her husband offer Will a place to stay away from the violence, the escalating drug use he is surrounded by, the self-destructiveness of everyone he knows. Robinson builds the portrait of Will’s life expertly, showing how he is at a crossroads he only vaguely recognises, and how the choice he’ll make is so fragile and yet so irreversible.
“If I could, I’d follow her.”
The next story Dogs in Winter had a slightly lighter tone but this is comparative. It was still very, very dark. “He smelled of Old Spice and I felt like I was in a commercial. Everything would be perfect, I thought, if only Canada had the death penalty.”
Contact Sports was the longest in the collection and at 109 pages is really a novella. Robinson wrote about the characters further in her novel Blood Sports (2006). This story was an absolute masterclass in how to create a pervading sense of unease and menace. It really got under my skin.
Tom lives with his mother and her successive boyfriends. Money is stretched to breaking point. Then his cousin Jeremy shows up and stays with them. Jeremy has been thrown out of the army, although Tom doesn’t know why. He has loads of money, Tom doesn’t know where from. He is amenable at first, but entirely untrustworthy.
Gradually Jeremy calls in the favours he has done Tom, to exert a deeply bullying and abusive hold over him, dictating his behaviour and humiliating him at every opportunity.
“‘Look, it’s really very simple. I’ll pay off your bills, one bill a week, and I’ll help with rent and food, and all you have to do is one itty bitty little thing.’
Tom said cautiously, ‘What?’
‘Oh it’s simple. All I want you to do is be good.’”
So insidious, so terrifying. It’s a bleak story, with humour that is raw to the bone:
“Tom stood on the corner watching Jeremy’s car squeal down the street. Just my luck. The only person who really gives a shit if I live or die is a whacked-out drug addict who likes playing God.”
The final story Queen of North sees a woman reclaim power over the person who abused her as a child in a breathtakingly visceral way. I won’t give more details on that but I’ll give a sample of the opening paragraphs which demonstrate the brilliance of Eden Robinson’s observations of the natural world:
“In my memory, the sun is setting and the frogs begin to sing. As the light shifts from yellow to orange to red, I walk down the path to the beach. The wind blows in from the channel, making the grass hiss and shiver around my legs. The tide is low and there’s a strong rotting smell from the beach. Tree stumps that have been washed down the channel from the logged areas loom ahead – black, twisted silhouettes against the darkening sky.”
Although I won’t be rushing to a re-read of Traplines right now, I’m so glad I read it and remembered what a stunning writer Eden Robinson is. She is precisely descriptive, compassionate but unwaveringly realistic in her characterisation. I’ll definitely be hunting down her Trickster trilogy, the first of which has been adapted for television:
Oh dear, my blogging mojo is taking a while to get back. It’s been weeks since I read these two short story collections for Women in Translation Month and I’m only writing this now. Given that I find writing about short story collections difficult at the best of times, I beg your indulgence, Reader…
Firstly, Dark Paradise by Rosa Liksom (1989 trans. David McDuff, 2007) which I picked up having greatly enjoyed Compartment No.6 back in 2016. This was a dark, violent collection of stories, split into two sections, Domestic and Foreign. The stories are not titled otherwise and are very short, frequently only a few pages, with unnamed narrators describing their extreme actions in a matter-of-fact voice. Hence I’m going to have to give a trigger warning for descriptions of violence and blood.
In the first story, a woman locks herself in her bedroom after the death of her husband:
“She took a heavy vase from the floor and threw it at the mirror which shattered into large and small pieces. The shards cut her all over. Some of the wounds were deep – they gaped and spurted blood. The sheets were stained red, her body throbbed, and the blood smelled of something old and oppressive.”
This is a choice image to begin the collection, as it captures what is in store: sharp, fragmentary glimpses into violent and unhinged worlds. Unlike the first story, many that follow are told in the first person. A woman who viscerally hates her husband of two weeks; a man who obsessively cleans his flat; a social outcast who lives with his mother:
“It all started some time before my eighth birthday. I was lounging in an armchair in the parlour watching Mom make dinner in the kitchen. That was the first time the realisation came to me. I got this terrible nauseous feeling, a flash of lightening cut right through my brain and Mom suddenly looked to me like some sort of mutant, a caricature of a human being. I know that’s when it started, and the years have only made it clearer to me that even then, as a little kid, I was one hundred percent correct: I hate all women.”
There are some brief glimpses of light. Not every encounter ends in violence, though most do, and there are some affectionate relationships, like the woman and her daughter who are chocoholics:
“Then I walk home and my daughter is back, she’ll have had three mugs of cocoa and a package of chocolate biscuits. She eats chocolate too, and biscuits, and potato chips. I’ve hardly had time to get the door open when she’s shouting for chocolate. But she has to wait until I’ve taken off my coat and sat down in front of the TV. Then I give her one of the bars and take the other for myself. We watch TV, eat chocolate and occasionally I have a cigarette.”
Liksom is such an accomplished writer. In just a few lines she establishes character, tone, setting. She’s sparse and uncompromising. This is not the collection to read when you’re feeling fragile or want characters to root for, but if you feel like being pummelled into nihilistic despair for about an hour (and sometimes I do, sometimes I want a truly destabilising read) then this is for you.
Secondly, Death of an Ex-Minister by Nawal el-Saadawi (1987, trans. Shirley Eber 1987). I first looked at el-Saadawi’s work for WITMonth 2018 and then again this year when I was undertaking Novella a Day in May, and I’m always so impressed by how she weaves her politics into stories that never suffer under the weight of the issues she’s addressing: often corruption, the role of women, and sexuality.
The titular story has a government employee talking to his mother as silent interlocutor, about a junior colleague that has incurred his ire:
“But I was angry Mother, because when she talked to me she raised her eyes to mine in a way I’d never seen before. Such a gaze, such a strong and steady look, is daring in itself, even impudent, when it comes from a man. So what if it comes from an employee, a woman? I wasn’t angry because she did it, but because I didn’t know how she did it, how she dared do it.”
I thought this was such a clever way to explore a man realising that he has been a cog in machine, a subservient bureaucrat, and send him spiralling into crisis.
In The Veil, el-Saadawi deals with female sexual desire completely unabashed:
“My eyes fall on to his naked body and hairy thighs once more. The expression on my face, as I look at his body, is not the same when I look into his eyes, for my problem is that what I feel inside shows instantly on my face. His eyes are the only part of his body with which I have real contact. They dispel strangeness and ugliness and make my relationship with him real in the midst of numerous unreal ones.”
She always has plenty to say but is never preachy and often has an underlying humour. The tone in Masculine Confession (another silent female interlocutor, this time a sex worker) is wry:
“I loved my masculinity and from the start I realised it was the reason for my being privileged. I always had to prove its existence, declare it, show it to people to make it clear and visible and that it was not open to doubt […] I love my wife like I love my mother, with the same sort of spiritual, holy love. In other words, a love in which I take everything and to which I give nothing. That’s ideal love.”
In Camera is perhaps the most powerful and tender, where a young woman accused and tortured by the state is watched in a courtroom by her family:
“I feel the air when it touches you and hunger when it grips you. Your pain is mine, like fire burning in my breast and stomach. God of Heaven and Earth, how did your body and mine stand it? But I couldn’t have stood it were it not for the joy of you being my daughter, of having given birth to you. And you can raise your head high above the mountains of filth.”
Death of an Ex-Minister captures a variety of voices finding their way in late twentieth century Egypt. El-Saadawi is all the more powerful because of her compassion – she writes about flawed humans, fighting, loving, scared and brave. Her characters are always believable and always compelling.
To end, a move that will shock regular readers of this blog to their core: I’m going to end on some tasteful music for once 😀 Stunning harmonies from singers of traditional Finnish Sami music:
This week is Daphne du Maurier reading week, hosted by Ali over at heavenali. It’s also Ali’s birthday today, so Happy Birthday Ali!
I read Rebecca as a teenager and thought it was great, but somehow never read anything else by du Maurier. I had the NYRB collection of her short stories in the TBR, and yet I always gravitate towards the novels I have, so I’m glad #DDMreadingweek gave me the kick I needed, as it’s a great read.
I’m rubbish at reviewing short story collections so please bear with me. This is an excellent selection of nine stories, five of which are 40+ pages, the shorter ones coming in between 10-20ish pages. For me the longer stories were the stronger in the collection – although all are compelling reads – so I’ll concentrate on a couple of those.
The first two were made into incredibly famous films, so I won’t dwell on those as many of you will know the stories. What I will say is Don’t Look Now is just as creepy as the film but with a really dark humour to it, and The Birds is miles better than the film (I’m not really a Hitchcock fan) and totally freaked me out to the extent that I’ve been looking askance at every pigeon which has crossed my path since.
In Blue Lenses, Marda West has an operation to restore her sight. She is in hospital, intensely vulnerable, dependent on the nursing staff, her doctors and her husband. She has only what they say and the sound of their voices to go on. Already she feels unnerved, even around her husband:
“Now, for no known reason except that darkness, perhaps, had made her more sensitive, she was shy to discuss her eyes with him. The touch of his hand was the same as it had ever been, and his kiss, and the warmth of his voice; but always, during these days of waiting, she had the seed of fear that he, like the staff at the hospital, was being too kind. The kindness of those who knew towards the one who must not be told.”
She has the operation to fit the titular lenses as a temporary measure and is warned they will make everything monochrome. On using her eyes for the first time with the lenses, Marda is shocked to discover is that she now sees everyone with the head of an animal.
This could be funny, or ridiculous, but in du Maurier’s hands it is deeply upsetting. There is the suggestion that the animal Marda sees tells her something about the person. One nurse is a benign cow, the other a kitten. Her doctors are both terrier dogs, one a tenacious Jack Russell, the other a sweet natured Highland. Someone she trusted is a snake, possibly in cahoots with a vulture…
At first Marda believes it is an elaborate joke being played on her, but then she goes to the window:
“An elderly cod, leaning on two sticks, was being helped into a waiting car by the boar headed porter. It could not be plot. They could not know she was watching them.”
She is completely isolated. No-one will believe her and they will think she is mad. Who can she trust? The cow? The Highland terrier? What will Marda do with this newfound insight into people and their motivations? What will happen when the permanent lenses are fitted?
“The utter hopelessness of her position was like damnation itself. This was her hell. She was quite alone, coldly conscious of the hatred and cruelty about her.”
Blue Lenses takes a bizarre premise to question what we choose to see, how much we really know people, and to dramatise how vulnerable we are when we trust. The denouement is devastating.
Split Second begins like many a domestic fiction, and uses this familiarity to lull us into a false sense of security:
“Mrs Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her ‘clearing’ mood […] First, she checked the linen. The smooth white sheets lying in rows upon their shelves, pillow slips beside, and one set still in its pristine newness from the shop, tied with blue ribbon, waiting for a guest who never came.”
So far, so deeply ordinary. Then Mrs Ellis goes for a walk, a walk she has done many times before, and when she returns it is to find strangers living in her house and no-one with any idea who she is. The police are called, but to Mrs Ellis’ horror it is she who is taken to the station:
“Could this officer and his subordinate be genuine members of the police force? Or were they, after all, members of the gang? This would explain their strange faces, their obvious mishandling of the situation. In which case they were now going to take her away to some lair, drug her, kill her possibly.
‘I’m not going with you,’ she said swiftly.
‘Now Mrs Ellis,’ said the constable, ‘don’t give any trouble. You shall have a cup of tea down at the station, and no-one is going to hurt you.’
He seized her arm. She tried to shake it off. The young policeman moved closer.”
Split Second is incredibly clever in how it positions the reader. It shows us the epitome of middle-class calm, we think we know the story we are getting, then like the experience of Mrs Ellis, everything is thrown in complete disarray. Twice I thought I had the answer to what was happening, and twice I was wrong, having followed the false trails du Maurier had set up.
Split Second is a sad story, and one that suggests we can attempt to create all the calm and order we like in our own small setting, it will be no match for the chaos and disarray of other people in the wider world.
The common theme across many of the stories is people doubting their view of reality: feeling isolated and threatened with nowhere to turn. It is this that makes du Maurier’s stories so unsettling and upsetting. The horror comes not from the more outlandish situations but from the feeling of dread, of creeping insanity with no sanctuary in sight.
I’m sure someone told me once that there’s a lot of snobbery around Daphne du Maurier, that she was seen as a popular writer and therefore not a very good one. It really is ridiculous; du Maurier is such a good storyteller, she draws you in from the start, holds you there until she’s ready to let you go, and makes it look easy.
To end, there are many cinematic adaptations of du Maurier to choose from, but I’ve picked the title story of this collection, as it was an adaptation she approved of (unlike The Birds):
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.
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:
Happy Hallowe’en Everyone! I’m not really one for scary fiction as I’m far too easily spooked, but I have managed to find two books in the TBR that were perfect Hallowe’en reading and not too much for my delicate sensibilities.
Firstly, I finished The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979), her collection of short stories which rework the classic tropes of fairytales into Carter’s own disturbing, sexual, feminist, Gothic stories. I’ve written about The Snow Child, The Werewolf and The Tiger’s Bride before, but somehow not got round to finishing the collection. This year of the book-buying ban (nearly finished!) is all about ploughing through the TBR pile so this was a good opportunity to get the collection dusted off and finished.
Angela Carter is a writer people have strong feelings about, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: I am firmly in the ‘for’ camp. I think she’s brilliantly inventive, political, funny and deeply unnerving. I never find her comfortable read, and I love that. So if you’re in the ‘agin’ camp you might want to skip through to my second choice of David Mitchell 😊
If you’re a fan like me, The Bloody Chamber will give you all you desire. The titular story is a heady mix of sexual awakening and mortal danger as a young woman marries an older French Marquis (natch):
“For the opera, I wore a sinuous shift of white muslin tied with a silk string under the breasts. And everyone stared at me. And at his wedding gift.
His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”
The story is a retelling of Bluebeard, but as the woman is a Carter heroine, she is not a naïve virgin wandering blindly into a danger but someone who understands more than she knows, and she knows that there is something very wrong with her husband:
“I felt a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say Bluebeard doesn’t quite have things work out for him the way he hoped. Carter uses the retelling of familiar tales to give women agency: they are not there to be eaten by wolves, seduced by royalty when unconscious, or rescued by a heterosexual love interest. Neither are they the pure-as-snow heroines who survive to enter marriage; when they survive it is as women with complex motives and strategic means of never relinquishing control. They are to be reckoned with.
If this sounds didactic, it really isn’t. Carter never loses sight of spinning a good yarn, and she does so with humour. This is most apparent in Puss in Boots, a first person narrative voiced by the eponymous feline, a cheeky servant who does his master’s bidding while never losing sight of his own ends:
“So Puss got his post at the same time as his boots and I dare say the Master and I have much in common for he’s proud as the devil, touchy as tin-tacks, lecherous as liquorice and, though I say it as loves him, as quick-witted a rascal as ever put on clean linen.”
Puss also recalls The Barber of Seville, in comic exuberance, machinations, and names:
“Figaro here; Figaro, there, I tell you! Figaro upstairs, Figaro downstairs and–oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro can slip into my lady’s chamber smart as you like at any time whatsoever that he takes the fancy for, don’t you know, he’s a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated; he can tell when a furry friend is the Missus’ best company. For what lady in all the world could say ‘no’ to the passionate yet toujours discret advances of a fine marmalade cat?”
While she’s undoubtedly burlesque, Carter is a writer with serious concerns, and plenty to say about the position of women, both in the fairytale tradition and society as a whole. It’s far from all she has to say, but for me at this time, it was the main message I took away. For this reason I’ll finish with a quote from The Erl-King:
“When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and I did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately, gave them fresh water every day and fed them well. His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven.”
Secondly, Slade House by David Mitchell (2015); it was Cathy’s recent review which prompted me to get my copy down from the shelf. Like Carter, Mitchell is clearly having fun with this work. It’s not typical of him – for one thing, at 233 pages its about a third the size of his usual tomes – but it does still have many of his trademarks: references to his other works, interconnected stories, time shifts. It’s a companion piece to The Bone Clocks; that novel remains buried in my TBR somewhere but I didn’t find that not having read it affected my enjoyment of Slade House at all. You’ll be pleased to hear this is a short review as I desperately try and avoid spoilers…
The first story, The Right Sort (which began life as a Twitter story, which you can read here) is set in 1979 and is told by Nathan Bishop, who is accompanying his mother to Slade House. Nathan is lonely and isolated: his father has left and he doesn’t really have friends. He may be on the autistic spectrum:
“Mum lets go of my wrist. That’s better.
I don’t know what her face is saying.”
Once they arrive at Slade House, Nathan’s mum goes into the vast pile with Lady Grayer, while Nathan spends time with her son Jonah. The experience has a blurry, unreal quality, possibly due to the fact that Nathan has taken one of his mother’s Valium:
“A dragonfly settles on a bulrush an inch from my nose. It’s wings are like cellophane and Jonah says ‘Its wings are like cellophane’ and I say, ‘I was just thinking that,’ but Jonah says ‘Just thinking what?’ so maybe I just thought he’d said it. Valium rubs out speech marks and pops thought-bubbles. I’ve noticed it before.”
In the following story, Shining Armour, corrupt copper Gordon Edmonds is half-heartedly investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mum, as a man has awakened from a coma and was the last person to speak to them, nine years earlier. Another nine years later and a student paranormal society are interested in Slade House:
“Todd the mathematician works it out first. ‘Christ, I’ve got it. The Bishops vanished on the last Saturday in October 1979; fast-forward nine years and Gordon Edmonds vanishes on the last Saturday in October 1988; fast-forward another nine years and you get…’ He glances at Axel, who nods. ‘Today.’
I can’t help feeling things are not going to work out well for the curious students…
What is going on at Slade House? Why can’t it be found on maps? What happens every nine years? Who is responsible? And is anyone going to stop them?
“ ‘That’s the only prize worth hunting. And what we want, what we dream of. The stage props change down the ages, but the dream stays the same: philosophers’ stones, magic fountains in lost Tibetan valleys, lichens that slow the decay of our cells, tanks of liquid that’ll freeze us for a few centuries; computers that’ll store our personalities as ones and zeroes for the rest of time. To call a spade a spade: immortality.’”
The wackometer needle is stuck on 11. ‘I see.’”
Mitchell’s legions of fans might be a bit disappointed with Slade House; as I mentioned, it’s definitely not typical of him. I really enjoyed it though. As a quick, fun, slightly spooky read for autumn, it was spot-on.
To end, a song which I only found out this week was once banned by the BBC, who hilariously thought dancing monsters were ‘too morbid’ for impressionable young minds:
This is the second of two posts where I catch up on the reading I did, but the blogging I failed to do, for the wonderful Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. Thankfully Jessie said I could post late, so here it is, a month overdue *shameface*. Both my choices are short story collections, which I find really hard to write about so apologies in advance for not doing either of these wonderful books any justice whatsoever.
Firstly, Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by (unsurprisingly) Mollie Panter-Downes which is Persephone No.8. It features 21 stories which Panter-Downes wrote for The New Yorker between 1939 and 1944.
I wish I had picked up this collection when I had my reading slump, it would have been perfect. The pithy, concise portraits are a quick read, highly entertaining and insightful. Panter-Downes shows how human foibles don’t just disappear at the onset of war. The stories are amusing but never seek to trivialise the conflict. Rather they show how domestic life is driven by huge national change and small personality traits.
Meeting at the Pringles captures the organisation of women who find their raison d’etre during wars, and find themselves “happier, as a matter of fact, than they had been for the last twenty-one years” as they arrange a bandage-knitting party for the Red Cross. Similarly, an elderly Major in It’s the Real Thing This Time is overjoyed at the thought of conflict “[looking] up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”
Family life continues, but is subject to greater pressures than ever. Mrs Ramsay’s War sees a young mother taking in evacuees and being shocked by the realities of motherhood for the first time:
“On the afternoon the nurse went out, the harsher facts of infant life were concealed from her by the nursery maid, who let her have fun pretending to fool around with two little dears who were always perfectly dry, perfectly sweet-smelling, and done up in pretty organdie tied with ribbons.”
Her naivety is subject to the onslaught of the Clark family, and she can’t close her eyes to other, less agreeable, lives any longer:
“there didn’t seem to be a disinfectant invented that could drown the Clark smell of grinding, abject poverty, very different from the decent, cottagey variety with a red geranium on the window sill, which had been the worst Mrs Fletcher had encountered up to now.”
In As the Fruitful Vine another young mother, this one expectant, rues the fact that she has fallen pregnant during a time of international conflict: “In her mother’s day a pregnant woman spent a good deal of time on a sofa, thinking beautiful thoughts and resolutely avoiding unpleasant ones; people took care not to speak of anything shocking or violent in front of her”
All these small events will lead to irrevocable societal changes. This is perhaps most apparent in Cut Down the Trees where an elderly retainer is deeply disturbed by the changes being wrought on a country house: “the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the manservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs Walsingham stop dressing for dinner.”
Good Evening Mrs Craven is a wonderful collection of highly entertaining stories, showing what went on at home – what women, the very young and the very old got up to – while the soldiers were away. It’s a brilliant work, and if you think you don’t like short stories but want to give them another chance, I would say this is a perfect place to start.
Secondly, The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield, which is Persephone No.25. This remarkable collection contains everything Mansfield wrote between July 1921 and her death in January 1923, while she was being treated at the Chalet des Sapins in Montana, Switzerland, for the tuberculosis which would ultimately kill her.
The stories in this collection are of various length, some unfinished but still an enjoyable read. Unusually, they are collected chronologically, which is highly effective here, giving a sense of Mansfield’s preoccupations and creative focus in her final years. I’m just going to pick two which really stood out for me, though the whole collection is a strong one.
In Marriage a la Mode, a young couple find themselves in bewildering conflict, as Isabel is influenced by modern-thinking friends and William can’t work out how on earth to reach her. He’s unsure what toys to buy his children:
“ ‘It’s so important,’ the new Isabel explained, ‘that they should like the right things from the very beginning. It saves so much time later on. Really, if the poor pets have to spend their infant years staring at these horrors, one can imagine them growing up and asking to be taken to the Royal Academy.’
And she spoke as though a visit to the Royal Academy was certain immediate death to anyone…
‘Well, I don’t know,’ said William slowly. ‘When I was their age I used to go to bed hugging an old towel with a knot in it.’
The new Isabel looked at him, her eyes narrowed, her lips apart.
‘Dear William! I’m sure you did!’ She laughed in the new way.”
The story ends with Isabel doing something incredibly cruel. Yet I felt sorry for her and for William. Isabel isn’t happy but is looking for fulfilment amongst vacuous people and missing what is truly important. William is baffled and desperate. A sad story, all the more so for portraying its tragedy as so small and everyday, yet devastating.
In The Garden Party, the Sheridans are a well-off family planning the titular event when they learn a working-class neighbour has been killed. Their daughter Laura wants to cancel the party while the rest of her family find this ridiculous.
“They were mean little dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys […]
‘And just think what the band would sound like to that poor woman,’ said Laura.
‘Oh, Laura!’ Jose began to be seriously annoyed. ‘If you’re going to stop a band playing every time someone has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life.’”
The story is about beginning to forge your own way beyond all that is familiar; it is also about deciding what is truly important. Mansfield writes with wisdom and insight, and a deceptively light touch. She’s masterful at the short story form and her stories absolutely stay with you.
To end, some highly impressive mascara-wearing and a song which tells a short story:
August is Women in Translation month, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Do head over to her blog to read more about WITMonth and join in!
This week I’m looking at two authors who are titans of literature: Marguerite Yourcenar and the one-woman powerhouse that is Nawal El Saadawi.
Firstly, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951, trans. Grace Frick 1954). Yourcenar worked on this novel on and off for over 20 years and spent around 3 years writing it as her main focus. It is a letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor Marcus Aurelius when he knows time is limited. It is not a dry recounting of Yourcenar’s extensive research though, or a cringe-making attempt to dramatise historical events: “so I said to the Roman Senate, as we sat in the Roman Forum: I’m going to build a wall to keep out those pesky Scots who refuse to be subdued under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. And Scotland’s going to pay for it.”
Instead, Yourcenar uses historical events as a frame for an extended consideration of life and death. Hadrian is about as likable as the leader of a huge oppressive military force can be; he is focussed on peace wherever possible, and interested in the arts and philosophy. At the same time, he is politically astute:
“A prince lacks the latitude afforded to the philosopher in this respect: he cannot allow himself to be different on too many points at a time; and the gods know that my points of difference were already too numerous, though I flattered myself that many were invisible.”
His humility is believable, and I think Yourcenar’s master stroke is having Hadrian know he is facing an imminent death. Staring into the void, even a Roman emperor is bound to question what impact he has had, and whether he was a force for good. Reflecting on his role as leader of imperialist suppression is a bleak business:
“It mattered little to me that the accord obtained was external, imposed from without and perhaps temporary; I knew that good like bad becomes routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself. Since hatred, stupidity, and delirium have lasting effects, I saw no reason why good will, clarity of mind and just practice would not have their effects too.”
But Hadrian-the-man comes across just as clearly as Hadrian-the-politician. His grief at the death of his young lover Antinous is never maudlin or indulgent, yet the overwhelming grief that Hadrian clearly felt (he established a cult in Antinous’ name) is very moving.
“This simple man possesses a virtue which I had thought little about up to this time, even when I happened to practice it, namely, kindness.”
Memoirs of Hadrian is only 247 pages in my edition but it took me much longer to read than a novel of that length normally would. This is not because the prose didn’t flow: Hadrian’s voice is crystal-clear and the narrative is easy to follow, being mainly chronological with some deviations. It is however, a densely written book with so much to consider. Hadrian doesn’t waste a word: he’s a dying man, and an erudite, philosophical one. He’s got a lot to say and I had to think hard about most of it.
“Death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love”
“the time of impatience has passed; at the point where I now am, despair would be in as bad taste as hope itself. I have ceased to hurry my death.”
If you ever want absolute confirmation that you are an under-achiever who is wasting their life, go and check out Nawal El Saadawi’s wiki entry. The first paragraph alone is enough to inspire deep feelings utter inadequacy 😀
I always find it hard to write about collections of short stories, but I thought She Has No place in Paradise worked well. El Saadawi has an excellent understanding of the form and each story felt complete in itself, yet still contributed to the collection overall painting a picture of late twentieth-century Egyptian society.
Some of the stories captured the determinedly everyday. In Thirst, a young servant girl running errands lusts after a cool drink from a kiosk:
“The tarmac of the street beneath her feet had softened from the intensity of the sun’s heat. It burned her like a piece of molten iron and made her hop here and there, bumping and colliding, unconsciously, like a small moth against the sides of a burning lamp. She could have made for the shade at the side of the street and sat for a time on the damp earth, but her shopping basket hung on her arm and her right hand clutched at a tattered fifty piastre note.”
It’s a simple tale conveying just a few moments in time, but El Saadawi is able to address big issues: the position of women, the class system, economics, how and where freedom of choice is exercised, how we weigh up choices when we have very little to lose. None of this is heavily executed; El Saadawi trusts the reader to draw wider conclusions than just the immediate situation.
“She had a salty taste in her mouth, as bitter as aloes, acrid and burning. She searched for some saliva with which to wet her salty lips, but the tip of her tongue burned without finding a drop. And Hamida stood in front of her, her lips surrounding the ice-cold bottle, each cell of her body absorbing the drink.”
Other stories are more ostensibly political, like the man being tortured to reveal the location of a printing press in But He Was No Mule.
“The press turns in your head, the lead letters chatter together like teeth and the word is born. It is only a word nothing but a word, yet the point at which all things begin, the point at which his life began and stretched throughout the years until this moment which he was now living. A long thread beginning at a point and stretching up to that gelatinous minute point around which his self was wrapped, enclosed and protected like a foetus in its mother’s womb.”
By having the victim in a state of near-delirium El Saadawi avoids having to present gory, gratuitous violence, but still manages to convey the brutality of the situation and the oppression taking place.
El Saadawi manages to maintain a light touch in addressing huge themes throughout the tales. The titular story treats the position of women in society and how religion is used as a means of control with a degree of humour, but it is humour with bite: a devout woman realises that her devotion to entering paradise is to enter somewhere which does not benefit her.
She Has No Place in Paradise is a masterclass in making the personal political and in doing so simply, without being didactic or losing sight of the story. Hugely impressive, much like Nawal El Saadawi herself.
To end, I was tempted to finish with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall in honour of Hadrian, but frankly the video creeps me out. So here’s something much more pleasant: Donia Massoud, born in Alexandria, spent three years travelling all around Egypt collecting folk songs. She then toured with her band playing traditional instruments. Here she is performing in Spain: