Novella a Day in May 2019 #21

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (1963, trans. Elizabeth Rokkan 1966) 176 pages

This novella is like the titular structure: impressive, delicate, beautiful and disturbing. It’s impossible to review without giving away plot points, so apologies in advance and do skip to just the quotes if you don’t want to know but still want an idea of the gorgeous writing!

The Ice Palace tells the story of two eleven-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is a leader among her peers, newcomer Unn is quiet and shy. She stands alone at break times, yet the popular Siss finds herself drawn to Unn.

The girls have a deep unspoken bond that they don’t understand themselves. The first time Siss goes to Unn’s house after school, they have an almost spiritual experience gazing into a mirror together. Unn wants to tell Siss something, but Siss feels overwhelmed and leaves, thinking:

“You can tell me more another time. Whenever you like another time. We couldn’t have gone further this evening. It had been a great deal as it was. But if they were to go further it would make things impossible. Home again as quickly as she could. Otherwise they might get involved in something that would shatter it for all of them. Instead they had shone into each other’s eyes.”

The next day, Unn feels too embarrassed to see Siss again, and decides to visit the local Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall.

“She lay flat on the ice, not yet feeling the cold. Her slim body was a shadow with distorted human form down on the bottom.

Then she changed her position on the shining glass mirror. The delicate bracken still stood in the block of ice in a blaze of light.”

The natural descriptions are stunning, but never overwhelm the narrative:

“Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.”

Unn goes missing, and it doesn’t take much for the villagers to work out where she might be. Finding her proves impossible though:

“The men continued to search. They had life and light on their side. They were visiting an unknown fortress, and it looked like the fortress of death. If one of them struck the wall with his stick it proved to be as hard as rock. The blow recoiled and vibrated in his arm. Nothing opened up. They struck all the same.”

Siss is devasted. She makes Unn a promise that sees her withdraw from her family and friends, taking Unn’s place alone at the edge of the playground.

“I promise to think about no-one but you. To think about everything I know about you. To think about you at home and at school, and on the way to school. To think about you all day long, and if I wake up at night.”

The Ice Palace is a novel that doesn’t spell out its characters’ feelings but leaves you in no doubt as to how strong they are. It is a study of grief in pre-adolescents; Unn is an orphan and Siss is overwhelmed by her feelings when Unn goes missing. The atmosphere of a Norwegian village in winter is beautifully evoked and it is haunting without being creepy. The novella doesn’t give trite answers but instead asks how we learn to live with pain, with the things to which there are no answers.

“Slowly the palace changes colour. The shining green ice whitens in the warmth of the sun. The transparent chambers and domes grow dim as if filled with steam, concealing all they may possess, drawing a cover over themselves and concealing it. The whole palace draws the white colour over itself and starts to dissolve on the surface. Inside it is still ringing hard. The ice no longer sends out lightening among the fields. But shines, whiter than before, shines quietly.”

Advertisements

Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (2014, trans. Charlotte Collins 2015) 149 pages

After the traumas of The Blind Owl yesterday, lets all recuperate in a beautiful Austrian village😊 But that’s not to say that A Whole Life is a comfort read; it’s exactly what the title says – the tale of one man’s whole life, containing tragedy and joy.

Andreas Egger arrives in the village as a young orphan, at the start of the twentieth century. His uncle doesn’t really want him and he is bullied violently by him until he gets old enough to demand it stop, but not before his leg has been broken and badly reset, leaving him with a lifelong limp.

Nonetheless he is a strong and valued manual labourer in the village, later working for the cable car company, shinning up and down the mountains. Egger is a loner but not lonely; ultimately he is a man of the valley, mountains and meadow of his village.

“Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.”

From this small village Egger witnesses the many and rapid changes of the twentieth century. He participates in some – his only protracted period of time away is when he is a prisoner of war – but mostly he just observes. There are the major upheavals:

“The mayor was no longer a Nazi these days, geraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”

And also the social shifts, such as the quiet village becoming beset by tourists:

 “He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.”

Egger also experiences some major changes in his personal life, but to avoid spoilers I won’t give details. I’ve seen A Whole Life compared to Stoner and while I do love Stoner I think this is quite different. Although both are about male, twentieth-century, somewhat isolated lives, I didn’t find this nearly so sad.

“Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.”

A beautifully written novella which demonstrates how a life can look quiet and small from the outside but be entirely rich and fulfilling. Above all, it’s about walking your own path.

“And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down onto one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone badly after all.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #13

Scars on the Soul – Francoise Sagan (1972 trans. Joanna Kilmartin 1974) 124 pages

This is a strange novella. It’s a story of a Swedish brother and sister living in France, and an extended reflection on Sagan’s writing life: a direct address to the reader.

“It isn’t literature, it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else.”

Sagan tells the story of Sebastian and Eleanor van Milhelm who are entirely feckless and devoted to one another.

“Life without her, drink without her, were like lukewarm water, Not a bad thing, all said and done, to have one’s life circumscribed to that extent by someone who – whatever she might say – was as much his slave as he was hers.”

While they are not quite incestuous, they certainly have an unhealthy attachment to one another. They move around living off their looks, finding benefactors who will pay for their lifestyle so that neither have to get jobs.

“ ‘Someone’ being that providential person who, because of their charm, their wit, their luck, would act as temporary provider for brother and sister. This person so far had never failed to materialise and was usually discovered by Sebastian, Eleanor, as in this case, being too lazy to go out.”

Yet the van Milhelms are not despicable. They are not malicious or even particularly manipulative; there is the sense that those they live off share an understanding whereby everyone knows what the deal is. There is a sense of ennui as their lives are essentially empty, yet it’s a sad story rather than a depressing one.

Scars on the Soul is certainly a post-modern novella, drawing attention to the art of Sagan as a writer and the artifice of the novel.

“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress. Nevertheless, this blow-by-blow account of eroticism has irritated me. I’m returning to my van Milhelms ‘who frequently indulge in that sort of thing but never talk about it.’”

I think this novella wouldn’t be for everyone, as it is neither one thing nor the other – not fiction or non-fiction, not short story or essay. Yet I found it satisfying. I was invested in the van Milhelms story and I enjoyed Sagan’s witty reflections on writing and her fame after many years (this was written in her late 30s after the success of Bonjour Tristesse at the prodigiously young age of 18). It’s not something to read when you want a meaty, plot-driven story but Sagan is a hugely talented, skilled writer and there is much of interest here both in the fiction and in the portrait of one writer’s life.

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?”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #5

Breaking Away – Anna Gavalda (2009, trans. Alison Anderson 2011) 143 pages

Breaking Away is a simply plotted novella which appears deceptively straightforward in its storytelling, but builds towards a meaningful resolution.

Garance is in her late twenties and cadges a lift to a wedding with her brother Simon and annoying sister in law Carine. The characterisation of Carine starts the novella off on an enjoyably bitchy note as the chaotic Garance, who has stayed up all night playing poker and is waxing her legs on the backseat, offends beauty pharmacist Carine’s sensibilities.

“Carine is utterly perplexed. She consoles herself by stirring sugarless sugar into a coffee without caffeine.”

They stop and pick up another sibling, Lola, who likes to conspire with Garance to wind up Carine. At which point I began to feel for Carine – maybe she wouldn’t be such a nightmare if the siblings weren’t so cliquey and excluding. At this point though, the portrait of Carine does modify slightly.

“She may be a first class pain but she does like to please others. Credit where credit is due.

And she really doesn’t like to leave pores in a state of shock. It breaks her heart.”

Their fourth sibling, Vincent, isn’t at the wedding, so the three of them leave Carine and bunk off to go and collect him. Garance reflects on her various siblings’ trials and tribulations and how their upbringing has influenced who they are. She decides her parents are culpable:

 “Because they’re the ones who taught us about books and music. Who talked to us about other things and forced us to see things in a different light. To aim higher and further. But they also forgot to give us confidence, because they thought that would come naturally. That we had a special gift for life, and compliments might spoil our egos.

They got it wrong.

The confidence never came.

So here we are. Sublime losers.”

But the humour in the novella stops it being self-pitying. In fact, the four of them are doing OK. They’re just enjoying taking a rare moment to spend time together.

Breaking Away captures a moment in time for the four siblings, and has an elegiac quality, for time past and relationships that must inevitably change. The tone isn’t sad however, more resolute; it’s about how love endures beyond all the external changes.

“What we were experiencing at that moment – something all four of us were aware of – was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people.”

To end, plenty of songs are name-checked in Breaking Away, including this one which “taught us more English than all our teachers put together”:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #2

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2014, trans. Ros Schwartz 2015) 194 pages

Easily the worst part of my day is my commute. If London rush hour had existed in fourteenth century Italy, I’m sure Dante would have made it one of his circles of hell.

But if Guylain Vignolles was on my morning tube, I’m sure things would be vastly improved. This titular hero is thirty-six years old and lives alone save for a goldfish named Rouget de Lisle V. He finds people difficult and so he has become something of a loner.

“His aim was to be neither good-looking nor ugly, neither fat nor thin. Just a vague shape hovering on the edge of people’s field of vision. To blend into his surroundings until he negated himself, remaining a remote place never visited.”

However, there is one point in his day when he does not blend into his surroundings. On his morning commuter train he reads the passengers excerpts from random books. They are pages he has rescued from his job at a book-pulping plant, a job he hates. Stealing the pages away from under the surveillance cameras of his horrible boss and disturbingly enthusiastic colleague is an act of rebellion, of resistance against the disregard shown to the books and all they contain.

“When the train pulled out of the station and the passengers alighted, an outside observer would have had no trouble noticing how Guylain’s listeners stood out from the rest of the commuters. Their faces did not wear that off-putting mask of indifference. They all had the contented look of an infant that has drunk its fill of milk.”

Despite his odd manner and social reluctance, Guylain does have friends. There is the security guard who only speaks in a very particular poetic style:

“The day he discovered the alexandrine, Yvon Grimbert had fallen head over heels in love. Faithfully serving the twelve-syllable line had become his sole mission on earth.”

There is also his ex-boss, who had a terrible accident at work:

“Giuseppe Carminetti, former chief operator of the TERN treatment and recycling company, ex-alcoholic and ex-biped, was going to do his utmost to recover the books that contained what was left of his pins.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Giuseppe’s legs were pulped along with some books and subsequently turned into paper. He is now fixated on hunting down all the books that were printed on such paper, thereby reclaiming his legs.

You may have realised by now that you need a pretty high tolerance for whimsy when reading The Reader on the 6.27. I have a high threshold and so I really enjoyed this novella. The idiosyncratic characters are still believable, and their relationships touching. The power of the spoken word and of literature in all its forms is comically evoked – particularly when Guylain gets recruited to read at a retirement home – but is still a powerful message.

Guylain’s reading matter changes when he finds a memory stick in his usual seat which contains the diary of Julie. While it’s undoubtedly intrusive that he reads the diary its believable that he is trying to do so in order to return the stick to its owner.

Unlike with whimsy, my tolerance for male protagonists falling in love with objectified female fantasy figures is rock-bottom. For me, Didierlaurent got the balance for this part of the story right, and Julie has strong, authentic female voice.

There’s no sense at any time that this sweet story isn’t going to play out in a truly cockle-warming way so it’s not a surprising read, but then it’s not trying to be. A tale of outsiders who, though they would never realise it, are absolutely charming.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #1

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2010) 125 pages

Dear Reader, I’ve been somewhat absent from the blogosphere recently and I’ve really missed it. This was because, like a lunatic, at the end of March I decided on the spur of the moment to apply for a PhD which caught my eye. I had no plans for further study and so this meant April was spent in whirlwind of desperately trying to get my reading up to date, meeting with old tutors to remind them who on earth I am and begging for a reference, and then writing my application. The deadline is this Friday but I’ve now submitted my application and I’m hoping I might regain my sanity in the meantime. I don’t think I’ll get it, but my tutors have been really supportive and its good to shake things up now and again.

Aaaaaaannnnyway, I really enjoyed blogging on a novella a day in May last year, so I’m throwing myself back into it this year. I had such plans…. NADIM this year was going to be carefully thought through, with a good spread of countries (last year I ignored the southern hemisphere completely and lovely Naomi pointed out I’d also skipped Canada) and a wonderful balance of styles and subjects… yeah, that’s not happening. Instead this month (and I really hope to make it to the end) will be hastily cobbled together posts which completely fail to do the wonderful form of the novella any justice at all. But I still hope I manage to spread some novella love along the way 😊

I thought it apt to start with one from a publishing house that has done so much to champion the form: Peirene Press, who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. I’m a big fan of theirs and so I swooped down on Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman when I saw it in my favourite charity bookshop.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is set over the course of one afternoon in Rome in 1943. Margherita is 19 years old, pregnant and alone as her husband is serving in the German army in Tunisia. She feels alien in a city where she doesn’t speak the language, and she is walking to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church.

“the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like

a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, facades, ruins and street corners, of endless number of pilgrimage sites for cultured visitors, which she walked past in ignorance, and of the faces of people in the streets, which were difficult to make out, in these stormy times of a far-off war which was drawing nearer every day”

And now, bear with me as I break something to you which you may have gathered from the quote above, which sounds awful but I promise it isn’t: the entire novella is one sentence. Wait, come back! It’s ok, really. Trust me 😉

There are paragraphs which make the whole thing easier, and Delius, possibly because he is a poet, has a great ear for rhythm. This means the sentence, broken by commas, works well in capturing the sense of someone walking, their thoughts falling into the pattern of their steps. I thought it was really effective and such an impressive feat of translation by Jamie Bulloch too.

“for two months she had crossed the Tiber almost every day via the Ponte Margherita, as if that were totally normal, but nothing was totally normal, especially not in these times, each day was a gift, each of the child’s movements in her belly a gift, each verse from the Bible and each glance across the Tiber”

Throughout her journey across the city, we learn about Margherita’s life in Germany and her new marriage. She is religious – daughter of and wife to clergymen – but not given to much reflection, preferring to stay silent in political discussions. Her husband and father are somewhat sceptical of the Reich, but Hitler has been in power throughout Margherita’s childhood and adolescence, she was part of the League of German Girls and it is only now, away from home, that she finds herself beginning to feel confused.

“On her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think, and how to cope with her ambivalent feelings”

Even though nothing of great note happens in the course of the novel, there is still an effective and believable character arc. Cut adrift, Margherita is beginning to learn who she is. There is a sense that this naïve, unquestioning woman is potentially quite steely, and as readers we know she will need that in the months and years to come.

 “She sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and her faith, because feelings were forbidden in wartime, you were not allowed to rejoice with happiness, you had to swallow your sadness, and like a soldier you were forced to conceal the language of the heart”