Novella a Day in May 2022 No.29

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles – Giorgio Bassani (1958 trans. Jamie McKendrick 2012) 125 pages

I’ve been meaning to read Giorgio Bassani for a while and have The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the TBR. This project in May seemed the ideal opportunity to read the first of his novels set in Ferrara, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. From this first encounter I can say I found Bassani to be a truly devastating writer.

The titular eyewear belongs to Dr Athos Fadigati, who has left Venice to settle in Ferrara. His story is told by a narrator looking back to when he was a young man and knew the doctor:

“It was in 1919, just after the other war. Because of my age, I who write this can only offer a rather vague and confused picture of that period. The town centre caffes spilt over with officers in uniform; lorries bedecked with flags continually passed by […] in front of the north face of the castle, a huge, scarlet advertising banner had been unfurled, inviting the friends and enemies of Socialism to come together to drink APERITIF LENIN”

The doctor is well-liked in the town, affable and competent at his work, a breath of fresh air after the old-fashioned medics previously available. In a small town though, people take an interest in everyone’s business, and no-one can work out why Dr Fadigati is single, or where he goes of an evening. When they realise he is gay, no-one cares so long as he is discreet. An insidious homophobia that can easily become explicit and threatening.  

“Yes – they said – now that his secret was no longer a secret, now that everything was as clear as could be, at least one could be sure how to behave towards him. By day, in the light of the sun, to show him every respect; in the evening, even if pressed chest to chest against him in the throng of Via San Romano, to show no sign of recognising him.”

Dr Fadigati starts commuting to Bologna along with the young university students of the town. He is such a sweet, kind man, who only wants to connect with others.

“He was happy, in the end, with the least thing, or so it seemed. He wanted no more than to stay there, in our third-class compartment, with the air of an old man silently warming his hands in front of a big fire.”

Unfortunately, the students – who have known him and been cared for by him their whole lives – do not always behave well: “little by little, without meaning to, all of us began to show him scant respect”. This includes a humiliating exchange with one of the young men, Deliliers, who doesn’t respect the doctor’s privacy and alludes to his sexuality in derogatory ways.

Things escalate during the annual family holiday to Riccione. The narrator sees the doctor and Deliliers together, and the town can no longer ignore the doctor’s sexuality. Around the same time, the narrator faces increasing antisemitism, demonstrated by fellow holiday-maker Signora Lavezzoli’s support of Hitler. The family find themselves treading a similar tightrope to the one Dr Fadigati has had to navigate, trying to stay safe amongst a discriminatory and prejudiced society.

“Romantic, patriotic, politically naive and inexperienced like so many Jews of his generation, my father, returning from the Front in 1919, had also enrolled in the Fascist Party. He had thus been a Fascist ‘from the very beginning’, and at heart had remained one despite his meekness and honesty. But since Mussolini, after the early scuffles, had begun to reach an agreement with Hitler, my father had started to feel uneasy.”

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles makes full use of the reader’s knowledge of history. It is a deeply upsetting read, showing how quickly unspoken prejudice can escalate and be supported by wider political and legal frameworks. It demonstrates how easy it is for ordinary people to become part of widespread evil – one of the narrator’s friends decides to join the government, not through any ideological belief but because it is a useful opportunity. The ease with which it happens and the casual acceptance of the racial laws, is horribly believable.

Bassani uses the story of Dr Fadigati to fully drive home the consequences of the rise of Fascism and Nazism. It’s remarkable in portraying the tragedy that ensues in a deeply emotional but also carefully restrained way.

“The setting sun, cleaving through a dark cope of cloud that lay low on the horizon, vividly lit up everything: the Jewish cemetery at my feet the apse and bell tower of the Church of San Cristoforo only a little further on, and in the background high above the vista of brown roofs, the distant bulk of the Estense Castle and the Duomo. It was enough for me to recover the ancient, maternal visage of my hometown, to reclaim it once again all for myself, that atrocious feeling of exclusion that had tormented me in the last days to fall away instantly. The future of persecution and massacres that perhaps awaited us – since childhood I had heard them spoken of as always a possible eventuality for us Jews – no longer made me afraid.”

I’m so glad I finally picked up Bassani and I’ll be returning to him for sure. Just as soon as I’ve recovered from this novella, which could take some time…

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.28

Thérèse Desqueyroux – François Mauriac (1927, trans. Gerard Hopkins 1972) 115 pages

Today’s choice sees me return to my much-neglected Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century reading challenge with a classic of French literature.

The novella opens with Thérèse Desqueyroux being acquitted of trying to poison her husband.

“The smell of fog and of baking bread was not merely the ordinary evening smell of an insignificant country town, it was the sweet savour of life given back to her at long last. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the perfume of the sleeping earth, of wet, green grass. She tried not to listen to the little man with the short legs who never once addressed his daughter.”

As she journeys back to her home among pine forests in Landes in south-west France, she reflects on her marriage to Bernard and life so far.

“All around us was the silence: the silence of Argelouse! People who have never lived in that lost corner of the heath-country can have no idea what silence means. It stands like a wall about the house, and the house itself seems as though it was set solid in the dense mass of the forest, whence comes no sign of life, save occasionally the hooting of an owl. (At night I could almost believe that I heard the sob I was at such pains to stifle.)”

There is never any doubt that she tried to poison him. Her family know it and Bernard knows it. However, there is never an obvious reason given for her drastic action. It was an unhappy marriage, a strategic match between Catholic middle-class families, but Thérèse seems to have gone along with it happily enough, mainly due to her fondness for Bernard’s sister Anne (some commentators have suggested Thérèse is gay). She doesn’t love Bernard and she feels no desire for him, but surely history would be littered with bumped-off spouses if that were a reason for murder.

“When all was said, Bernard wasn’t so bad. There was nothing she detested more in novels than the delineation of extraordinary people who had no resemblance to anyone whom one met in normal life.”

When she returns to her husband, she is surprised to learn that the plan is for her to stay, but on what terms?

Thérèse Desqueyroux is a beautifully written, intriguing novel that raises questions without seeking trite answers, including who pays the price for male power; how to create agency when you have almost no choices; the nature of justice.

‘But if I did give you a reason it would seem untrue the moment I got it into words…’

As the cover of the Penguin Classics edition shows, this novella was adapted to film (for the second time) in 2012. This trailer suggests a wonderfully shot, faithful adaptation:

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.25

Freetown – Otto de Kat (2018, trans. Laura Watkinson 2020) 142 pages

At first I thought Freetown by Otto de Kat was going to be a very different novella, and I wasn’t sure about it. It opens with Maria talking to ex-lover Vincent about the disappearance of Ishmaël, a refugee from Sierra Leone who delivered her papers and subsequently became like a son to her.

This beginning made me think the novella was likely to be description of the search for Ishmaël and an exploration of his life. I wasn’t sure that such a story could be adequately told in such a short form. But instead, Ishmaël’s disappearance serves as the motivator for Maria and Vincent to reconsider their shared history.

Maria approaches Vincent as a confidant partly because of their previous intimacy, partly because of his work as a psychotherapist. The chapters are labelled with the two characters names and each serves as silent interlocutor to the other. Maria explains how Ishmaël came into her life:

“The conversation didn’t exactly flow, not that first time. He just nodded and gave me a hint of a smile. All that rain made it look more like crying. I gave him 10 euros, and thanked him for delivering our newspaper ….

I told him to come back if he was ever out of work. And that maybe I could help him. I’ve often wondered why I said that.”

When Vincent takes over the narrative we realise he is still very attached to Maria, and that he’s not really got over their separation:

“That is why I kept going. I am hoping they will find something new, go and do something else. I never managed that myself. I just ended up in a vague fog. I live by touch, doing everything by half measures in a state of semi consciousness.”

As the story progresses we learn more about Vincent and Maria’s relationships, with each other and with their spouses. Ishmaël however, remains elusive. Although at the beginning of the story Maria proclaims him family, we don’t really get to know him and it is questionable how much Maria did:

“All the time I knew him, he was always waiting… Always ready to go, to keep on running. That too.”

This doesn’t mean her grief is any less though, and there is a sense of grieving throughout Freetown. Both Vincent and Maria seem to carry a lot of sadness for times past. Ultimately, they seem to be telling one another stories of loss.

The theme is emphasised through what is missing from the narrative. Ishmaël initially seems to be established as the central character, but remains an absent presence throughout. Maria and Vincent rarely speak within one another’s narratives despite being spoken to.

“He’s been gone a year now, and I simply cannot explain who he really was. But whenever I attempt to characterise him, I just end up saying something about myself.”

Freetown is about the stories we tell ourselves, our need for personal narratives and how we constantly reconstruct these. It shows how we try and make sense of the world when it doesn’t always make sense, and how unknowable even the closest people in our lives can be.

It also suggests that despite these limitations we keep on trying, because human connection – however fleeting and flawed – is worth it even with the pain of its loss.

“He nearly always succeeded in telling me a story I understood.”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.22

Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante (1992 trans. Anne Goldstein 2006) 139 pages

Although the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet baffled me a bit, I had better luck with her stand-alone novella The Lost Daughter.  This meant I was keen to try Troubling Love, and having finished it I did think that maybe I should give the quartet another try…

Delia’s mother Amalia has died in odd circumstances – drowned, found wearing only her bra, a glamourous one that Delia thinks it out of keeping with her mother’s style. As she returns home to Naples from Rome for the funeral, Delia finds herself reflecting on her past and trying to piece together what happened with her mother, both then and more recently.

“The streets of topographic memory seemed to me unstable, like a carbonated drink that, if shaken, bubbles up and overflows. I felt the city coming apart in the heat, in the dusty grey light, and I went over in my mind the story of childhood and adolescence that impelled me to wander along the Veterinaria to the Botanic Gardens, or over the cobbles of the market of Sant’Antonio Abate, which were always damp and strewn with rotting vegetables.”

Delia reflects on her childhood and her abusive father, who possessively and violently guarded his attractive wife. Delia’s memories of her painful home life are conflicted and contradictory. She despises her father but also harbours a lot of anger and resentment towards her mother.

“We, on the other hand, thought that our father, because of everything he did to her, should leave the house one morning and be burned to death or crushed or drowned. We thought it and hated her, because she was the linchpin of these thoughts.”

The past and present become overlaid as Delia visits her (still violent) father and meets a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in years. She chases a man through the streets thinking he has the answers as to what her mother was doing before she died. As she explores further, memory and identity become confused and less clearly delineated.

“Sometimes that place, which belonged to a less reliable memory, consisted of a dimly lighted staircase and a wrought-iron banister. At other times it was a patch of light striped by bars and covered by a fine screen, which I observed crouching underground, in the company of a child named Antonio, who held me tightly by the hand. The sounds that accompanied it, like the soundtrack of a film, were pure commotion, sudden banging, as of things formerly in order that abruptly collapse.”

Troubling Love isn’t so much a mystery story as an exploration of grief, memory, identity, and the slippery nature of all of these things. It doesn’t offer easy answers. It looks at how so much of this is bound up with family, and how this can be difficult to reconcile.

“Childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the past tense: at least, mine was like that.”

Troubling Love was adapted to film in 1995. I’ve not seen it, but the trailer looks faithful:

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.20

Sphinx – Anne Garréta (2015, trans.Emma Ramadan 2015) 121 pages

Sphinx is a novella which details a young protagonist falling in love with A***. Anne Garréta is a member of the OuLiPo and the particular constraint that she writes to in Sphinx is for both for lover and beloved to be genderless.

The narrator is taken to a club on Place Pigalle where they immediately fall for the charms of the dancer A***. Garréta evokes a seedy and glamorous nightlife that is both enticing and repellent:

“The wheezing of the ceiling fan, the rumble from the nearby stage, the sight of the red velvet sofa covered in holes, burned through buy cigarettes, and the feeling of exile between blue walls defiled with the imprints of dirty hands, brought me all the closer to that single, splenetic feeling so difficult to define: melancholia. I relished it to the point of drunkenness.”

Sphinx is a love story which I felt engages the mind rather than the emotions of the reader. This is because the narrator – although currently working as a DJ – is an academic and seems to approach documenting affairs of the heart in the same way as they would writing a research paper.

“I can’t define A*** as being anything other than both frivolous and serious, residing in the subtle dimension of presence without insistence.”

This includes some overblown, tortured sentences at times:

“Is there anything more vertiginous than gustative reminiscence?”

In her fascinating translators note at the end of the novella, Emma Ramadan explains how the constraints around gender (which is much more demanding for a French writer than an English-language writer) means that this tone needs to be adopted, and then:

“It becomes part of the narrator’s identity – he or she is a rather pretentious bourgeois(e) scholar who does not shy away from praising his or her own intelligence”

So although not overt, there is a thread of humour running through Sphinx, whereby we are not supposed to take the narrator nearly as seriously as they take themselves. And it is a novella that is definitely all about the narrator, not about A***. While limiting the characterisation of A*** serves the constraints around which Sphinx is written, it also succeeds in capturing the self-obsession that can be projected onto a supposed loved one.

“Perhaps I had only ever delighted in my own suffering, which I considered the purification of passions that, deep down I judged as absurd.”

Although Sphinx made me think more than it made me feel, and generally I hope for a reading experience that does both, I did find myself drawn into the narrator’s story, in spite of their distancing voice. I also thought the night-time scene was captured beautifully.

“I was about to turn 23, and for the three years the night crowd had passed before my eyes, I had seen reputations be made and dismantled. I had seen temporary passions transport places and individuals to the apex, and then, burning what they had once adored, those notorious night owls who make up the club scene would abandon them for no apparent reason for other idols destined for glory just as brief.”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.14

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill – Dimitri Verhulst (2006 trans. David Colmer 2009) 145 pages

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill has been on my radar since Kate’s review four years ago – I’m slow but I get there in the end, hopefully 😉

It’s a fable, but a recognisably real one. The titular beauty lives with her husband “in a house that could have been lifted from a biscuit tin” on top of a hill on the outskirts of the remote town of Oucwègne, where there has only been one female baby in recent generations.

When her husband dies, the townsfolk – including the vet who doubles as the town doctor, the man who pays his local shop tab in full after decades, overseen by a cow who is mayor – expect Madame Verona to leave. Instead she stays, mourning her husband, waiting out her time and growing old with her memories.

“the trees had their rings; Madame Verona did not begrudge her skin its wrinkles, the signature of all her days.”

Until one snowy day, she burns the last of the logs her husband cut for her and descends the hill into the town, knowing she will not have the strength to return.

“She is counting on strength of will to die today”

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill has its share of whimsy but it also has a spikiness to it and it isn’t remotely sentimental. It’s about the different ways we live alongside grief, and how a life with a lot of sadness does not mean a life of misery.

“The one characteristic element with which she would summarise her eighty-two years of existence was that dogs had always sought out her company.”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.13

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (1997, trans. Martin Aitken, 2018) 136 pages

It’s been six years since I read Hanne Ørstavik’s powerful novella The Blue Room and I had high expectations when I picked up Love from one of my favourite publishers AndOtherStories.

Like The Blue Room, Love features a dysfunctional parent/child relationship, although not one as determinedly destructive as Johanne and her mother in The Blue Room. Whereas that was suffocating and controlling, Jon and his mother Vibeke are almost at the opposite extreme with a child at risk of neglect.

I don’t have kids but I would say that having your eight year-old son roam the snowy streets in northern Norway alone in the depths of the night with no gloves on, while you prevaricate over whether to sleep with a man who picked you up at a funfair, is probably not the best parenting style…

Jon is waiting for his mother Vibeke to return from work. Tomorrow is his birthday and he believes she is going to bake him a cake.

“And then she comes, and he recognises the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself.”

Although in the same house and having dinner together, they’re not overly communicative. Vibeke has a shower and makes herself look good should she bump into her attractive work colleague in town. Jon leaves the house, returns again, then leaves again, with Vibeke only vaguely conscious of his whereabouts.

The town is far north and it has been snowing. Jon wanders the dark streets:

“Sounds become weightless in the cold. Everything does. As if he were a bubble of air himself, ready at any moment to float into the sky and vanish into the firmament.”

Meanwhile Vibeke has found the library closed, so she wanders round the newly arrived fairground. An attractive fairground worker picks her up and takes her back to his caravan.

“She feels like they share something now. It feels like pushing a boat from the shore, the moment the boat comes free of the sand and floats, floats on the water.”

We know Vibeke had Jon when she was young and that it has been the two of them for a while. However, Vibeke seems pretty oblivious not only to the safety of her son but to the feelings and motivations of other people. Despite being attracted to one another, the situation between Vibeke and the man never really takes off. She keeps holding back because she thinks that talking too much has hampered previous relationships.

“My mistake is to think too much when I talk, it slows everything down, repartee just isn’t there for me.”

However, there comes a point where you do actually have to communicate in some way. When they go to a bar and he chats to the barmaid, then disappears back inside leaving Vibeke in the car outside, she thinks:

“Maybe he’s working on keeping a hold on himself, and the control he thereby achieves is something he needs to cling to.”

Um, no. He’s just lost interest and moved onto the next pretty and more available girl.

Meanwhile Jon has spent some time with a schoolfriend (whose parents are happy to have him leave and wander back home alone at midnight) and ends up getting into a stranger’s car, which at least offsets hypothermia for a while.

Although remarkably self-possessed and bright, Jon is clearly suffering from his mother’s lack of care. He is trying to stop himself blinking and people comment it.

“He wishes no one noticed and that what was wrong with him was under his clothes or inside him.”

Throughout, he clings to the idea that Vibeke is at home baking him a birthday cake which I found completely heart-breaking.

The narrative of Love alternates between Vibeke and Jon almost paragraph by paragraph. This isn’t nearly as confusing as it sounds, it works well as the two of them have evenings that echo and reflect each other in surprising ways. They also both put themselves in risky situations and the story is tense and very believable. It’s a novella that creeps under your skin and stays there.

“She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes and a warm nightdress on.” 

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.12

Sweet Days of Discipline – Fleur Jaeggy (1989, trans. Tim Parks, 1991) 101 pages

Sweet Days of Discipline is told in a straightforward, clear style, as is evident from its opening line:

“At fourteen I was a boarder at a school in the Appenzell.”

The narrator is a loner at her 1950’s boarding school, full of the confusing, contradictory desires of someone on the brink of adulthood.

“I ate an apple and walked. I was looking for solitude, and perhaps the absolute. But I envied the world.”

She has to sleep in the part of the school for younger girls as there isn’t room for her. Her mother is in Brazil, her father is disinterested. She gets up at 5am every day to take long solitary walks. Then Frédérique, a banker’s daughter, arrives into this isolated and lonely life. Frédérique has a remote, unknowable quality. She is a nihilist and the narrator vows to dominate her: 

“I still thought that to get something you had to go straight for your goal, whereas it’s only distractions, uncertainty, distance that bring us closer to our targets, and then it is the target that strikes us.”

The story isn’t overtly sexual and the sado-masochism is burgeoning, implicit rather than explicit. The narrator is scarcely aware of the sexual drives that surround her “passione” for Frédérique. It’s a psychologically complex and unarticulated morass of feeling, and it stays that way as she looks back from adulthood.

“Even now, I can’t bring myself to say I was in love with Frédérique, it’s such an easy thing to say.”

Frédérique remains mysterious and unknowable. She has a quality which sets her apart from her peers, which is both compelling and disturbing.

“She already knew everything, from the generations that came before her. She had something the others didn’t have; all I could do was justify her talent as a gift passed on from the dead.”

Although the narrator is looking back, Sweet Days of Discipline is not remotely sentimental. It has a brittle clarity which means that although very little happens, reading it is an immersive experience.

“And perhaps they were the best years, I thought. Those years of discipline. There was a kind of elation, faint but constant throughout all those years of discipline, the sweet days of discipline.”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.9

The Bathroom – Jean-Philippe Toussaint (1985, trans. Nancy Amphoux & Paul De Angelis 1990) 102 pages

A young man decides he’s going to stay in his bathtub. Thankfully, his long-suffering girlfriend Edmondsson is happy to fund this indolent lifestyle. He leaves on occasion to talk to his decorators (who aren’t decorating as Edmondsson is vacillating between white and beige paint) and sit in the kitchen. Otherwise, he’s back in the bath:

“A friend of my parents was passing through Paris and came to see me. From him I learned it was raining. Stretching out an arm toward the washbasin, I suggested he take a towel […] I didn’t know what he wanted from me. When the silence had begun to seem permanent, he began to tell me about his latest professional activities, explaining that the difficulties he had to contend with were insurmountable since they were linked to incompatibilities of temperament among persons at the same hierarchical level.”

The novella is in three sections, each paragraph numbered. This unusual structure isn’t as irritating as it should be. It somehow emphasises the banality of his existence without becoming banal itself.

In the middle section, the narrator heads to Venice. In this beautiful and historic city, he mainly stays in his hotel room, taking up darts:

“When I played darts I was calm and relaxed. Little by little, emptiness would creep over me and I would steep myself in it”

We’ve seen that he can be socially awkward, guiding people into the toilet when showing them round the flat, mildly insulting the previous tenants, but later in the novella it seems this behaviour could be deliberate:

“I left the hotel and, in the street, asked a running man the way to the Post Office. I’ve always enjoyed asking people in a hurry for information.”

In the third section he heads back to Paris although I lived in hope Edmondsson was finally sick of him.

Apparently Touissaint is a fan of Beckett and The Bathroom definitely has the feel of Beckett: nihilistic, unreal verging on surreal, contained environments, experimental forms. It echoes itself and takes the reader in disorienting circles.

“Immobility is not absence of movement but absence of any prospect of movement.”

Not a novel for when you want a ripping yarn, but an interesting quick read.

“I would ask her to console me. Softly, she would ask, Console you for what? Console me, I would say”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.3

Maigret Mystified – Georges Simenon (1932, trans. Jean Stewart 1964) 139 pages

This is the first Maigret I’ve read, despite Simenon being such a prolific writer and despite my love of golden age detective fiction. I picked it up in a pleasingly battered old green Penguin edition and I enjoyed it greatly. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I accompany the insightful French detective in his ruminations 😊

This may well be the shortest post I ever write, given that it’s about a novella and a mystery, so I want to avoid spoilers!

Maigret is called to the scene of a murder in an office of a pharmaceutical company, Doctor Rivière’s Serums. Monsieur Couchet, the owner, has been shot dead. The mystifying element is that he was also robbed of 360,000 francs, but his chair was jammed against the safe. So did he face his murderous thief? Or did he not know of the theft? Did the same person carry out both crimes?

As the office is adjacent to a block of flats, Maigret must interview possible witnesses from the various homes in Place des Vosges.

Image from Wiki Commons

There is the concierge who called the police; Madame Martin who seems to torture her husbands with their failure to live up to her expectations (the first of whom was the murdered man, their son now self-medicates with ether and lives close by); Mathilde who eavesdrops on everyone; new parents the de Sant-Marcs…

There are also the lovers of the victim to contend with: his second wife and his girlfriend Nine, a cabaret dancer, the portrayal of whom is pleasingly non-judgemental.

I suspect this isn’t the greatest Maigret offering, but it is a quick, entertaining and atmospheric read. I also found it a welcome antidote to the overly convoluted plot lines of many contemporary detective dramas – much as I enjoy those, it was a nice change to just see Maigret get on with it, in no time at all.

“ ‘You old rascal, Couchet!’

The words had sprung to his lips as if Couchet had been an old friend. And he felt this impression so strongly that he could not realise he had only seen him dead.”

A previous English title used for this mystery was The Shadow in the Courtyard, which to me is a much better. After all, at 139 pages, Maigret isn’t mystified for long…

“It was ten o’clock at night. The iron gates of the garden were shut, the Place des Vosges deserted, with gleaming car tracks on the asphalt and the unbroken murmur of the fountains, the leafless trees and the monotonous outline of identical roofs silhouetted against the sky.”

To end, this year sees a cinematic outing for Maigret: