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.”
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”
After a somewhat harrowing start to my WITMonth reading, this week I have two novels from Pushkin Press which I found much easier-going. That’s not to say they are the lightest of reads though, as they deal with serious themes: trying to carve a space as a female artist in a patriarchal society, and bereavement.
Firstly, Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2018, trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2019). Set in the 1960s, Hekla is young woman named after a volcano, who leaves her remote town to move to Reykjavík in the hope of realising her dream of becoming a writer.
The story begins with her coach journey to the city as she attempts to read Ulysses in its original language (quite an undertaking even when it’s written in your first language):
“How many pages would it take to overtake the tractor if James Joyce were a passenger on the road to Reykjavík?”
This witty and serious woman also has to fend off the attentions of an older man who says he can get a place in the Miss Iceland contest:
“We’re looking for unattached maidens, sublimely endowed with both clean-limbedness and comeliness”
Bleugh. Hekla is not remotely interested. She goes to stay with her schoolfriend Ísey who is married and has started a family, a situation about which she seems conflicted:
“I didn’t know it would be so wonderful to be a mother. Having a baby has been the best experience of my life. I’m so happy. There’s nothing missing in my life. Your letters have kept me alive. I’m so lonely. Sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible mother.”
Ísey wanted to write too and her sections have a lovely phrasing and style. There’s no doubt she has talent but her choices have been made and at this moment in time they preclude writing. Hekla is much more single-minded, but she may struggle to get her voice heard as much as Ísey, because their society does not favour independent-minded female writers.
To pay the bills Hekla takes a job as a waitress at the Hotel Borg. The more experienced staff tell her tales of female staff getting fired because of the attention of male customers, and which stores have backdoor exits she can use to escape if she is followed.
Ólafsdóttir effectively demonstrates how the patriarchy supresses men too. Hekla’s best friend is Jón John, who is gay and sees his prospects for a happy life as being fairly hopeless. He is used by men for sex before they return home to their wives, and while he wants to be a costume designer the lack of opportunity means he fishes on trawlers:
“The most handsome boy in Dalir told me he that he loved boys.
We kept each other’s secrets.
We were equals.”
Miss Iceland isn’t a bleak tale because Hekla is so resilient, and I’ve probably made it sound much sadder than it is. Jón John is a very forlorn character who really moved me, but Hekla is pragmatic to the point of detachment. She is entirely honest with her boyfriend, failed poet Starkadur (a reference to Cold Comfort Farm?) that her interest in him is purely physical. In this way she reminded me of another fictional artist, Margery Sharp’s Martha.
Despite Miss Iceland being told from Hekla’s point of view, in some ways I finished it in a similar position to Starkadur, feeling quite distant from her as a character. Ísey and Jón John are much more engaging. However, I think that is clever writing on the part of Ólafsdóttir rather than a flaw in the novel. Hekla is a writer, she has that slight detachment when she is with people of only wanting to get back to her typewriter.
“In my dream world the most important things would be: a sheet of paper, fountain pen and a male body. When we’ve finished making love, he’s welcome to ask if he can refill the fountain pen with ink for me.”
Miss Iceland ends with a two major pragmatic decisions about how to navigate a society which will not allow free expression of who you are. It’s not optimistic but nor is it defeatist. It is frustrating though, which I think was exactly the point.
Secondly, Learning to Talk to Plants by Catalan writer Marta Orriols (2018, trans. Mara Faye Lethem 2020). I spend a lot of my working life talking about and dealing with grief, and I thought this was an excellent exploration of one woman’s first year grieving for her partner.
Paula Cid is a neonatologist who loves her job. Her partner Mauro has been killed in road traffic collision.
“I often think and speak of Mauro using the adverbs before and after, to avoid past tense.”
What no-one knows is that Paula and Mauro had been going through a tough time in their relationship, and the day he died he had told her he was leaving her for a younger woman.
“You liked to buy me shoes. I never told you but I wasn’t crazy about the ones you chose for me….They were shoes for a woman who didn’t have my feet, or my style that wasn’t really a style. They were shoes for a woman who wasn’t me.”
Paula was such a well-realised character, I really liked her and I really liked the fact that she didn’t always behave well, even though she was a fundamentally decent person. She throws herself into her work, which is not entirely commendable despite how vital her work is. She is a bit of a pain to her colleagues. She is not always easy with her father and her friends. She resents any suggestion that her grief is similar to anyone else’s:
“My pain is mine and the only possible unit for measuring or calibrating it is the intimacy of everything that compromised the how. How I loved him, how he loved me. How we were, uniquely, no longer us and, therefore, how I could uniquely grieve him.”
Reasonable, I think.
What I also liked is how Learning to Talk to Plants didn’t skirt round the issue of sex. Paula is in early middle-age, she is not ready to renounce her sex life, even though society thinks it an unseemly way for a grieving woman to behave:
“Pleasure that appears just four weeks after losing your partner forever feels too bold”
However, Learning to Talk to Plants is not about Paula’s relationship with men, or even with Mauro. It is about her relationship with herself, about taking the time to nuture herself, and rediscovering hope, however abstract:
“You said talking to plants was a private, transformative act, an act of faith for those who don’t believe in miracles. I get up, take a breath, and add to my list: Learn to talk to plants.”
Learning to Talk to Plants skilfully avoids cliché, mawkishness or sentimentality. I did feel sorry for those plants though…
To end, one of the younger members of my family has been channelling Axl Rose in her attire this week, despite having no idea who he is (probably for the best). Here is the Postmodern Jukebox version of Sweet Child O’Mine:
Hello bookish blogosphere! I’ve been away for what feels like a long time. June and July were a big pile of pants and I needed a step back from things. I want to say thank you to the lovely bloggers who contacted me to ask if I was OK, when I really wasn’t. Your kindness genuinely meant a lot.
I’ve only just started reading again after about six long weeks of being unable to digest a single written word. Some very strange things have happened to my reading; I couldn’t deal with fiction for a while so I finally got round to reading some of the biographies that have languished in my TBR for aeons. Then having got back to fiction I’ve started with a subject about as far from my usual fare as its possible to be: serial killers. Except neither novel is really about serial killers…
Firstly, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2017). This made quite a splash when it came out and I remember large, eye-catching posters on the tube, back when commuting was a thing. It’s a quick read and it was that reason that made me pick up this debut, thinking it was a good way to try and get back into reading.
My logic worked well, and I whizzed through this tale of a murderous sibling, narrated by Korede, a young successful nurse whose talent for cleaning comes in handy when helping her sister Ayoola cover up her deeds.
The novel starts in media res as Ayoola contacts Korede to ask for help having killed her third boyfriend in self-defence. Ayoola is completely oblivious to the seriousness of her crimes and seems to feel no remorse. Although Korede loyally helps her, she is beginning to have doubts as to the nature of Ayoola’s self-defence.
“ ‘Do you not realise the gravity of what you have done? Are you enjoying this?’ I grab a tissue and hand it to her, then take some for myself.
Her eyes go dark and she begins to twirl her dreadlocks.
‘These days you look at me like I’m a monster.’ Her voice is so low, I can barely hear her.
‘I don’t think you’re – ‘
‘This is victim shaming you know.’”
The novel isn’t graphic and the details of the killings are not dwelt on – thankfully, if you’re as squeamish as me. Instead what Braithwaite explores is a complex relationship between sisters and the impact of patriarchal systems on young women. It’s set in Nigeria but the themes certainly resonated with me as a UK reader.
Korede and Ayoola grew up with a violent father and it his weapon that Ayoola uses:
“ ‘The knife is important to me Korede. It is all I have left of him.’
Perhaps if it were someone else at the receiving end of this show of sentimentality, her words would hold some weight. But she cannot fool me.”
No-one questions Ayoola because she is beautiful, no-one pays attention to Korede because she is average looking. Both women suffer under a society that commodifies women, even though Korede is successful in her career as a nurse and Ayoola is a talented clothes designer.
A doctor where Korede works, Tade, seems to be decent but even he follows the predictable path of not noticing what Korede can offer and falling for Ayoola’s looks, projecting his fantasies onto her.
“ ‘She is beautiful and perfect. I never wanted to be with someone this much.’
I rub my forehead with my fingers. He fails to point out the fact that she laughs at the silliest things and never holds a grudge. He doesn’t mention how quick she is to cheat at games or that she can hemstitch a skirt without looking at her fingers. He doesn’t know her best features or her…darkest secrets. And he doesn’t seem to care.”
Ayoola dating Tade adds tension to the narrative – will she try to kill him? Will Korede try to save the man she has feelings for? Who will succeed?
Sometimes satire can leave a bitter taste, but MSTSK avoids this with it’s dry humour and lack of preachiness. It doesn’t attempt crass psychology as to why both women are as they are, it simply presents their lives and upbringing and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. This light touch means it raises serious issues about contemporary society without losing sight of characters or plot. An impressive debut.
Secondly, Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu (2008, trans. Marina Sofia 2020) which was sent to me by the lovely Marina Sofia who blogs over at Finding Time to Write. She has translated this novel under Corylus Books, the publishing house which she has founded with three others.
MSTSK used a serial killer to satirise patriarchal systems, and Sword uses it in a similar way to satirise political systems. Set in Romania, it forms another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit who sadly don’t seem to be blogging any more.
Someone is killing Roma people in Bucharest using the titular weapon. There is no apparent motive – except presumably a racist one – and the murders have a competence to them which means the police investigation has very little to go on. This isn’t a police procedural though, and very little of the story is given over to the murders themselves (again, thankfully…) aside from the first. Instead Teodorescu uses the murders to explore the power systems in place in Romania and how this exposes the weaknesses and motivations of those within.
If that sounds dry, it really isn’t. The story whips along and the portrayals of power players feel authentic (Teodorescu is a political analyst). Early on, the petty concerns of Istrate, Head of Comms and Press Relations at the Presidential Office, demonstrate the disregard that the deaths receive. He only likes the social side and travel associated with his job, and the President hates him and so has set up another press office.
“He was briefly tempted to write a report complaining about the lack of professionalism in his team. Instead of getting reports about major problems, the international situation, global crises that could destabilise the Balkan region, an in-depth political analysis, he had to put up with silly homicide stories! He gave up reading the press summary, but resolved to complain about it the next time he met the President.”
The government is concerned, but only in trying to balance appealing to those who might welcome vigilante justice represented by Sword (as the press have nicknamed the killer) because he only kills criminals, and how it will look internationally that they haven’t caught him. The advice given to the Minister of the Interior suggests how to manage the situation in a pre-election year:
“A few heads rolling at all levels in the police force should demonstrate the government is taking things seriously. Admittedly, it also demonstrates how incompetent the police are, but no-one worries about that too much.”
Despite such machinations, the murders continue to rack up and tensions in the country between various groups escalate. The context of Romania finding its place in international capitalist systems after the fall of communism is evoked well but it doesn’t take much imagination – if any – to see parallels across different political systems. I felt this could just as easily be Westminster. There’s something depressingly universal about someone with integrity being forced aside for political expediency:
“ ‘It’s not anger. It’s profound sadness. Because you’ve proven to me yet again that it’s not good enough to be qualified, professional, well-intentioned and to work your socks off… it still won’t get you the respect you deserve.’”
Sword is incisive and uncompromising in its portrayal of corruption and the powerless victims of such systems, but its not depressing. Instead I found it a compelling read and I’d definitely be interested to read more by this author.
Writing this post was difficult as I’m so out of practice, but to end it’s business as usual with an obvious late twentieth century pop choice 😀
This is my second post for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, and I’m hoping its also a sign that my blogging slump is coming to an end – fingers crossed! This week I’ve chosen two books linked by the theme of travel.
Firstly, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007, trans. Jennifer Croft 2017) which won the International Man Booker Prize last year.
Flights is quite a hard book to review, as it’s aptly titled and resists being pinned down in any way. It’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, philosophical musing, travelogue, digression… yet this fragmentary style still holds together and works as a whole. The unity is found through the recurring themes of travel, movement, restless and flight; and also of the human body at its most visceral – the collection of bone, muscle, skin and blood that enables human locomotion.
“A thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.”
The fiction sections include a man whose wife and son disappear when they are on holiday in Croatia; the wife of an elderly professor who is taken ill on a cruise; a woman who leaves her young family to live on the streets… all in perpetual motion. There are also historical sections looking at the fate of Chopin’s heart; the first naming of the Achilles tendon; cadaver preservation techniques, among other bodily concerns. The focus on the organic reality of living stops Flights from becoming too flighty, grounding all the fragments in a corporeal existence.
The consistent voice also ties these different pieces together, the sense that we are being told these stories, historical fragments and observations by the same narrator, a female traveller. She sets the focus on travel as she describes the airports, planes, buses and terminals she finds herself waiting in, and her conversations with those who cross her path:
“She says that sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death. But nomads and merchants, as they set off on journeys, had to think up a different time for themselves, that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time was linear time.”
Flights is a book you can dip into or read in a linear fashion. I did the latter and I’m glad I did as I could pick up the echoes across the different narratives that give a sense of unity to the book and to the world it evokes. However, it could work just as well by reading a section and focussing closely on it, as Tokarczuk’s writing is so rich. She has described her style as one of constellations, and the reason behind this individual approach is noted in Flights:
“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth.”
Not a book for when you want a good meaty plot, but I still found it a compulsive read as well as a thought-provoking one.
I felt a bit conflicted when I started this: the story of a young slave girl told by a white South African was problematic for me. I looked on Goodreads and no-one else seemed to have this issue. Then I thought that at the time of writing, when black South African voices were so thoroughly suppressed, maybe writing this was a huge political statement.
(I once attended a debate about queer/transgender stories being staged. One side felt only those who identified as queer/trans should tell those stories. The other side felt it was fine for straight/cis artists to tell such stories so long as they did their research and the resulting art was sensitive. The wider issue is something I often come back to and think about, and something I’m still thinking through, as I did with this novella.)
The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is beautifully written and certainly a sensitive portrayal of a woman finding autonomy for the first time as she lives in the hollow of the titular tree on the southern African veld.
“I know the interior of my tree as a blind man knows his home, I know its flat surfaces and grooves and swellings and edges, its smell, its darknesses, its great crack of light […] I can say: this is mine. I can say: this is I. These are my footprints.”
The woman has ended up stranded in the veld as a doomed commercial expedition by her last owner has failed spectacularly. With no-one making demands on her for the first time, the woman is free to think and reflect:
“If I could write, I would take up a porcupine quill and scratch your enormous belly full from top to bottom. I would clamber up as far as your branches and carve notches in your armpits to make you laugh. Big letters. Small letters. In a script full of lobes and curls, in circumambient lines I write round and round you, for I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree.”
Like Flights, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is not a straight narrative. It moves back and forth in time, with no named places or persons, It has an almost hallucinatory quality – and the narrator may be hallucinating at times, given her exposure and lack of food – but this never detracts from the horrors she has experienced. There are times she was treated well, but she was also repeatedly assaulted, raped, and had all her children taken as babies. We are the witnesses to her experience, recounted poetically but unflinchingly.
“One time I fled from the tree. I ran aimlessly into the veld, trying to get out of its sight by hiding behind a high round rock, and I opened my mouth and I brought out a sound that must be the sound of a human being because I am a human being and not a wildebeest […] but a human being that talks and I brought out a sound and produced an accusation and hurled it up at the twilight air.”
This is a short, powerful read with a distinctive female narrator who demands to be heard.
To end, a tenuously-linked 80s video as usual 😉 Well, the title offers travel advice! I’ve chosen it especially for Kate as she’s seeing a-ha soon:
I really feel I’ve lost my blogging mojo over the last year. It started with the 2018 heatwave which killed off my reading for a few weeks; my reading recovered but my blogging never really did. I’m hoping Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) hosted by Meytal at Biblibio will help, but given we’re nearly halfway through, maybe not 😀 If any of you lovely bloggers have any tips on how to recover they would be gratefully received!
Anyway, here is what I hope will be the first of a few posts for WITMonth; starting with two novels loosely linked by themes of virginity, or lack thereof.
Sworn Virgin looks at the experience of Hana, who has taken on a mostly extinct northern Albanian Kanun tradition. The tradition is that a family without male heirs can nominate a female to become a sworn virgin; she will live as a man and fulfil male roles. Hana took on the role willingly to avoid a marriage she didn’t want.
“ ‘It’s not that hard to be a man, you know?’ she says. ‘I swore never to get married, it’s a tradition that exists only in the north of the country. Let me explain: when there are no boys in a family, one of the girls swears to behave like a man and to remain a man for the rest of her life. From that moment on, she has to play all the roles and take over the tasks of a man. That’s why I became the son my uncle never had. Uncle Gjergj was my father’s brother; he took me in and brought me up after my parents died.’”
At the start of the novel Hana is travelling to the US to live with her cousin Lila and begin the process of becoming Hana again. Lila is highly feminine and doesn’t quite understand that for Hana, who has been living as Mark for 15 years, the transition back is not straightforward.
“ ‘You need to take off these men’s clothes.’
‘There’s no hurry.’
‘The sooner you get rid of them the better.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘I thought that was the deal. That you were coming here to go back to what you were.’
‘Yes, but there’s no hurry.’”
Hana has to adjust to a new country as well as a new way of presenting herself to the world. Although a story of immigration, Sworn Virgin is also a story of homecoming – to oneself. Hana has to decide how her appearance will express who she is, but also look at her life and think about what she wants. She had loved books and wanted to go to college, but had to return home when her beloved uncle Gjergj was dying. When her studies became impossible and she was facing marriage she didn’t want, she chose to become Mark instead.
“She had men’s clothes and a flask of raki in her pocket, and these had been her mirrors. She had needed nothing else. Up there in the mountains, time and place had been equal partners.”
Although the sworn virgin tradition may be seem extraordinary to those of us unused to it, Dones has made a documentary about sworn virgins before she wrote this novel and to me it never felt sensationalist or exoticised. There is much in Hana’s story that is relatable. Sworn Virgin is about reconciling yourself to the past, and how it is never too late to make changes when you find you’ve outgrown certain decisions.
“Hana tries to bring her attention back to her body. The man she thought would still be tenaciously inhabiting her is no longer there. That man was only a carapace. Lila was right: Mark Doda’s life had been no more than the sum total of the masculine gestures Hana had forced herself to imitate, in the skin worn leathery by bad food and lack of attention. Mark Doda had been a product of her iron will.”
The focus on virginity is given a wider scope too. Hana’s virginity has become a burden to her, something to discard to help her move forward. Losing it is about Hana acknowledging herself as a sexual being with desires, and prioritising her own needs – both sexual and non-sexual – in a way she hasn’t been able to before. This is dealt with non-romantically but still sensitively.
Obviously there is a strong theme of gender roles in Sworn Virgin, but for me it was first and foremost a character study of Hana, and the many binaries she has to adjust to: home/new country, rural life/urban life, family/independence.
“She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyses their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that the thoughts are inextricably linked to male or female ego…She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.”
Secondly, from one extreme to the other. If there’s a character in literature not remotely associated with virginity, its probably Emma Bovary. Although I can’t stand Emma, I still picked up Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs (2014, trans. Alison Anderson 2017) with anticipation because I had really enjoyed The Library of Unrequited Love. This isn’t quite so sparky as her previous novel, but then I don’t think its supposed to be, given as its dealing with a pervasive sense of middle class ennui.
M.A. (geddit?) is born in the 1950s and dies around 2025. In between, she is bored.
“You could not voice your feelings of dissatisfaction, because – and images from all over the world came to remind you – everything had been programmed for you to be happy.”
As the quote above shows, the novel is written in the second person. Normally I would hate this technique, but here I thought it worked quite well. The reader is constantly being told ‘you’ are doing/feeling these things, but we’re not. Essentially we feel the same sense of disconnect as M.A. does to her comfortable middle class life, living in the titular area, in a house she owns with her husband Francois, raising their children.
“In those days it didn’t bother you, or not for very long, that you never had a break. Inventing a marinade, discussing your daughter’s progress, teasing your husband about his incompetence at household chores; you got the impression that at last you were enjoying a certain return on your investment, after so many years of movement, migration, studies, pregnancies.”
Of course, as we know, Madame Bovary found one way to alleviate her boredom, as does M.A. with the vacuous Phillipe. Inevitably the affair is doomed, but unlike Emma, M.A. carries on. In this way I actually found it more depressing than its namesake; Madame Bovary is quite melodramatic, whereas this novel suggests there are plenty of lives of quiet desperation being carried out across the land.
However, I don’t want to suggest this is a bleak read, it’s not. The things I enjoyed about The Library… are evident here: the light touch, the wry humour:
“The eldest among us aware of what awaits the newlyweds once everyone has left, once the tables have been cleared, the last goodbyes are said, and we find ourselves in front of a refrigerator.”
“Deep down no-one knows whether supreme happiness is attainable in one’s lifetime, physical pleasure remains one of its earthly traces, a trace we cling to, as long as we have the strength.”
To end, there’s an obvious 80s pop tune I could include on the theme of virginity, but for once I’m not going the obvious route 😊 I love the Pet Shop Boys and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to shoehorn them in so here they are singing about sinful urges:
This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.
Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.
He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.
“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”
Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.
He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.
He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:
“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”
The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.
And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:
“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”
It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.
I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.
To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:
The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry (2010, trans. Sian Reynolds 2013) 92 pages
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry is a monologue delivered by a librarian to a reader who she discovers has been locked in the library overnight, when she opens up in the morning. The librarian is middle-aged and frustrated about a plethora of things, including her job:
“Being a librarian isn’t an especially high-level job I can tell you. Pretty close to being in a factory. I’m a cultural assembly line worker.”
She is committed to librarianship however, and throughout the novella her love of books emerges, as does her appreciation of the Dewey decimal system:
“they didn’t just classify by author, they sometimes put books on the shelf by size, or date of acquisition. Now I think of it, the confusion it must have caused. Glad I didn’t live then, I couldn’t have put up with that kind of anarchy.”
The reader remains a silent interlocutor as the librarian spills out all her feelings. Although she claims she has given up on love, you get the sense this isn’t quite true:
“One of my favourite authors, you’ve already gathered that, is Guy de Maupassant. Now there’s a man for you. Just imagine, he wrote two hundred and ninety short stories and seven novels in ten years. And then on Sundays, he went rowing on the Seine. A real force of nature, eh? He must have had terrific biceps and been fantastically intelligent.”
There are also her unrequited feelings for a regular library reader:
“With that lovely neck of his. It would disappoint me if a man as clever as Martin were to be in love. But you have to be prepared for anything.”
The librarian is a funny and acerbic narrator:
“That’s another reason I don’t go travelling. Napoleon’s always been there first. I can’t stand it.”
She is slightly self-deceiving but she is also wise, sad, honest and above all, entertaining. I enjoyed my short time in her company, mostly because The Library of Unrequited Love is actually about a love that is always fulfilled, over and over: the love of books.
“Book and reader, if they meet up at the right moment in a person’s life, it can make sparks fly, set you alight, change your life.”
The Panda Theory – Pascal Garnier (2008, trans. Gallic Books 2012, 143 pages)
This is the first Pascal Garnier I’ve read, and while I’ve heard he can be a bit read-one-read-them-all, I enjoyed this quick, noir read.
Gabriel arrives in a Breton town and begins to get to know the locals, without revealing very much about himself or why he is there.
“a completely nondescript town…the sea was far away, its presence unimaginable. There was nothing picturesque here.”
Jose owns the local bar and is struggling while his wife Marie is in hospital. Gabriel can cook and so takes on this domestic duty while Jose flounders.
“With his elbows on the table, Jose hoovered up his meal. The tomato sauce ran from the corners of his mouth, to his chin and down his neck. Like an ogre.”
Gabriel wins the titular stuffed toy on the shooting range at the fair, and gives it to Jose for his children, but it stays in the bar, its impassive gaze surveying the customers, arms outstretched.
Gabriel attracts the interest of lonely, cat-obsessed Madeleine, and befriends lonely drug-addict Rita.
“ ‘I love you, Gabriel. It’s stupid but it’s true.’
The blind man turned a corner. The sound of his stick gradually faded away before disappearing completely. The town lay still, bathing in dreams in which everybody was a hero. He had to sleep. Sleep.
‘I’m going back to the hotel, Madeleine. It’s late.’
She’d never been as beautiful as she was then. Much more beautiful than her geranium.”
Gradually we learn about Gabriel’s family and why his wife and children are no longer with him. It also emerges why he is in the town and what his purpose is. The Panda Theory doesn’t hold any great surprises but it’s a well-paced, atmospheric tale that builds effectively to its conclusion. I would happily read more by Garnier, even if it is more of the same.
Narrated by Seit, the brother-in-law of the beautiful titular protagonist, Jamilia is reminiscent of The Go-Between, in that it is told from the point of view of the young observer of an older person’s love affair, from a time in his life when he is looking back on his past.
Set during the war, Jamilia’s husband is away fighting. An injured soldier, Daniyar, returns to the village where he was born:
“ ‘We are content and so are the spirits of our ancestors. And now, God willing, we’ll finish off the Germans and live in peace and Daniyar will raise a family like the rest of us, his own smoke will rise from the hearth.’
By invoking Daniyar’s ancestors they were saying he was one of us. And that is how a new kinsman appeared in our village.”
Daniyar, Seit and Jamilia travel regularly by cart to take the grain from the harvest to the train station. Aitmatov writes with economy yet is able to evoke a vivid scene with few words. He captures the land of Kyrgyzstan with true sensitivity and the land is an integral part of the story:
“Eager to reach home, the horses trotted briskly, the stones scraping beneath their feet. The cool wind brought with it the bitter pollen of flowering wormwood, and the faint aroma of ripening wheat. Mingling with the smell of tar and horse sweat, it all made us faintly dizzy.”
During the journeys back and forth, the quiet, unassuming Daniyar is teased by the vivacious Jamilia and Seit. Then Daniyar starts to sing, and everything changes:
“If only I could recreate his song. It contained few words, yet even without words it revealed a great human soul. I have never heard such singing before or since. The tune was like Kirgiz or Kazakh, yet in it was something of both. His music combined the very best melodies of the two related peoples and had woven them into a single, unrepeatable song. It was a song of the mountains and the steppe, first soaring into the sky like the Kirgiz mountains, then rolling freely like the Kazakh steppe.”
What lifts this tale above the ordinary is Aitmatov’s beautiful writing, but also how the story expands a simple, almost fable-like, narrative into something broader. Jamilia is about romantic love, but told at a step removed by a man who grew up to become a painter; it also becomes about art, and the transcendental nature of love and art. Jamilia falls for Daniyar because of his voice. Seit becomes seized with a desire to create, and takes his first tentative steps towards his life’s vocation. Jamilia is about how love, in all its variety of forms and circumstance, unites us all:
“I felt it was not simply a love for another person, it was somehow an uncommon, expansive love for life and earth.”