Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

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:

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“Writing is a cop-out.” (Monica Dickens)

Today is Monica Dickens Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’d planned for May to be only novellas over here, but I couldn’t resist the chance to dig out 2 Persephone editions from the TBR and join in with Jane’s celebration. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed my first encounter with Monica Dickens.

Image from here

Firstly Mariana (1940) which is part of the Persephone Classics range. On the Persephone website they say:

 “We chose this book because we wanted to publish a novel like Dusty AnswerI Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love, about a girl encountering life and love, which is also funny, readable and perceptive; it is a ‘hot-water bottle’ novel, one to curl up with on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon. But it is more than this.”

That just about sums it up. On the one hand Mariana is a very simple novel, about a young girl called Mary growing up and reaching adulthood just as World War II breaks out. She has various infatuations and gets her heart bruised, if not quite broken, before she meets the love of her life. What raises it above this very ordinary premise is the fond characterisation and Dickens’ wit.

Mary herself is a determinedly independent soul:

“People were kind and friendly and amusing, but they thought that companionship and conversation were synonymous and some of them had voices that jarred in your head. There was a lot to be said for dogs.”

She has been this way her whole life, as her school report testifies:

“Mary is a dear little girl…but we find a tendency in her to resent authority to the point of resistance. Although she is popular with her fellow pupils, I am afraid she is a bad mixer, being at the same time intolerant and unconfident of others and disinclined to enter into the heart of the community.”

She lives with her mother who works in a dress shop, as her father died in the previous war. There is also her reprehensible, indulgent Uncle Geoffrey who leaves her aged 8 to catch the Tube home by herself. He subsequently goes off to Hollywood to make his name in the movies. What stops this being entirely whimsical is the first chapter: we know the adult Mary is waiting for news of her husband whose ship has been sunk in the conflict. So alongside the fun characters and the wit is the background of potential tragedy; things do not seem to bode well for Mary, given the titular reference to Tennyson’s poem.

But in the meantime there is gentle fun to be poked at the trials and tribulations of young love:

“She told herself that she had been through a searing experience which had left her as a woman set apart from love – a tragic figure. This sustaining vision had tided her over the misery of the end of last summer, until the excitement and newness of Dramatic College had given her something else to think about.”

Dickens is a wise writer though, and so while she presents her characters with a slightly askance view, she shows how their feelings make them who they are, and who they will be:

“She had thought that [he]was the answer to everything, and when she had found out that he wasn’t she had been left alone with no one on whom to pin her burden of romantic devotion.”

I really enjoyed Mariana, which I wouldn’t have assumed would be the case given the subject matter. Dickens is very readable and I whizzed through the novel. I enjoyed spending time with all the characters (apart from an awful arrogant Bullingdon club type who seemed to have future-Prime-Minister written all over him) and I enjoyed Dickens unpretentious, thoughtful style.

“A corner of the jigsaw of Mary’s life had been made into the right pattern, by unknown means. It seemed that one had little control over one’s own destiny. All one could do was to get on with the one job nobody else could do, the job of being oneself.”

 

Secondly, The Winds of Heaven (1955), which had far fewer likeable characters and was almost bleak at times, but just saved from being so by the gentle endurance of the main character, Louise, who is widowed and destitute.

“She reached for the ashtray, for she wanted to tap off the ash frequently, as she had seen highly-strung, busy people do. Louise was neither highly-strung, nor busy, but when she was in London, among people who all seemed to be doing something important in a hurry, she liked to try and keep pace.”

The reason Louise is destitute is because her husband, Dudley, who seems to have had absolutely no redeeming qualities, died and left her with all his worldly debts.

“Everyone said Louise was ‘wonderful’ about Dudley’s death, but she could not be anything else, because, shocking though it was to her, she hardly cared.”

“there was nothing for it but that Louise should stay with her daughters in turn to pass the summer months. It was all arranged at an embarrassing family conclave, where no-one could say what they were thinking, and each tried to outdo the other in unselfishness.”

And so The Winds of Heaven follows Louise as she moves from one daughter to another. Miriam lives in a suburb in the Home Counties and is an absolute snob; Anne is the laziest person on earth who has somehow managed to marry a lovely man who runs a smallholding and genuinely cares for Louise; Eva is an actor in London and having an affair with a married man. They clearly all take after their father as they are selfish and self-absorbed.  They are also, in different ways, all quite unhappy, and Louise has no idea how to help.

“she had wanted the futile thing she had made of her marriage with Dudley to be justified at least by the emergence of three happy lives.”

The novel is episodic in nature and through it we learn about Louise and her daughters. It’s a very mid-20th century English family, full of unspoken truths, supressed conflicts, and love. The somewhat depressing state of Louise’s familial relations is lightened by two beacons of light in her life: a friend, and her granddaughter. Gordon Disher is a bed salesman and pulp-fiction author who becomes: “The oddest, but most comforting friend she had ever made”. Ellen is Miriam’s daughter who like Louise, is a misfit in the family (a good thing, seeing as how appalling they all are) and who provides genuine kinship.

“how delightful to be a grandmother with a responsive grandchild, who opened her heart to you without embarrassment, because she had no-one to talk to at home”

The Winds of Heaven captures a particular moment in time, where women had only just begun to stop being exclusively homemakers and enter the workplace. Louise feels she can’t support herself, because she doesn’t believe she has any skills. This leaves her in genteel middle-class poverty, dependent on her daughters. She is part of a vanished world, and is not treated kindly by those who are finding their way in a new one. Dickens handles this social commentary with an incredibly light touch though, and so The Winds of Heaven often reads more like a series of acerbic character studies than a commentary on mid-twentieth century gender roles. It’s always highly readable, quietly building to a dramatic, tragic denouement, where hope survives.

To end, Monica had a rather famous great-grandfather. To tell you all about him, here are the incomparable Horrible Histories, channelling The Smiths:

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

“Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.” (Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1918)

Happy Valentine’s Day! And for those who are single (such as myself), console yourself that we don’t have to go to an overpriced, overcrowded restaurant to have our meal interrupted by tired-looking pushers of sad hothouse roses in buckets whilst couples around us try and hide their mutual disdain for one another as their relationships teeter on the brink of collapse under the pressure of meeting the impossible standards of commercially appropriated romantic love 😉

As I said, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

*fans self*

For Valentine’s Day I thought I’d look at two novels concerned with romantic love. A brief foray through my TBR and I struggled to find anything that showed it in a positive light, which says much about my reading tastes. I quickly abandoned that idea and instead I’ve picked 2 novels written by a famous couple, Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. They met when Violet was ten and Vita was twelve; four years later Violet confessed her love, but life events separated them. They both went on to marry men but continued their relationship, although they did eventually split up. They stayed in touch and remained warm towards each other. Violet is ‘Sasha’ in Orlando, Woolf’s love letter to Vita.

 

Firstly, Hunt the Slipper by Violet Trefusis (1937).

Nigel lives with his sensible horticulturist sister Molly in their lovely home in Bath. He likes the finer things in life and prides himself on his good taste. Trying to get out of a visit to meet Caroline, the new wife of a neighbour, he gives Molly the following reason regarding Caroline’s family:

“You can’t imagine what they’ve done to their Elizabethan home. I once lunched there years ago; it looked as if Christabel Pankhurst and d’Annunzio had set up house together. Tea-cups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks feathers and leopard skins. It was so alarming that I fled.”

However, he goes, and the meeting is not a success. Caroline is miserable in her marriage to Anthony, a man who:

“never tired of dressing her up in the family jewels, of draping her in old-fashioned stuffs. She was his favourite recreation, his most valued asset. He did not particularly care about women, except as part of a decorative scheme.”

She is offhand to Nigel, who is used to women falling for his middle-aged charms, and he is distinctly unimpressed.  However, when they meet in Paris, Caroline has changed. She is in love with someone nearer her own age, Melo. Her taste in men is pretty questionable:

“Melo was a martyr to snobbishness, as a nursemaid is martyr to corns. Apart from physical attraction, Caroline led to the Royal Enclosure, stalking in Scotland, Noel Coward first-nights. In short, to the negligently luxurious life of the British aristocracy.”

Needless to say, this cad breaks her heart, and she turns to Nigel for solace. At this point he falls in love with her, but Caroline remains indifferent.

“He did not suspect that by one of Love’s infallible ricochets she was behaving to him as Melo had behaved to her. Her cruelty was Melo’s legacy, her indifference to him was out of revenge for Melo’s indifference to her. Love passed from one to the other, furtive, unseizable, like the slipper in ‘Hunt the Slipper.’”

There follows a period whereby they both travel, narrowly missing each other in various European destinations, Nigel writing effusive, desperate letters and Caroline sending intermittent, controlled replies. However, slowly, Caroline’s feeling change.

“You’re a terrible hoarder, aren’t you? Is possessiveness quite the same thing as jealousy, I wonder? Funny I should have fallen prey to two ‘collectors’. A[nthony] respects his possessions, whereas you love and tyrannize yours.”

Hunt the Slipper is a slim novel (180 pages) and the short length works well – Caroline and Nigel are both quite selfish. I didn’t wholly dislike them, but nor did I have a great deal of sympathy for them beyond that of realising we’re all flawed human beings and we all need love. Also the hunting of the slipper – love being always just out of reach – could have got tedious but as it is the plotting remains tight. Hunt the Slipper is a witty, sparky novel which gently mocks British insularity, snobbery in all forms, and self-delusion. Trefusis doesn’t judge her characters harshly and so neither do we. She dramatizes in the most ordinary way the conflicts of a cosy routine life against one of passion and unpredictability and doesn’t offer any trite answers as to which will bring most happiness.

Secondly, Family History by Vita Sackville-West (1932).

Beautiful widow Evelyn Jarrold lives an undemanding life, financially well-off with her own flat in London and her son heir to her late husband’s industrial family fortune.

“Evelyn Jarrold was not a woman who questioned the established order of the civilised world. She was not stupid, but, in such matters, simply acquiescent.”

However, she meets Miles Vane-Merrick – also rich, part of the landowning classes, but (shock!) left-leaning – and he turns everything upside down.

“The total absence of ideas amongst the younger Jarrolds, their perpetual heavy banter which passed for wit, the limitations of their interests, their intolerance, their narrow-mindedness, all appeared insufferable to her now in contrast with Miles’ alertness and gaiety.”

He is fifteen years younger than she, and Sackville-West uses their passionate affair to highlight the enormous changes happening in interwar Britain. Evelyn is only 39 but compared to 25 year old Miles she is from a different era. Her friends dress for dinner, the women don’t work, the men snooze through Lords debates before supporting the Tories. Miles and his friends are concerned with new world order, welfare of workers, the women earn money and they talk late into the night.

“Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact, she was rather frightened of it.”

The difficulty is, then what would she do? Evelyn is jealous and possessive, but this may not just be temperament, it may be because she has little else to occupy her mind. Miles carries on at his work (politics, running his estate, writing his book) and loves her around this. She does nothing but wait for him to find time for her.

“Love and the woman were insufficient for an active mind, Love and the man, however, were all-too-sufficient for a starved heart and unoccupied mind, Miles learnt it, to his cost; Evelyn never learnt it, to hers.”

Sackville-West does not shy away from the weakness in her characters. Evelyn can be controlling, vain, and overly concerned regarding middle-class mores. While Miles may protest “Instinct makes me reactionary, reason makes me progressive.”, the fact that he’s also given to statements such as “I like women to be idle and decorative.” means he’s not that progressive. He’s self-centred and doesn’t ever seem to take an action that doesn’t suit him entirely. Despite the fact that people constantly refer to him as brilliant and the great hope for the country, I found him weak. One of Evelyn’s relatives is pithily described by Sackville-West thus:

 “She had not preserved her virginity for forty-five years without revealing the fact in every phrase and gesture. A practising Christian, she was packed with a virtuous complaisance and not one ounce of charity.”

However, by the time Miles announces that the best thing that could happen to this woman was for her to be raped, he’d lost me entirely.  Misogynistic pig.

So it says something for Sackville-West’s writing that the fact that I really couldn’t stand one of the characters did not put me off the novel at all. Family History is an intriguing way to explore and make personal the upheavals of the first part of the twentieth-century in Britain. Apparently it didn’t do well on release and was considered one of her lesser works, but I found it thought-provoking and entertaining. The ending genuinely moved me. But most of all, Sackville-West’s wit is an absolute delight. For this reason, I’ll finish with a few choice bon mots:

[On the British upper classes] “The standard of looks was amazing; they had the distinction and beauty of thoroughbred animals. The young men were as elegant as greyhounds, the young women coloured as a herbaceous border. What did it matter […]that those sleek heads contained no more brains than a greyhound’s?”

“Who ever went to Eton to be educated?”

“The icy wind, whipping, biting, brought a certain exhilaration. Discomforts that one need not necessarily endure, always do induce a certain exhilaration. Hence the perennial charm of picnics.”

To end, just to prove I’m not really an embittered cynic, here’s a sweet duet between a pioneering new wave icon and a banjo-playing frog:

“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” (Michelle Obama)

A little while ago I went to see Edward St Aubyn interviewed and he was every bit as witty and compelling as I’d hoped. He mentioned that he finds dialogue the easiest part of writing, and an audience member asked him if he’d consider writing a play. St Aubyn said he didn’t really enjoy theatre (something along the lines of “I always seem to be in the middle of row M”) but that playwriting might be a bit of a holiday from novel writing, which I’m sure must have pissed off any playwrights in the audience sweating blood and ink over their drama.

Also, for any fellow Patrick Melrose series fans, and I know we are a precious bunch who don’t want to see TV mess up such novelistic perfection, he said he’d been on set to see the production that’s being made with Benedict Cumberbatch and he was very happy with it.

So, a long preamble to say that this is why I decided to look at playwrights writing prose this week.

Firstly, Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Other Novellas (1954-73, trans. Samuel Beckett and Richard Seaver) which I would argue aren’t novellas at all, they are all short stories (there are 4 stories in the collection and the 2 longest are only just over 20 pages). Pedantry aside, I would say if you like Beckett’s dramas you’ll like his short stories. It’s all here: existential crisis, bleak absurdism, humour and despair.

In The End, the first-person narrator is down on his luck, clothed in badly fitting clothes that ‘they’ have given him from a dead man, having burnt his (presumably to avoid disease). He eventually finds lodgings, but is turfed out and returns to an itinerant life:

“One day I witnessed a strange scene. Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere. But that day I must have come back.”

Pretty Beckettian, no? I know he’s not for everyone, but what I like about Beckett is that all the absurdism and word-play is not an intellectual exercise only, but is underpinned by a great humanity and acute awareness of suffering which makes his work bleakly beautiful:

“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

The idea of choosing the story we tell is continued in the next two stories, The Expelled where the narrator, having taken us through a day in his life concludes:

“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.”

And also in The Calmative, where the narrator tells himself a story to assuage the fear of death:

“So I’ll tell myself a story. I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and its there I feel I’ll be old, old, even older than the day I fell, calling for help and it came. Or is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.”

The final, titular story is needless to say, not a rose-tinted view of innocence and longing.

“I didn’t understand women at that period. I still don’t for that matter. Nor men either. Nor animals either. What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains. I think them through daily, it doesn’t take long, thought  moves so fast, but they are not only in my thought, not all.”

So, business as usual for Beckett despite the change in the form from drama 😀 If you’re not sure about Beckett but want to give him a go, you could do worse than start here; you’ll get a good flavour without having to pay extortionate theatre ticket prices only to find yourself stuck in the middle of row M.

Obligatory picture of Beckett’s amazing face:

Samuel_Beckett,_Pic,_1

Secondly, About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. Rosamund Bartlett, OUP 2004). I’m being a bit cheeky claiming Chekhov primarily as a playwright for the purposes of this blog post, given that the back of my edition of these stories has a quote from Raymond Carver proclaiming Chekhov “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived”.

Anton Chekhov, who took up writing after One Direction split up

Having read this collection, I would say he really is a master. Beautiful writing, not a word out of place (as you’d expect given the famous ‘gun’ instruction regarding not having any superfluous detail) and he is able to take the miniature and make it epic. In The Lady with the Little Dog, Chekhov takes a well-worn story of a bounder seducing an unhappy woman and turns it into a tragedy, without it ever becoming sentimental or overblown.

“She pressed his hand and started walking down the stairs, looking back at him  all the time, and you could see from her eyes that she really was not happy. Gurov stood for a while, listening, and then when everything had gone quiet he looked for his coat-peg and left the theatre.”

It is the story not of a great love affair, but a love that sneaks up on two people who were not looking for it and how it seems to bring nothing but misery, but with an ever-present promise of unrealised happiness.

The stories are ambitious in theme and they are truly profound, but that doesn’t mean they are without humour. Rothschild’s Violin begins:

The town was very small – worse than a village really – and the people who lived in it were mostly old folk who died so rarely it was quite annoying.”

Yakov is the unfortunate coffin maker in this healthy town and he is grumpy and horrible to his wife. When his wife dies, he expresses his unexpected feelings through his violin playing, to great effect:

“Rothschild listened intently, standing to one side, his arms folded on his chest. The frightened, confused expression on his face gradually changed to one of grief and suffering. He rolled his eyes, as if experiencing exquisite pain”

A story about the universality of pain and the expression of feeling beyond words is explored with a lightness of touch that almost borders magic realism. Chekhov writes with such subtlety and never patronises the reader.

It’s really hard to write about Chekhov’s short stories. They are so rich, so full of telling detail and so beautifully evoked that I have not done any justice to them here. I only hope that I’ve convinced you to pick up one of his short story collections and read the treasures for yourself.

To end, following my last post’s comment by Lucy, a festive video of 2 men stepping out of their comfort zones and looking slightly baffled about it all (“I’m David Bowie, I live down the road” 😀 ):

The Joke – Milan Kundera (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #47)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Joke (1967; trans. Michael Henry Heim 1982*)  is the first Milan Kundera I’ve read, as I found his massive intellectual-philosopher reputation intimidating to my tiny brain.  However, I found this, his first novel, very readable so who knows, maybe I will tackle the cumbersomely-titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being at some point?

Ludvik lives in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and is sulking when he sends his girlfriend, Marketa a facetious postcard:

“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”

Unfortunately, as we who live in the age of twitter know, irony is not always apparent in the written word and the authorities do not appreciate his sentiments. He is thrown out of the Party and sent to a labour camp with other political dissidents.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Ludvik, his friend Jaroslav who is interested in Moravian culture, lecturer Kostka who is Christian in the face of Ludvik’s atheism, and journalist Helena who is used cruelly to facilitate a revenge act.

As Ludvik looks back on his interrupted career and the injustice he has suffered, Kundera offers an incisive commentary on the effect of repressive regimes, but also questions how far all of us can lose sight of ourselves in the face of societal pressures:

“When the Comrades branded my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times) I actually believed them. I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, and that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong, and I, an individual, might be right. I began keeping tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.”

Ludvik attempts to enact a revenge for his treatment, but it does not go as planned. He realises that the man who has become the focus of his anger is only a man, and that the issues are larger than a single person.

“How would I explain I used my hatred to balance out the weight of evil I bore as a youth? How would I explain I considered him the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known? How would I explain I needed to hate him?”

Overall, the sense is of an almost Beckettian absurdity. There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world. Kundera evokes this lightly, so The Joke is not a heavy read, although it considers huge themes. While the politics are particularly relevant to Europe in the last century, the story moves beyond the specific to challenge the role of the individual within structures in which we live, how much agency we have, and what responsibility that brings with it.

“what if history plays jokes? And all at once I realise how powerless I was to revoke my own joke: I myself and my life as a whole had been involved in a joke much more vast (all-embracing) and absolutely irrevocable.”

Kundera has been exiled in France since 1975 after criticising the repressive nature of the then Czech government. The Joke is not self-righteous or overly polemical: it portrays, Kundera writes in the introduction, a man “condemned to triviality”.  While this ironical awareness distanced me from Ludvik somewhat and stopped me totally loving this novel, it also prevents The Joke being pompous, and instead funny, sad, tragic and wise.

To end, an apt song which I hope a book blogger who likes singers called Barry will enjoy even though it’snot Barry singing, and a video that is most definitely of a certain era (it wasn’t all repressive politics in the 1960s kids, there were psychotropic drugs too!):

*It’s worth seeking out a later translation of the novel, as Kundera was unhappy with the first English translations but has authorised the later ones

“It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural.” (Margery Sharp)

This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!

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First, Cluny Brown (1944) which portrays one of the most original, idiosyncratic and appealing fictional heroines I’ve encountered:

“She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown, and at the same time, stepping in with the milk, she looked as though she belonged intimately to her surroundings.”

Cluny is a young woman, living with her plumber uncle as both her parents have died. She resolutely goes her own way and harms no-one, and can’t understand why people find her habits – such as the decision to stay in bed all day eating oranges – so objectionable.

“She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea – put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors – and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box – in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.”

After a misunderstanding which sees Cluny fix the blocked sink of an amorous older man in Chelsea, Uncle Arn sends her away to service in Devon.

“She wasn’t resigned, for she was never that, but she felt a certain expectancy. At least something was happening to her and all her life that was the one thing Cluny Brown consistently desired.”

At the country house, Cluny encounters certain types: an upright colonel, a horticulturally obsessed matriarch, the feckless heir, a young society lady leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake… yet in Sharp’s hands these portraits are wholly believable rather than clumsy stereotypes. A tentative love affair begins, and Cluny Brown is nothing if not contrary…

I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. This novel is an unmitigated joy.  Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…

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Secondly, The Eye of Love (1957), the middle-aged love story of Harry Gibson and Dolores Diver.

“For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted from life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.

To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball.”

To outsiders they appear ordinary, and laughable.  But to one another, viewed through the eye of love, they are brave, noble and glamorous:

“ ‘My Big Harry! My King Hal!’ cried Miss Diver.

‘My Spanish rose!’ cried Mr Gibson.

They clung together in ridiculous grief, collapsed together on the Rexine settee.”

The grief is due to Harry needing to marry the daughter of a business rival, in order to amalgamate the businesses and save his shop.

“He wanted her to want to be married, as he himself wanted not to be made a bankrupt; he had an idea that as between man and woman it came to much the same thing.”

And so it is a novel with lovers parted. We follow Harry’s attempts to integrate into a new family, and Miss Diver’s attempts to earn money without his support by taking in a lodger (Mr Phillips, who finds the house – which he believes his landlady owns – very attractive). Meanwhile, around the edge of all this trauma, is Miss Diver’s niece, Martha. A self-contained child who Sharp frequently describes as “stolid” Martha does as she pleases. She doesn’t attend school – Miss Diver didn’t arrange it and Martha has no inclination to go – and instead walks around town, sees her shopkeeper friends, and soon discovers an all-consuming passion for drawing.

“To say she didn’t like the new lodger would have been an over-simplification: and the true root of her malaise lay so deeply entwined with her innermost feelings, she couldn’t bring it to light. Put briefly, while Martha didn’t mind carrying up Mr Phillips tray, to have to look at him and say Good morning represented an imposition of alien will.”

I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George, which I will hunt down forthwith.

Back to the adults. The Eye of Love is quite a feat, because while Sharp does not expect her readers to view Harry and Miss Diver as they view each other, at the same time she does not present them as harshly as the other characters judge them (particularly Miss Diver’s pretensions of Spanishness (real name Dorothy Hogg)). Her writing is acutely observed, with dry humour, but it is also kind.  The foibles of the characters are funny but oh-so-human.

 “At least once a day he took out Dolores’ comb, and warmed it back to life between his hands. He had to hang on hard to his Britishness, not to press it to his lips. A sad and ridiculous sight was Harry Gibson – large, stout, fifty years old – holding himself back from mumbling a wafer of tortoiseshell, as a child hangs back from sucking a forbidden sweet.”

Poor Harry. Poor Dolores.  Will they find their way back to one another? All I’ll say is, as with Cluny Brown, I thought the ending of The Eye of Love was perfect.

Well, it’s early days in 2017 but already things are looking up. I’ve met a new love in my life and I make no apologies for the gushing superlatives she inspires in me. Margery: where have you been all my life?

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Image from here

If you’d like to know more about this wonderful author, do check out The Margery Sharp blog as well as all the other posts today 🙂

To end, I was going to go for a song from the period, but ultimately I chose this, as I think Cluny and Martha would approve of the sentiment: