“Put it down to the dreams, yours and mine, that they can be far more authentic than life itself.”

Mona Lisa, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

Charming isn’t a word I get to use often enough on this blog.

I liked but didn’t love Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer and it’s fair to say that I like but don’t love Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For me the Louvre contains far more interesting treasures. The painting has become a form of celebrity – a canvas Kardashian. Obviously it’s good, but I’ve never thought it merited its peculiar fame.

Put those views together and I’m not a natural reader for Lernet-Holenia’s novella about, in part, the Mona Lisa. That was very nearly my loss as, and here’s that word again, it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in years.

Pushkin have done themselves particularly proud with this edition. The book itself is up to their usual exceptional standards but as well as the usual good quality paper and attractive cover they’ve also included some rather charming (there’s that word again) line illustrations by artist Neil Gower throughout the text. There’s a picture of one at Jacqui’s Wine Journal’s review (link at the end).

As the book opens King Louis XII is sending one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille, to the relief of his French governors in Naples who are being harried by the Spanish. The king’s orders are a small work of comic brilliance:

“And I trust, sir,” the King went on, “you will be able to acquit yourself of this commission with your customary prowess. You shall not be left wanting anything. I send you forth not only with my own blessing, but also hereby give you leave as you make your way through Rome to seek the Holy Father’s blessing. However, in case the Holy Father should refuse to anoint your arms, I give you full permission to urge His Holiness, with the help of those selfsame arms, to vouchsafe them his blessing. Furthermore, select as many of my noblemen as you deem fit to accompany you on your way. The flower of my nobility will be honoured and pleased to serve under you and personally to provide armour and equipment for you and your retainers. Also, you will have at your service a number of clerics whose upkeep and maintenance will devolve upon the Church. I shall take the sin of that upon myself. Additionally, I expect the good people of Amboise in Milan to cast the requisite number of ordnance, furnish the requisite number of ensigns, standards and trumpet banners, and supply a sufficient quantity of drums, kettledrums and trumpets. The cost of the undertaking is to be met from the municipal funds. You will of course have at your disposal as many horse and foot as you shall need, fed and nourished off the land, so help you God.”

With such assistance how could the expedition be other than a glorious success? M. de la Trémoille and such lesser noblemen as he is able to persuade to join him set off across France and into Italy.

The king also gave M. de la Trémoille orders to seize such treasure along the way as he is able. With his small and ill-equipped force M. de la Trémoille hasn’t been able to gain anything of consequence so when he reaches Florence it seems a good opportunity to pick up some local art. He takes a few companions and calls upon the famed Leonardo da Vinci, who sadly seems rather more frivolous than expected:

“My investigations,” Leonardo said, “led me, after my enquiries into the density and flow of water and air, to other things, and for a few days I was preoccupied with the weight of God.”

Leonardo seems as distractible as a child. His study shows no signs of current work and he seems to have musicians and dancers attending on him whenever the French call. However, a chance argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille changes everything when one of M. de la Trémoille officers, the young Monsieur de Bougainville, is instructed to catch a fly to settle an argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille as to how many legs it has.

Monsieur de Bouganville disturbs a curtain at the back of the room and behinds it catches a glimpse of glory. It is the Mona Lisa, unfinished, as yet imperfect, but already beautiful. M. de Bouganville falls instantly in love.

From there the story moves to M. de Bouganville’s attempts to discover the model for the painting. He’s told it might be based on a woman known as La Gioconda, third wife to local nobleman Francesco del Giocondo. She is said to have died some years previously of the plague but:

It struck young Bougainville as totally improbable that Leonardo would have painted a woman who was no longer alive.

M. de Bougainville convinces himself that La Gioconda must be the real model for Mona Lisa and that she remains alive. Before long he’s causing outrage; he exhumes her tomb and raids del Giocondo’s house believing her imprisoned there. He is mad. He is in love.

With another writer or perhaps even with Lernet-Holenia in a different mood this would all make quite a nice little historical thriller. Here it’s obvious that M. de Bouganville’s quest is hopeless. Leonardo insists that the picture is based on a composite of various women and there’s no reason at all not to believe him. No reason except love, which is its own reason.

Mona Lisa (the book) becomes a short comic meditation on love and art and how both can make us lose ourselves in something better than we would otherwise be. It’s a lovely little tale. Funny, fast moving, and to return to where I started this piece, utterly charming.

Other reviews

There are loads and I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few of them. The ones I had noted were from Jacqui’s Wine Journal here, which includes a nice picture of one of the illustrations; from His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here. Please feel free to let me know of others in the comments.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, German Literature, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Novellas, Pushkin Press

The mucus shimmered as the sun rose higher.

The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

The Mad and the Bad is my fourth Manchette. I’ve now read every one that I’m aware of having been translated into English so it’s fair to say I’m a bit of a fan.

Michel Hartog is a cold and arrogant businessman whose “smile resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” As the novel opens he’s visiting a private psychiatric hospital where he’s hiring newly-discharged inmate Julie Ballanger as a nanny for his nephew Peter. Ballanger’s spent five years inside which makes her an interesting choice.

By all accounts Hartog is something of a small-scale philanthropist employing those who might otherwise struggle to find work. As his driver notes:

The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotive ataxia – no wonder his meals arrive cold!

In that context a former psychiatric patient as nanny seems natural enough, but Hartog doesn’t seem the sort of man who cares much about the welfare of others. Soon after her arrival Hartog is encouraging Julie to help herself to his well-stocked drinks cabinets (plural intentional) and he seems to have no affection at all for young Peter.

Peter has his own issues. On his first meeting with Julie he loses his temper and smashes his television. Hartog simply orders another. Peter can have anything he wants, can break anything and know it will be replaced, the only thing he isn’t given is affection. Julie is the first person to show him any kindness at all.

Julie is the protagonist here and it’s quickly apparent that not all is quite right with her either. She washes down tranquilisers with whiskey and her past includes petty theft and arson. She thinks she looks like a “post-op transsexual” but the reactions of others show that’s not the case. She has absolutely no experience of working with children.

Things get stranger yet when a menacing stranger named Fuentes appears and beats Hartog bloody. Hartog likes to portray himself as a gifted businessman – a visionary shaping the world. The reality is that he inherited his wealth from his dead brother and Fuentes is a former business partner so enraged by some old betrayal that his attacks have become habitual.

Add to the mix a dyspeptic English assassin named Thompson and what follows is a typically savage Manchette tale. Thompson is plagued by possibly psychosomatic ulcers and can only relieve the pain of them by killing. He’s been hired to kill Peter and Julie will soon be the only thing standing in his path.

Manchette is always political and this is no exception. On the surface Hartog is what society asks us to aspire to – he is rich, successful, he creates employment and his wealth trickles down to his employees. In reality he’s the product of unacknowledged good fortune. He hasn’t earned what he has but he’ll fight to the death to keep it.

Julie on the other hand is unhinged. She is quite genuinely dangerous (as one rather unfortunate motorist who picks her up and tries it on with her discovers). Her madness puts her beyond societal norms and ironically it’s her feral qualities that now prove essential to her survival.

Much of the book is an extended chase with Thompson and his associates pursuing Julie and Peter across France. The action culminates in a masterful set-piece where the assassins follow Julie and Peter into a supermarket where their frustration boils over resulting in a running gun battle through the aisles of this consumerist temple:

Coco watched fragments of plastic toys spraying into the air along the path of his bullet. He was trembling. In his hand was an old Colt revolver, solid, crude, and with a tendency to shoot to the right. For a split second he caught sight of Julie and Peter down an aisle and he fired again, winging a carton of laundry detergent.

The Mad and the Bad is darkly funny. The absurdity of a society which praises men like Hartog and which thinks it’s important which of variously labelled but ultimately identical soaps you buy is mirrored here in the absurdity of Hartog’s domestic arrangements; Thompson’s increasing gastric distress as Julie continues to elude him; and a brutal fight to the death amidst canned goods and product displays. The title suggests a dichotomy between Julie (the mad) and Hartog (the bad) but the reality is that the distinction isn’t so easily drawn.

This isn’t my favourite Manchette (that would still be Three to Kill), but it’s still a blazing thriller with a challenging political undercurrent. The mad may be dangerous, but it’s the sane who hire killers and profit from death.

Other reviews

Guy Savage wrote about this here and went a little more into the politics than I have. I agree with pretty much everything Guy says.

If you want to check my other Manchette reviews they are: Three to Kill; The Prone Gunman; and Fatale.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

Nothing he did was too blatant.

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares and translated by Daniel Hahn

Family Heirlooms is a fascinatingly twisty little novella that explores the tensions between the public and the private – surfaces and underlying realities.

Maria Bráulia Munhoz is the still-wealthy widow of the esteemed Judge Munhoz. She now lives in a small apartment with her lifelong ladies’ maid. Their only regular visitor is her nephew who acts as her personal assistant. Recently she tasked him to sell off some of her jewellery including a priceless ruby which was an engagement present bought for her by the judge long years ago. The nephew returns hesitant with the news that the jewel is a fake.

Immediately my mind turned to fraud on the nephew’s part. I’ve read too many 19th Century novels to trust impoverished young secretaries entrusted with managing others’ fortunes. What follows though is actually much slipperier than that. Here’s how the novel opens:

Maria Bráulia Munhoz, on the ninth floor of her apartment building in Itaim Bibi, is getting ready for lunch. The table is set for two people: her and her nephew. The tablecloth on the small, round table is damask and white linen and in the centre there is a lake that is also small and round, mirrored. On the surface of the mirror rests a Murano swan.

Maria Bráulia, certainly advanced in years though her age is undeclared, affixes to her face her second face, the “social” one—her movements sure and quick, accompanied by little pats—with its skin somewhere between rose and ivory, pink mouth and cheeks. Eyelashes with mascara sharpen the blue of her eyes and brighten the dyed yellow of her hair. With her social face once again on show, the other one, the strictly private one, recedes, as happens every morning, and is immediately forgotten by its owner.

That Murano swan has been with Maria Bráulia for many years. It’s one of the core symbols of the novel – an image of flawless perfection reflected in an artificial lake. It is Maria Bráulia’s life, or at least seen from outside it is.

It soon becomes apparent to the reader that the nephew’s revelation may not actually be news for all Maria Bráulia’s outraged protestations. Many, many years ago when the judge was first courting he bought Maria Bráulia the ruby as a gift. It was an astute move on his part for Maria Bráulia’s family were both wealthier and more prestigious than his own and yet with that one priceless present he removed all suggestion that he could be a fortune hunter.

Judge Munhoz being the austere man he was, and well-to-do but not really rich, his gesture was received by Maria Bráulia’s family, who were truly rich, with a solid fortune that had been born of the fabric industry, and whence the other jewels had come, the tourmaline, the topaz, the pearls, the two diamonds, etc., as a touching proof of love.

As soon as she’s finished showing the ring off to her family, literally the same day, he has her remove it and whisks it away returning in its place a paste replica. The original he explains is too valuable to wear here and there. Instead she should wear the imitation while the original remains safely locked away. When she tells her family they see this as further proof of the gem’s rarity; only the most exceptional of stones could merit an imitation of such quality.

The ruby is not the only imitation. The young judge has among his personal staff a muscular young physiotherapist from whom he takes personal instruction in his darkened office. The marriage produces no children and the judge seems almost to push Maria Bráulia into the arms of the family jeweller. On the surface and by any society standard the marriage is a tremendous success. However, like the ruby, it is best admired without too close an inspection.

Family Heirlooms has a rather mannered and often elliptical style which at times can become a little too convoluted for its own good. Another ruby later enters the story – this time a gift from the jeweller to Maria Bráulia as token of their hidden love. That ruby’s value is in part due to an inclusion within it which gives it an added fire and lustre; it’s a technical fault which nonetheless enhances the whole. I think perhaps Tavares’ writing is like that here. It sometimes borders on overwriting but it matches the subject matter and so gives the novella a slightly intoxicating quality that clearer language might lose.

The inclusion is also of course another metaphor. Here that’s rather spelled out by the jeweller as he uses a conversation about his gift to seduce Maria Bráulia:

“Now, Braulinha, your marriage is a little like this ruby. You and I both know what it’s like. It contains a little inclusion (The physiotherapist-secretary! Maria Bráulia deduced, ecstatic), you and I both know what that is. (It’s him! it’s him!) So let us then take advantage of the inclusion and use it to produce a lovely star-effect. (Oh God!) I think you understand me, Braulinha. (Oh Christ, Christ.)

Who could resist?

The judge meanwhile lines his study with full-sized portraits of heavyweight boxers showing their admirable limbs and torsos. He is happy, Maria Bráulia is happy, the physiotherapist is happy and so too is the jeweller. All this and since everyone is discreet society is happy too.

Family Heirlooms is often slyly funny. There’s a lovely running joke where the judge points out in passing Maria Bráulia’s lover’s facial resemblance to an old painting of Queen Victoria. Cruelly the comment has some truth and once she’s aware of it Maria Bráulia can never quite get the image from her mind.  By way of another example take this description of the judge’s death from a stroke:

And so it was that life, like a great heavyweight champion, perhaps even the champion most admired by Munhoz, Joe Louis, the Detroit Destroyer, appeared one more time, unexpectedly, and with a second, definitive jab, straight to the chin, knocked him out.

The judge’s death is followed shortly after by generosity on Maria Bráulia’s part when she gifts the secretary a pair of diamonds in memory of her husband and by way of unwritten bequest from him. The secretary never realises that although they look impressive they are among the less valuable of the family jewels. Nothing can be trusted here but everything looks as it should.

There is more but it’s a short work and I don’t want to spoil it. I read Family Heirlooms in one sitting and enjoyed it thoroughly. Since then it has if anything grown in memory. It’s funny, astute and often unexpected. Apparently Tavares is well-known and well-regarded in Brazil and with this as taster for her work I can see why.

I should mention that Family Heirlooms is available as an ebook only. While I appreciate many dislike ebooks, and much as I would like to have a physical copy of this myself to return to, in this case I’d suggest you make an exception as if nobody reads the ebook I doubt there’ll be future physical editions.

Other reviews

Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviews this here and is worth reading as always. I’d also flag these rather good reviews by A Year of Reading the World here, Vulpes Libres here and Necessary Fiction here. If you know others please feel free to link to them in the comments.

Tony suggests that the moral of the piece may be that life is too precious to merely guard and hide away. There is a suggestion in the silence and aridity of Maria Bráulia’s apartment that she may have squandered opportunities and allowed her life to become as hard and reflective as the rubies which have defined it, the passion of her life near-hidden as an inclusion deep within the surface respectability.

On the other hand, for a woman of her class and situation I’m not sure she does too badly. She is, at minimum, complicit in her life and for a woman who starts as a thing to be traded (again like the rubies) she does at least carve out a measure of her own existence and finds both companionship and love (even if not in the same man). Tony’s right though that her life is fairly circumscribed.

Did Maria Bráulia waste her life? Perhaps, but if so I don’t think entirely so.

5 Comments

Filed under Brazilian Literature, Tavares, Zulmira Ribeiro

Why can’t we kill thoughts the way we kill people, with a gun?

Hecate and her Dogs, by Paul Morand and translated by David Coward

I first discovered Paul Morand through the Pushkin Press release of his wonderful memoirs, Venices. Sure, he skipped the period where he actively supported the Nazis and embraced fascism, but what memoir is wholly reliable? Morand’s sentences were art even if his life left much to be desired.

His novel The Man in a Hurry is flawed but beautifully written. Morand excels at the silken sentence and at coolly elegant prose (one of his books is a record of conversations between him and Coco Chanel, another fashionable fascist).

Hecate and her Dogs was published in 1954 during Morand’s period of post-war rehabilitation. It tells the tale of a colonial bank official in the 1920s who finds himself so suffocated by boredom that he embarks on an affair. That in itself is not unusual but his choice, Clotilde, proves to be anything but ordinary

In that kingdom of the vacuous, she seemed at first just another blank; everything about her lacked lustre. She wore a beige suit – simple, perfect. Her movements, so contained, barely initiated, that slightly broken voice, the uncertain colour of her eyes, the delicacy of her physique, all gave her an air of orphaned vulnerability. Women thought her ravishingly beautiful because her looks happened to conform to the current fashion: turned-up nose, eyes like a cat’s, head too small for her body, round shoulders, no hips, flat chest, long Merovingian feet, slender arms which did not spoil the line of her jackets, slim thighs which enhanced the hang of her skirts. … Clotilde was grace personified.

I love that line about “that kingdom of the vacuous”. At first it looks like the narrator (he’s never named) has chosen wisely. Clotilde is elegant and discreet and her husband is absent. The affair flourishes.

The first half of this novel follows the narrator and Clotilde as their relationship deepens without ever becoming so serious as to threaten propriety. Short chapters, each generally no more than a page or two long, slide easily by as do their days together. The text is spiced with seemingly effortless epigrams which help wash it all down:

Love is horribly time-consuming; which is why it flourishes best in the provinces;

Words are for people who have nothing to say to each other.

The initially Calvinist narrator becomes suffused with sensuality, drunk with it. Here is the entirety of chapter twelve:

XII

We wallowed and rolled in the trough of a depression caused by the confluence of two vast air flows, one oceanic, the other continental. Whenever the wind dropped, we felt light-headed, as if one of the four elements had suddenly gone missing. We surrendered to the daily hurricane which always began with the sun and ended with it.

We had allowed ourselves to be blown along towards our as yet still distant fate, up to our eyes in happiness.

I was dazzled by the freedom of our love-making and the joys of sinfulness. I felt light as a feather. I had never hoped to feel light; it came as a great surprise and gave me intense pleasure. I floated down rivers of milk and honey, dazed by the blueness of the sky, deliquescent in our all-dissolving existence.

Although (perhaps because) Morand never directly describes sex this is a deeply erotic novel. The affair is physical, intensely sexual and the narrator seeks all the time to make it more so. At one point he takes a week’s break from work and he and Clotilde simply barricade themselves in their bedroom:

The fatma would leave our dinner trays outside. The postman slipped the post from my bank under the door. The phone stayed off the hook. We never got out of bed, lathered in our own odour which coated our skins like toad spittle. We knew each other’s bodies by heart; in the dark, we ran our hands over their every detail, the way the blind read Braille. Our sheets were heavy with the carbon dioxide we exhaled; the only air I breathed in was the air which Clotilde breathed out; she still had the delectable breath of the very young.

An entire week’s indulgence is a sign that things may be getting too serious. The narrator’s staff begin to complain that he hardly ever turns up to work any more. Head office are becoming angry at the absence of proper management. The whole affair is becoming a problem. It will get much worse.

Near the half-way mark in the book the narrator and Clotilde go to the cinema. The show includes a short documentary piece about some orphan children. Clotilde becomes strangely excited and unexpectedly and loudly orgasms. The narrator is aghast – what could there be in such a film to so excite her?

From there he’s obsessed that there is a part of her sexuality he’s failed to reach. Soon he’s convinced that she is a peerless predator effortlessly able to take advantage of the impoverished children so common in the colony. Rather than reject her he decides to match her.

Hecate becomes an exploration of a descent into vice and obsession. Morand alludes rather than describes so it’s often difficult to work out exactly what may have happened, and this is exacerbated by the narrator’s tendency to take what may well be Clotilde’s masturbatory fantasies as literal truth.

In a sense it doesn’t matter whether Clotilde is the predator the narrator takes her for. Whether reality or fantasy, she has an aspect of her sexuality beyond his control and he can’t bear that. He has to have her entirely even if that means embracing the appalling.

Hecate and Her Dogs is a prime example of the decadent novel. Chapter thirty-seven reads in its entirety:

XXXVII

But I was beginning to need that disgust more and more.

The novel is written in hindsight so we know throughout that what we’re reading is an account of “the worst years of my life.” As the narrator’s business affairs fall apart, and his conduct becomes too extreme to continue to ignore, the small world of colonial society turns against him. His position becomes unsustainable.

What’s noticeable here is that the narrator never blames himself. He’s a man who literally abuses children and yet who somehow manages to blame that on Clotilde. Whether she did the same or not is irrelevant to his own guilt.

If the narrator is amoral so too is his society. Nobody cares about his conduct until he loses all discretion and restraint. As the narrator remarks to himself: “When there is a mad woman in the attic, does it not matter less that she is mad than that she stays in the house?” What a morally bankrupt statement that is.

In his review in The Guardian Nick Lezard speculated as to whether the narrator’s guilt is a metaphor for Morand’s own guilt for his wartime activities. I’m not persuaded. Partly as the narrator doesn’t show any particular guilt and partly as Morand’s main regret about World War II seems to have been simply that his side lost.

What lifts Hecate and Her Dogs above being a rather pruriently hysterical tale of colonial debauchery and ruin is Morand’s subtlety and skill. I said above that Morand alludes rather than describes and of course that’s necessary for a book like this to be published (particularly in 1954). However, beyond that it also creates a complicity in the reader.

The narrator imagines the details of Clotilde’s believed vices and the reader has to do the same. Similarly, the narrator’s rather formal description of their passion has to be thought about to be understood at which point the reader too has become part of it. Morand makes us all collaborators.

Other reviews

Here‘s the Nick Lezard review I mentioned above. Otherwise, the much missed Kevin from Canada wrote a typically excellent review of this here. Kevin says that “in many ways Hecate and Her Dogs is a masterpiece”. I’m honestly not sure if I agree or not but it’s definitely at least arguable that it is.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Morand, Paul, Pushkin Press

Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark

It’s a long time since I’ve been as ambivalent about a novel as I am about this one. On the one hand it’s exceptionally technically accomplished. On the other, I didn’t actually like it. Of course, quality and what we like don’t always overlap.

The Driver’s Seat is weaponised narrative honed to achieve disturbing effect. It’s unforgettable, for better or worse, and far better read without spoilers. In many ways the less you know about this book the more powerful it will be. For that reason I’m going to be light on detail in this review.

The cover by the way is accurate to the novel. That’s how the main character, Lise, dresses save that she adds a narrow-striped red and white coat over the lemon blouse and multi-coloured V-striped skirt. Like everything in this book the clothing is carefully chosen.

From the opening page we know that something is wrong. The clothing is a clue. Lise is shopping for her work-enforced holiday to an unnamed Mediterranean destination. In the first shop she’s offered a dress that’s stain free. Lise goes berserk claiming that the very suggestion she’d need such a thing is an insult. In the next shop she chooses the colours you see on the cover. Her reactions are excessive; her choices off-kilter.

Just eleven pages in and that sense of something profoundly wrong becomes all the more pronounced. Here Lise is queuing at airport check-in:

There are two people in front of her. Lise’s eyes are widely spaced, blue-grey and dull. Her laps are a straight line. She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.

At times Spark repeats sentences as if they form some kind of mantra. We hear over and over that “She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking.” The eye skates over Lise, or would but for her choice of clothes and habit for making herself highly noticeable through arguments with shop-staff, pointless boasting to the check-in clerk or yet further arguments at duty-free and her hotel.

What follows is how chapter three opens. It may seem it, but it’s not a spoiler:

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

From that point the whole book takes on a nightmarish quality. We know Lise will die, but not who’ll kill her. Everything that happens is now overcast by what will happen. She’s searching for her “boyfriend”, whom she hasn’t met yet. When she catches the eye of a young businessman on her flight or gets noticed by an obsessive macrobiotic diet guru we wonder, as she does, “is it him?”

What’s key here is that this isn’t a crime novel nor is it a psychological novel. It is its own beast – utterly conscious of its own artificiality. Spark doesn’t attempt realism. None of the characters are given any depth or persuade as people. They’re automatons serving Spark’s will, which is perhaps a large part of what I didn’t like about the novel. It lacks humanity.

Lise in particular seems both oblivious and fated. She careens around in her ill-matched clothes leaving a trail which the police will find easy to follow, but underneath it there’s no her there. We never hear her thoughts. She seems a mystery even to Spark as author/narrator. This isn’t accident or incompetence. Spark means Lise to be hollow.

At times the artificiality jarred me, perhaps because the book sails so close to realism that I started to expect it to be realistic. When Lise goes to a department store there’s an incident which leads to a crowd having an argument near her and she also hears a news broadcast on a display tv. It’s all in English, or alternatively it’s all in the local language which Lise apparently speaks so well it might as well be English (which seems highly unlikely).

I found myself wondering how Lise could possibly follow what was going on around her. The answer ultimately is that it’s irrelevant. She can follow it because Spark wants me as reader to follow it. Language barriers are real-world issues. The novel isn’t really set in an unnamed Mediterranean country. It’s set in a non-place, a Newhon or Erewhon that just reminds us of our own world. In a way it might as well be about aliens on Deneb-IV for all it relates to credible people and events. Again, that’s not accident or incompetence.

Very occasionally Spark does misfire. I rather winced at this line which comes after a hotel maid is reprimanded for a dirty glass in Lise’s room: “ “The maid understands, laughs at the happening, and this time makes a quick getaway with the glass in her hand.” The phrase “laughs at the happening frankly isn’t English and felt uncharacteristically clumsy.

Mostly though The Driver’s Seat is a piece of flawless polished marble. Nothing here is chance or wasted. Even the title which for much of the novel seems as good a choice as any other eventually becomes all too horribly perfect. All novels are crafted but most pretend to nature. Spark doesn’t.

By the two-thirds mark I was struggling. I found the characters unpersuasive and Spark’s authorial voice oddly cruel. The prose drove me on (that and the knowledge that it’s short). As it unfolded to its ending I realised I was reading something much better and much more disturbing than I had imagined. The completed novel is ugly and unsettling – a literary maggot lodged in your brain. It is in its own way a masterpiece.

So, as I opened, it’s exceptionally technically accomplished but I didn’t like it. I rather wondered at the point, all this inhumanity dancing to the author’s obvious strings. Then I think about the impact and realise that is the point. It creates its own point. I’m not sure though that it creates enough of one to be worth the ugliness.

Other reviews

I’ve not noted many sadly but it was this one of John Self’s at The Asylum which first made me want to read this. There’s another good review here at themookseandthegripes. Lastly, this review by Sam Jordison at The Guardian is hugely critical of the book (and contains massive spoilers). I’m probably closer to Sam’s take than I am to either of John or Trevor’s save that I’d give the book more credit for its execution than I think Sam does. I may yet read Memento Mori, but equally after this I may be done with Spark. I’m not sure yet.

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Filed under Spark, Muriel

A child of heaven, of hell perchance, Devil and god of arrogance.

Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Anthony Briggs

Back in 2012 I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin. Fast forward a few years and Pushkin Press have published a new translation interestingly titled Yevgeny Onegin. Onegin (with any first name) is notoriously difficult to translate so I thought I’d return to it and see how the two translations differed.

Before I get into that a quick word: Briggs quotes early 20th Century Russian literary historian Prince Mirsky as saying that the poetry in Onegin flows and bubbles “like champagne in sunshine”. I can’t speak to how faithful Briggs is to the original Russian – I can’t read that after all – but I can say that Briggs’ translation definitely has that sunlit champagne quality and was an absolute pleasure to read.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover? I absolutely love it.

Before I get into the translation itself it’s worth spending a moment on one of the best translator’s introductions I’ve read. Briggs explains in clear non-technical language the type of poem Pushkin is writing here – the 14 line sonnet. He then sets out the differences between what are typically called English sonnets and Italian sonnets (a question of how rhymes are paired rather than nationality).

The Italian sonnet clusters its lines in two sets of four rhymes then two sets of three rhymes. The English sonnet clusters them instead in three sets of four rhymes with a final set of two rhymes (which tend to either dramatically complete the first twelve sets of rhymes or subvert them).

Pushkin uses both forms (and other sub-forms) in Onegin which is apparently quite unusual. In most poems that use the sonnet form you can tell where you are and what’s coming by the clustering of the rhymes. In Pushkin, because the form varies, by the time you get to the mid-point you don’t know whether this particular stanza follows the English sonnet form or the Italian which means you are intentionally disorientated and often can’t resolve the individual stanza until you finish it.

Briggs explains that this flexibility of form is part of why the poem never becomes tedious to read – it’s constantly changing and refreshing itself. I found this absolutely fascinating and it really helped me understand what was happening structurally within the poem as I read it.

Briggs also touches on a particular difficulty in translation from Russian to English (which generally by his account isn’t all that hard). This is what’s known as masculine and feminine rhymes.

Masculine rhymes end in a single stressed syllable – the cat sat on the hat. Feminine Rhymes follow a stressed syllable with an unstressed one – and that’s harder to give an example of because it’s common in Russian but rare in English. In fact, it’s so rare that all the examples tend to be extremely obvious. As Briggs points out if you hear “languish” the rhyme is very likely to be “anguish”; if you hear “creature” then “feature” is likely to follow.

What all this means is that when translating from Russian in most cases where the Russian uses a feminine rhyme there won’t be a direct English equivalent. When there is it will likely be tediously obvious and therefore dull (Briggs notes “hoping/moping” and “related/dated”). This issue is very present in Onegin, which uses alternate feminine rhymes. The result is the translator needs to be creative making use where possible of part-rhymes and words that sound or feel similar  even if they don’t actually strictly rhyme.

The introduction is a good few pages long and it’s packed with this kind of interesting and useful information. I have no technical background in poetry but even so I found it very easy to follow. Briggs is never patronising but instead writes for the benefit of the intelligent lay reader. Frankly, even if you don’t like his translation the book’s worth buying for the intro alone.

I should though probably now turn to the translation. I’m initially going to quote the very first stanza from each translation, after which I’ll quote several stanzas from my Tom Beck review and after each I’ll again set out the Briggs’ equivalent. Here goes:

Tom Becks:

1
“My uncle’s acted very wisely,
to seek his best when he’s so sick;
his family’s reacted nicely
and he’s most happy with his trick.
He’s set the world a good example,
which others really ought to sample,
but it’s a bore when night and day
the sick man forces you to stay!
To keep him sweet, as if he’s dying,
give him his daily medicine
and make quite sure that it goes in,
adjust the pillows while one’s sighing:
‘Don’t even think of getting well,
The devil take you, go to hell!’”

And here, by contrast, is the Briggs:

1
“Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking ‘Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?’”

What immediately strikes me there is that it’s evident that Beck has prioritised flow (as he says in his own introduction – he’s a musician by training and wanted to preserve the musicality of the verse). Briggs here is trickier. See for example his pairing of probity” with “nobody” or (and I think this is rather clever) “histrionics” with “tonics”.

In places the choices change the meaning. In Beck the uncle has acted wisely, which isn’t really a comment on his character but rather on his actions. In Briggs by contrast the uncle is a man of utmost probity. Similarly, in the Beck the uncle is pleased with himself at being tended by his family suggesting a certain manipulativeness on his part whereas in Briggs the use of “masterstroke” makes the line more of an ironic comment by the narrator on the situation.

As to which meaning Pushkin intended I’ve no idea but I think it’s already possible to see how each translator pursues their different goals in the translation. I don’t think Briggs’ “ooh” quite comes off, but I also don’t think it’s fair to pick on the occasional jarring rhyme (and if I wanted to I could do it quite easily do it to Beck too).

Let’s continue. Here’s stanzas three and four from the Beck:

3
Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4
When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

And here from the Briggs:

3
With worthy service now behind him,
His father lived from debt to debt.
Three balls a year soon undermined him,
He was as poor as you can get.
Fate saved the boy, who was aware of
Madame, and being taken care of,
And her replacement, a Monsieur.
The child was frisky, though demure.
Monsieur l’Abbé, a Catholic father,
Not keen to weigh Yevgeny down,
Taught him by acting like a clown.
Morals seemed irksome; he would rather
Chide him for the odd naughty lark,
And walk him in the Summer Park.

4
Rebellious youth came in due season –
A season full of hopeful dreams
And gentle sadness – ample reason
To give Monsieur the sack, it seems.
Onegin now, devil-may-care-style,
Copied the very latest hairstyle
And came out like a London fop
To see society, Tip-top
In spoken French (no less proficient
In speech and writing), he could dance,
And with the utmost nonchalance
Perform a bow, which was sufficient
To show him in a pleasing light
As a nice lad, and very bright.

I actually think the Beck is rather good there. I like the references to Letsky Park and to the Mazurka (though again I’ve no idea if either is in the original) and again he clearly achieves the musicality he sets out for. Briggs I suspect wouldn’t be enamoured of rhymes like “lad” and “bad” but “dressed” and “best” is exactly the kind of paraphrasing that Briggs is fond of.

Briggs’ language is again I think intentionally tricksier and riskier. It’s the champagne effect. I love “devil-may-care-style” being rhymed with “hairstyle” which is inspired and I think his first three lines from stanza 4 (“Rebellious” to “reason”) are much more poetic than Beck’s equivalent first two rhymes in the same (“when” to doubt,”). Briggs takes three lines here to capture what Beck manages in two but I think to better effect and both ultimately maintain the overall fourteen line structure.

Moving on, this is from the Beck:

37
Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

And here from the Briggs:

37
No. While still young he lost all feeling,
Finding the noisy world a bore
And lovely girls not so appealing,
Not so obsessive as before.
Betrayals left him sad and weary,
Both friends an friendship he found dreary.
You cannot keep on sluicing steaks
Or Strasburg pie with what it takes –
The best champagne! And it gets harder
To please the diners with bons mots
When headaches leave you feeling low.
Yevgeny, once a man of ardour,
Acknowledged that his love was dead
For conflict, sabres and the lead.

Briggs makes nice use of French here both reminding us of Onegin’s class and at the same time rhyming “mots” with “low” which I rather like. Becks I think has a more modern feel with rhymes such as “fun” and “gun” while Briggs’ “ardour” through to “lead” feels more period to me. It’s also worth noting here how Briggs rhymes “ardour” with “harder” which I think in context he gets away with.

One final example. Here’s the Beck:

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

And here’s the Briggs’ equivalent:

56
O rural idyll, love and flowers!
O fields to you I yield my soul…
I mark what differences are ours,
What separates us on the whole,
So that no reader, no wild joker,
No literary libel-broker
Can publish somewhere by design
Onegin’s features as for mine,
And then repeat the claim (outrageous!)
That here my portrait has been daubed
Like Byron’s, proudly self-absorbed,
As if one could not fill these pages
By painting someone other than
One’s own self as the leading man.

I chose this stanza in the original so that I could talk about the links with Byron rather than because of any intrinsic interest to it. Even so it still makes a useful comparator. Again the translation choices impact the meaning slightly: Beck’s Onegin yields his soul to idleness while Briggs’ to the fields. Similar, particularly in context, but not quite the same.

Beck’s choice of “poems all about ourselves” is I think a little pedestrian, which I don’t think is true of Brigg’s “own self as the leading man.” Again though what shines through is the difference in intent. Becks flows well and has a clear rhythm. Briggs is more playful (note for example his “wild joker” with “literary libel-broker”).

What comes out of all this for me is a very clear pattern and a sense of very intentional translations (as of course they should be). Faced with the choice Becks goes most every time for flow and rhythm while Briggs is much fonder of linguistic tricks and little surprises for the reader.

I’m not qualified to talk to better here and I don’t think anyway which is better is an interesting question. As I said at the start of this piece I thoroughly enjoyed the Beck when I read it – so much so that I read a separate translation which is a tribute to the first (it kindled my enthusiasm). Reading his stanzas here afresh I’m reminded quite how good so much of it is. The Briggs’ delighted me. I loved the playfulness and cleverness of it.

Briggs sometimes comes unstuck. At one point he rhymes “intractable young beauties” with “Implacable non-venal cuties” which particularly stood out. That’s unavoidable though because he’s taking greater risks with his rhyme-choices and trying to capture that sense of “champagne in sunshine”. I think he succeeds.

One final remark and that’s on the title of the poem itself. Briggs notes that Yevgeny is more Russian than the commonly used Eugene which is plainly true. However, more importantly he notes that Yevgeny Onegin is a little poem in itself: yev-gen-y/o-ne-gin. Eugene Onegin just ain’t got the same swing.

I may at some future point read the Penguin Classics’ Stanley Mitchell translation. Briggs in his introduction talks a little about other translations but is at pains not to single any out for criticism, save to a small extent the Mitchell which he does raise points on. It may sound odd but I think that’s a form of compliment: Briggs clearly feels the Mitchell can stand up for itself. If I do I’ll post another comparison though I warn you now that’ll make it fifty per cent. as long again as this one…

Oh, and just in case anyone wants to know which translation I recommend you read that’s easy: both of them of course!

Other reviews

Honestly I have no idea so please feel free to leave links in the comments. Interestingly, Nick Lezard of the Guardian has also reviewed both these translations. His Beck is here and his Briggs here.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian Literature, Superfluous Man

“No one has real names anymore,”

Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson

I read Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn back in the summer of 2016 and was distinctly impressed by it. First of a trilogy, but standing perfectly well on its own, Autumn was original and intelligent science fiction with strong contemporary resonances.

Midnight is more obviously part of a series and is inevitably a bit weaker for that. However, it’s still an extremely enjoyable piece of SF/spy cross-genre fiction and still has plenty to say about current UK obsessions.

Midnight opens on the Campus – a strange society consisting of nothing except a vast university. It’s recently had a successful revolution deposing the old regime who had efficiently but brutally run the place for as long as anyone remembers. It’s quite clearly not our world but its inhabitants are unaware of any other.

The Campus is a sort of 1950s-ish Tweedy England shorn of any context. Everyone bicycles (they have no knowledge of cars); social status is hereditary; technology is comfortable and unintrusive. It’s a sort of dream of Englishness but not a sustainable one. The food’s running out. There’s no trade as there’s nobody to trade with. Anyone who tries to leave is killed by seemingly ubiquitous surrounding booby-traps. The place makes no sense.

The main protagonist of Midnight is the new head of intelligence at the Campus, previously a lecturer in the English department. His main goal is to find some way of escaping the place to the wider world he believes must exist. Beyond that he’s trying to understand the realities underpinning the old guard he’s replaced. What he finds is a horrific underbelly of secret police and unregulated human experimentation. Those responsible for the horror were of course all thoroughly good sorts. Here’s the Dean of the Science Faculty, a rare survivor of the old regime:

He was about five years older than me, and he had the clean, well-exercised look of a man who plays a lot of team sports and is rarely on the losing side. His hair was thick and brown and curly and touched a little with grey at the temples, his clothes discreetly expensive-looking. He radiated masculine bonhomie like a nicely bedded-in coal fire.

The intelligence head’s name isn’t given but he’s known to a friend by a literary nickname – Rupert of Hentzau – which he reuses after he finally escapes. That’s as close to a real name as we ever learn. He finds his way out and emerges in real-world London where he promptly gets stabbed on a bus. He survives but comes to the attention of our own intelligence services and from there it’s a classic spy novel of scheme and counter-scheme.

Rupert is that classic spy novel character – the man who knows too much. He is living proof of the existence of nested parallel Europes which can be reached from our one if one knows the route. The Campus was a pocket reality, embedded in another pocket reality known as the Community which in turn is embedded in the “real” Europe. The Community is the only one here with all the facts – both the Campus and our Europe are ignorant of it – and it’s willing to kill to preserve its power and anonymity.

The Community originated in England as part of real history before splitting off to become its own reality. Now it maps across most of Europe but with no neighbours or indigenous peoples to get in its way. It is the colonial dream of a certain kind of English xenophobe made (alternate) reality.

Everyone in the Community was English. From one end of the Continent to the other. There were only English things here. There were no other languages, only regional dialects. No other cuisines but English. No other clothing styles but English. No other architectural styles but English. It was awful.

Much of Midnight takes place in the Community with Rupert infiltrating it on behalf of real-world British intelligence. It’s an interesting setting but creates an issue for Hutchinson since one of the Community’s most telling features is that conformity carries a price:

In two hundred years, the Community had not provided a single playwright of any great note or a film which would have troubled an Oscar voter for more than a minute.

This means that a large part of the novel is set in a place that intrinsically is a bit dull. The Campus was based on the Community and while the Community is more technologically sophisticated it too is a highly conformist 1950s-ish Sunday-night-TV-drama sort of England. It’s a sharp contrast to the complex fractured Europe of Autumn.

The Community does allow Hutchinson to explore certain ideas of Englishness and their underlying historical reality. In the real world 1950s Britain was still a colonial power, even if a quickly fading one. Behind the cosy imagery of cricket matches in country villages and social deference was a system maintained overseas through violence and political oppression.

I read Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden recently and very much enjoyed it. I’ve also read some of his Far Eastern Tales short stories. Maugham makes no bones about the bloody underpinnings to Colonialism and British power (nor does he see it as anything to apologise for). Maugham, like many of his contemporaries, accepted that British dominance carried a price for those dominated.

With the Empire now gone there are those who like to pretend that it was all an act of altruism; that we went out into the world to give people efficient civil services and well-run trains rather than to get rich. Maugham and his peers would have seen that for the self-serving fantasy that it is.

The Community is another exploration of that myth. They are the England some want the real England today to become. An imaginary place where everyone knows their place and foreign influences are neatly swept away. It’s no accident that this dreary status quo is preserved with unhesitating ruthlessness.

All that works pretty well. Less successful are some elements of the contemporary (i.e. future) real London in the novel which feels pretty much precisely like London today. Autumn is set in a future Europe devastated by plague and war but Hutchinson’s future London isn’t remotely changed. The buses still have operator-drivers as they do now, people still get take-aways in Burger King, flatshare and go to work in the usual fashion.

It’s possible of course that Hutchinson felt that a strange future London would make the whole novel too distant when coupled with the Community and the Campus. It’s also fair to say that the contrast of the Community works much better when put against a London which remains recognisable. Still, it’s odd in an SF novel to have a future that’s quite so much of the present.

Another slight oddity is that Hutchinson’s characters aren’t as diverse as his setting which here is an issue as the book is in part a critique of conformity. Female characters tend to be secondary (Hutchinson has in fact recognised he needs to write better female characters who exist as more than plot supports for the male so this should improve). Future London is largely a place run for and by straight white men. Admittedly, depressingly, that may be realistic.

The result is a novel that isn’t quite so dazzling as was Autumn. The future London is a bit too much present-day London and some improved female characters wouldn’t hurt. For all that I still really enjoyed Midnight and I’m definitely planning to read the third of the trilogy before too long.

Other reviews

This review from the rather wonderfully named Battered, Tattered, Yellowed and Creased blog is a bit more positive than mine and I think largely fair. I was very impressed by this review from Strange Horizons which explores issues of diversity in the novel much more than I did (I don’t necessarily agree that the novel would have been better for a wider range of diverse figures such as, say, gay characters but I think the point and argument are both well made). It’s a very good critical piece.

Lastly, not a blog but Paul McAuley reviews it here at the New Scientist interestingly comparing the novel to Eric Ambler which I didn’t think of but wish I had. No idea why they describe McAuley as an SF blogger given he’s actually a pretty highly regarded SF author in his own right.

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, Science Fiction

He possessed hidden powers; he had more secrets than the blessed Rosh Hashonah pomegranate has seeds.

The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis Singer and translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer

Magician is an exuberant and dark fable set in the shtetls of 19th Century Poland. It’s a story of lust and pride, doubt and faith, community and escape. It’s Faust but with no need for Mephistopheles. We are too good at tempting ourselves.

Masha Yazur, of Lublin, is the most famed magician in Eastern Europe. It’s an achievement that gains him friendship and praise but little money. His parochial Polish homeland assumes that anyone home-grown who hasn’t first made it big in Western Europe must be an also-ran.

Masha’s talents are extraordinary and he’s relentless in developing new and ever more impressive feats. Many believe him an actual sorcerer. Sometimes he suspects the same. The book captures his ability in breathless tumbling prose:

It was risky to debate with him since he was no fool, knew how to read Russian and Polish, and was even well-informed on Jewish matters. A reckless man! To win a bet he had once spent a whole night in the cemetery. He could walk a tightrope, skate on a wire, climb walls, open any lock. Abraham Leibush, the locksmith, had wagered five rubles that he could make a lock that Yasha could not open. He had worked over it for five months, and Yasha had picked it with a shoemaker’s awl. I Lublin they said that if Yasha had chosen crime, noone’s house would be safe.

[And later:]

He could walk on his hands, eat fire, swallow swords, turn somersaults like a monkey. No one could duplicate his skill.

If he went to the West he’d be rich but that would mean abandoning Lublin and his loving wife Esther and his culture. He lives the bulk of his life on the road returning home only occasionally and briefly to refresh and recharge.

Esther is childless but otherwise their marriage is blessed. She bakes him cookies to welcome him home and they still desire each other and are affectionate and playful. She reflects that “Every day she spent with him was like a holiday.” Perhaps that’s not an entirely good thing.

Esther suspects that he’s unfaithful while on the road but chooses not to probe too deeply. In this as in many things she’s wise for Yasha is prodigiously, recklessly, incontinently unfaithful.

When he tours he travels with a monkey, a crow and a parrot and with his loyal assistant Magda. She’s a Christian from an impoverished family who is like a second wife. She’s built her life around him and  unlike Esther she doesn’t have the option of ignoring his infidelities. What she does share with Esther is the knowledge that whatever happens he’ll come back to her. So far that’s been true.

Yasha heads out to Piask – home to the Piask thieves who wonder at him and ask why he’s never become a thief since he’d be the greatest of them. He has no aptitude for dishonesty and no stomach for the risk of capture. He entertains them with new card tricks and feats of lockpicking. As everywhere there’s no money in it but there’s laughter, a good meal with friends, an always-amazed audience.

Yasha has another woman here of course – Zeftel who is the deserted wife of a Piask thief. The thieves take care of her as one of their own but by sleeping with Yasha she’s offended their idea of honour. Yasha helps her leave but otherwise considers their affair finished. Later all he has to do is see her again for that not to be true. He can’t help himself.

Yasha dreams of flight, of constructing some winged apparatus that will let him soar as the birds. It’s another freedom-dream. He wants to escape but without leaving home. His life on the road gives him that but he doesn’t see it.

If this were all then Yasha’s life could continue as it always had, but like every mythic figure he reaches too far. He falls in love with Elaine – a Christian widow used to a better life than an impoverished entertainer can offer. She wants him to forsake his faith, marry her and then travel to Italy with her to start a career on the Western stages. All they need is money, a lot of it …

Yasha acts as if an atheist, but in his heart he still believes in god. He just isn’t sure that the god he believes in is the Jewish god. He finds it hard to be faithful to just the one deity. Would it make so much difference if instead of failing to pray to the god of the Jews he failed to pray to the god of the Christians instead? What after all do the Jews get from their god?

Jews – an entire community of them – spoke to a God no one saw. Although plagues, famines, poverty and pogroms were His gifts to them, they deemed Him merciful and compassionate, and proclaimed themselves His chosen people. Yasha often envied their unswerving faith.

And yet. To abandon one’s faith is no small thing. And Yasha is not just considering leaving behind his faith but also his community and those he already loves. Esther would be abandoned and he knows she has done nothing to deserve that. Magda too would be left behind since he could hardly take her to his new life with Elaine.

As with so many other women Yasha won Elaine in part by saying whatever she wanted to hear and believing it while he said it. Now he’s committed. With previous affairs he could move on and leave his world unchanged – Esther at home and Magda on the road. Not this time. He considers burglary as the solution to raising the money he needs. He’s lost himself.

Yasha has finally gone too far – soared too close to the sun. He spirals into crisis. He joins prayers at temple though he needs help to remember the trappings and rituals. He briefly becomes a Jew among Jews and takes comfort from it but as soon as prayers end his pride reasserts itself. He thinks too quickly and clearly to accept rote answers and is too restless to study the Torah for more than a source of clever quotes. For all his gifts he has no balance and can’t find a way to live both the life he enjoys and the life of a good Jew.

I won’t of course say what happens though the book wouldn’t be spoiled by knowing. What at first seems a picaresque story of a larger-than-life rogue becomes a story of existentialist crisis. What use is faith if god never answers? Yasha makes a joke of it but it’s stopped being funny:

‘Of course there is [a god], but no one has spoken with Him. How could God speak? If He spoke in Yiddish, the Christians wouldn’t understand; if He spoke French, the English would complain. The Torah claims that he spoke in Hebrew but I wasn’t there to hear it.’

The tone becomes darker. Yasha was comfortable with his doubting faith such as it was. He was comfortable with his equivocal life. Now the escape he always dreamed of is almost in grasp but is the price too high? He’s all too aware that even if it is it won’t be him that pays it but Esther and Magda.

Here Yasha is at the theatre watching a comedy. He’s no longer laughing:

He had seen hundreds of similar farces. The husband was always fatuous, the wife unfaithful, the lover cunning. The moment Yasha stopped smiling, his eyebrows tensed. Who mocked whom here? The same rabble existed everywhere. They danced at weddings and wailed at funerals, swore faithfulness at the altar and corrupted the institution of marriage, wept over a forlorn, fictitious little orphan and butchered each other in wars, pogroms and revolutions.

If there’s a message to Magician I’m not sure what it is. That’s one of many things I like about this novel. Yasha’s choices and fate are surprising and yet reflect his life. Like all fables there’s more here than can easily be measured.

Singer conjures up a vanished world but somehow despite its distance both in time and place – the novel was first published in Yiddish in the US in 1960 and I read it in English in London in 2017 – it is both real and somehow still ours. Yasha and his situation are particular and extreme but the challenge of wanting more than can exist within the one life is I think pretty universal.

Yasha is a man perhaps over-blessed. He is loved by four women. He is skilled at whatever he turns his hand to. He can out-debate rabbis and out-trick thieves. He cannot, however, outwit himself. We contain our own fall.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of. I’d be delighted to be wrong though. There’s a lot I can’t say or discuss here without potentially spoiling the book for a new reader.

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Filed under Singer, Isaac Bashevis

You don’t belong here.

Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by JMQ Davies

Arthur Schnitzler is probably the best overlooked author I know. Dream Story is easily his most famous work partly through getting a release from Penguin Classics and partly through being the source material for Kubrick’s last-completed film Eyes Wide Shut.

Whatever your views on the film (reactions vary wildly) the book is well written, subtle and psychologically astute. This is my fourth Schnitzler and I’d be hard picked to choose a favourite from among them.

Dr Fridolin is an early 20th Century Viennese bourgeois. He’s happily married with a young daughter. The novella opens with the couple telling their little girl a bedtime story – a fable. After she’s gone to sleep Fridolin and his wife Albertine stay up and the conversation becomes intimate as each shares with the other their tales of times they were tempted outside the marriage.

Albertine talks of the shock of her attraction to a young officer she saw for a moment while on holiday with Fridolin. He in turn talks of his attraction to a young woman out bathing whom he briefly locked glances with. It’s an unwise conversation and it leaves Fridolin reeling. Even though their experiences are similar and neither acted on their feelings he sees Albertine as unfaithful.

The conversation is interrupted when Fridolin is called out for an urgent late night visit. A patient is dying and by the time Fridolin arrives it’s already too late. The dead man’s distraught daughter confesses her love for Fridolin and while he rebuffs her it sets him ricocheting through the night.

He meets a young prostitute and goes to her room but they only talk. He’s too conservative a man to do anything even though he’s adrift and feels betrayed. From there he meets an old friend at a café and learns that the man plays piano at secret bacchanals. One is to be held that very evening.

Fridolin convinces his friend to give him the password for entry to this strange ball and then rushes to get a costume. Again things become strange, erotically charged, as the costumier’s daughter proves to be a young woman with possible developmental issues who two other customers are trying to seduce. She flirts with Fridolin evidently welcoming the attention she’s able to provoke despite her father’s disapproval.

The evening is already bizarre and curiously intense but once Fridolin arrives at the ball it gets far more so. His friend had warned him that uninvited guests risked serious harm if they were discovered. Fridolin doesn’t believe him and doesn’t care. He turns up masked, gives the password, and passes within:

… Fridolin entered a dark, dimly lit, high-ceilinged room, draped with black silk hangings. Some sixteen to twenty masked revellers, all dressed in the ecclesiastical apparel of either monks or nuns, were strolling up and down. The softly resonant tones of the harmonium, playing an old Italian sacred tune, seemed to descend as if from on high. In one corner of the room stood a small group of people, three nuns and two monks, who had been looking round at him rather pointedly and then quickly turning away.

Although Schnitzler never goes into explicit details (this was written in 1926 and Fridolin anyway doesn’t get to stay that long) it’s quite plain that the party is an orgy. The women quickly become naked. The men dance with them in a frenzy. It’s a wet fever dream quite beyond anything in Fridolin’s worldview.

Of course he’s spotted and expelled. The guests act as if they plan to kill him, but one woman who sought to warn him of his danger offers herself in his place. He leaves tortured by the thought that she could now be suffering for his folly.

What though is real? The next day he retraces his steps but it all slips from grasp. Nothing seems certain or quite as he thought it was. Was he truly in danger? Did an unknown woman give her life for him? Or did some bored decadents stage a little play to frighten him off? How could he ever know?

If the events of the waking world are nebulous the dreams by contrast seem all too real. He returns to Albertine who tells him of a dream in which she slept with that officer she’d once seen. In the dream Fridolin remained faithful to her and was crucified by a mob while she said nothing to save him. Fridolin becomes lost in his own jealousy and his resentment at Albertine’s perceived betrayal. The parallels with Proust are I suspect quite intentional.

Fridolin has lost himself to passions he can neither understand nor control. He careens from sex to death with the two seeming inextricably linked. At his lowest point he finds himself in a morgue looking for bodies that could be the woman from the previous night. He saw her naked and alive; he sees a corpse that could be hers naked and dead; we are most distinctly in Freudian territory.

Fortunately for Fridolin, Albertine knows that all dreams however erotic or terrifying have this in common: we wake from them. She tells Fridolin:

‘… neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person’s entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being.’

In a sense nothing has happened. Fridolin became lost but swam back to Albertine’s shore, or perhaps better to say that she swims out to him and brings him home. There is more to her than he ever dreamed and more to himself than he ever wanted to know. There are some doors which once opened may lead us places we never dreamt existed within us. Whether one should open those doors and whether Fridolin and Albertine should have is left for the reader to decide.

There’s more to be said and I suspect there are elements which are hard for a contemporary reader to pick up on. For example: Fridolin’s friend is recognisably Jewish (mostly by his accent) and was once subjected to anti-Semitic insult from another Jew. The incident is mentioned only in passing but seems significant. Is Fridolin Jewish? Could that be another reason his gatecrashing was so unwelcome? Honestly I don’t think these are questions I’m well equipped to explore. For a relatively brief novella Dream Story packs a lot in – far more than I could unpack in one blog post.

This is a tautly written book rich with uncertainty and meaning. It’s currently available in Penguin’s Pocket Classics range in a really nicely printed and bound edition so it’s the perfect time to pick it up. If you’re a regular reader of this blog this is very likely one for you.

Other reviews

I’d been aware of this book for ages, but it was this excellent review by Litlove that prompted me to finally read it.

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Filed under Schnitzler, Arthur, Vienna

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt

The thing that makes A Modest Proposal horrific isn’t that it suggests eating babies. It’s that it uses the prevailing logic of its day to make a pretty good case for eating them.

Done well, satire takes our own assumptions and arguments and turns them around. It holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy. It’s uncomfortable, and by that standard Lightning Rods is very good satire indeed.

Joe is a failing Midwest vacuum cleaner salesman. His product’s too good and all his prospective customers already have one. He drinks endless coffees with potential buyers who don’t want to replace their existing machines. He’s not found his market niche.

Joe spends more and more of his time in his trailer home idly masturbating. He’s not even very good at that: he keeps getting distracted by irrelevant background details in his fantasy scenarios and going limp.

What he doesn’t realise is that all of this is preparation. Like so many great American success stories Joe’s a failure at first because he hasn’t yet learned to follow his dream. Admittedly, his dream is a little different to most: it involves imagining having sex with women whose upper bodies poke through a hole in the wall or a window or whatever so that all he sees is their bottom halves. It’s an utterly objectifying dream which reduces his fantasy women to pure parts. Still, it’s his dream and that’s what makes it special.

The book’s written in hindsight – the reader knows that Joe will have an idea that will “one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” This then is an inspiring rags-to-riches story of a man who by being true to himself and daring to think differently changes lives and makes his fortune. It’s the American dream.

Joe’s idea definitely involves thinking differently. He realises that companies all across America are struggling with workplace sexual harassment. He theorises that it’s the libidos of top-performers that create all the tension. If you could have a workplace invention that helped discharge those tensions, well, then you could make real money while doing good at the same time.

If [a top earner] wanted an outlet for his sexual urges he would have to invest the time talking to someone about her interests, with no guarantee that anything would come of it, or he would have to go home and jerk off to a magazine or video, or he would have to pay someone, with all the risks that entailed. But how much time does the top earner in a company realistically have to talk to someone about her interests? If he hires someone, on the other hand, a guy in that kind of position has a lot to lose. He has a reputation that can be damaged. What real choices does he have? If he’s at the office he can’t even put M&M’s down somebody’s blouse. Let alone get any kind of real sexual satisfaction. And a guy like that is going to be spending a lot of time on the job. He works his butt off and at the end of the day he can go home to a magazine. Just like Joe Schmoe sitting on his butt all day in a trailer.

Joe is a salesman, and one of his many mottos is that “We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.” So, some guys make money for their companies but harass female employees. You could change their behaviour, but that’s not how a salesman thinks. A salesman deals with the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be.

Joe decides that what the workplace needs is “lightning rods” – women who work as secretaries or administrators or whatever and who most of the time do that job, but who also anonymously provide a service where from time to time their rear-half is wheeled through a hole in the wall for the company’s highest-performing men to have sex with. Hiring them will help discharge the sexual tensions that could otherwise build up and become problematic.

It is of course an utterly repulsive concept. DeWitt though dresses it in the blandly positive language of corporate life. Joe sells the idea to his first client by pointing out that they have legally-mandated disabled toilets but no disabled employees. Why not make use of those cubicles by installing Joe’s facility within the existing unused facility? It’s just plain efficient and it makes good use of a wasted resource.

Of course some find the idea distasteful, but for Joe it’s all in the presentation. He’s not providing prostitutes but professional women who do a great day job and then provide this extra service (of course for a suitable uplift in pay). For it all to work he doesn’t just have to convince the (notably all male-run) companies but also the women who’ll slide backwards into those holes. Naturally, he sells the concept to them with the language of empowerment:

He said: “It’s not for everyone. We’re looking for the kind of woman who is confident about herself. The kind of woman who has aims she wants to achieve. We’re looking for someone with maturity. We’re looking for someone who wants to make a real contribution to the company and expects to be compensated accordingly.”

As Joe would say, it’s a win-win. The women get a pay uplift and the knowledge they’re making a difference. The guys get protected from their own impulses:

The way to look at it was, if a guy, through no fault of his own, has not been brought up to treat women with respect, is it fair that his whole career should be put in jeopardy? Is it fair that on top of the disadvantage he has anyway in competing against guys who have been to Harvard and Yale, he should have the additional handicap of endangering his career every time he is in the vicinity of female personnel?

DeWitt is too good a writer to editorialise about Joe’s idea or its adoption. Instead she adopts an utterly flat tone. Joe’s not a deluded creep who lucks out by finding himself in a culture that sees women as commodities. He’s a hero of contemporary capitalism. He’s a pioneer disrupting traditional industries and hierarchies. Before too long:

absenteeism was down, profits were up, everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Of course he faces difficulties along the way. Much of the book is a faintly repetitive telling of how Joe encounters some problem such as a hostile HR manager or race relations laws which require him to hire women regardless of ethnicity (which in turn makes it harder to maintain their anonymity), but each time he thinks of a solution. It’s the can-do ethic which made America great.

Of course some details have to be smoothed out along the way, but any great enterprise always encounters a few hiccups. As one of the women reflects (Renée who uses her earnings to study law and eventually becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court):

[America] was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex.

Sure, you can if you want get bogged down in questions of morality and legality, but why when you could be changing the world instead?

Lightning Rods is partly an examination of how language can be used to make the unacceptable palatable. The corporate-speak here masks something most of us would find viscerally wrong, but in real life we talk of “rightsizing” when we mean mass layoffs or of “finding efficiencies” when we mean sweating assets and, again, mass layoffs. Language doesn’t disguise what we do but it does put it in a candy shell so that we can swallow it without difficulty.

However, Lightning Rods is also a critique of a certain seductive mentality. Let’s look at that saying of Joe’s again:

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Superficially that makes sense. It’s persuasive. It seems almost like common sense. We have to engage with reality, with the people we actually have in front of us, not with the imaginary people that we’d like them to be.

All that’s true so far as it goes. The trouble is if we only ever deal with people as they are nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Women used not to have access to education or the vote. Deal with people as they are and that doesn’t change. You have to confront people to make progress. You have to refuse to deal with them as they are.

We don’t of course have lightning rods in the workplace. Joe’s idea would never fly in real life. Back in the ‘90s though and even early 2000s as a junior I overheard multiple senior workplace conversations about whether it was better not to put certain employees in front of certain clients. Companies weren’t in the business of social change. They had to deal with people as they are, and if a client was sexist or racist or homophobic it was unfair to both the employee and the client to put someone from one of those groups in front of them.

I don’t hear those conversations any more. I’m not saying they never happen but they’re no longer mainstream thought. Sometimes it’s better not to accept people as they are.

Other reviews

Lots, mostly absolutely glowing. John Self of The Asylum argues here that the book is primarily about language in a post that first alerted me to this; David Hebblethwaite here mildly disagrees with John in terms of the book’s focus but agrees on its excellence; Gaskella also sings its praises here. I’m sure I’ve missed others. Also worth noting is this tremendous negative review of the book by Bibliokept which is pretty much a model of how to write well about a book you didn’t like.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, DeWitt, Helen