The thing came to me as a stark inhumanity.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

I last read The Island of Doctor Moreau as a teenager. It didn’t do much for me then, dwarfed by the more obvious charms of The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. The only reason I returned to it all these years later was because I was planning to read Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel and had heard that Moreau partly inspired Morel.

Reading Moreau as preparation for Morel wasn’t particularly necessary as I’ve now read Morel and other than the title and island setting there’s not much commonality. Fortunately, it turns out that adult me likes The Island of Doctor Moreau a lot more than teenage me did.

Island opens with a framing device. The manuscript the reader is about to encounter was left behind by an Edward Prendick, now deceased. Prendick was lost at sea and on recovery a year or so later initially told a fantastical tale before claiming he had lost all memory of what had happened during his absence. His health never truly recovered.

From there we’re into the book proper – Prendick’s posthumous account of what really happened to him which can be published now he’s safe from being locked up as a lunatic. It’s an ugly tale of science without morality (a common Wellsian theme) and of how little separates the human from the animal.

After an offscreen shipwreck Prendick is left adrift at sea. He’s finally picked up by a strange ramshackle trading ship with a drunken captain and a cargo of exotic animals. He’s not the only passenger – there’s a dissolute and rather weak young Englishman named Montgomery and Montgomery’s half-witted servant M’ling who both the crew and animals fear and loathe.

The black face thus flashed upon me startled me profoundly. The facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth. His eyes were bloodshot at the edges, with scarcely a rim of white round the hazel pupils. There was a curious glow of excitement in his face.

Although M’ling does nothing wrong, Prendick can’t help but feel a shock of revulsion at him. The abhorrence is somehow intrinsic; a sense of wrongness. Soon Prendick realises that M’ling is even stranger than he at first imagined:

It may seem a little thing to you, perhaps, but it came like a sudden blow to me. The only light near us was a lantern at the wheel. The creature’s face was turned for one brief instant out of the dimness of the stern towards this illumination, and I saw that the eyes that glanced at me shone with a pale-green light.

These early parts of the book (in fact the whole first half really) are wonderfully creepy. Wells is very, very good on the unnaturalness of all this and on the horror that comes not from something terrible happening or being threatened but just by virtue of things not being as they should be.

Montgomery and M’ling are taking the animal cargo to a supposedly uninhabited island and against Prendick’s protests the ship’s captain and crew take the opportunity to dump him there too. It’s there he meets Doctor Moreau, a vivisectionist exiled years past from London society for his unusual cruelty and arrogance. Nobody knew what had happened to him, but here he is surrounded by servants of peculiar appearance and strangely garbled speech.

The island is a miserable place: the climate too hot; the food poor; Montgomery often drunk; the servants oddly repellent; but worst of all is Moreau who Prendick soon realises never ceased his experiments in vivisection but instead has taken them to new and undreamed of extremes. Moreau is swift to take his knife to the new animal captives:

Suddenly the puma howled again, this time more painfully. Montgomery swore under his breath. Then the poor brute within gave vent to a series of short, sharp screams.

As Moreau chillingly reminds Prendick, “‘You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things’”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Moreau has been using his extraordinary skills and lack of conscience as a vivisector to transform animals into men. Scientifically of course it’s nonsense but that doesn’t matter because it allows Wells to explore some very fruitful themes.

What is it that makes a person human? Moreau takes his poor beasts and tortures them into upright forms that look mostly like us. Their hands are often misshapen and their speech can be difficult to follow but for all that they do have hands and speech. Moreau gives them law and a form of religion which leads to a fantastic scene where Prendick finds himself in the home of the beast-men as they recite the litany given them by Moreau.

To a late 19th Century reader some scenes here must have been fairly shocking. The beast-men see Moreau as their creator; they recite a creed to honour him and see him as an Englishman would see his Christian God. They believe that even when absent Moreau knows if they break his laws – run on all fours, hunt game, drink water by lapping it direct from pool or stream.

Nature, however, will out. The beast-men no longer have the innocence of animals but nor have their instincts entirely abandoned them. Without the repetition of the law they quickly fall back into savagery. But then, the ship’s captain and crew at the beginning abandoned Prendick to Moreau’s island out of caprice and cruelty. Are the beast-men so different? Are the humans here better? Nobody comes out of this well.

We know from the start that it won’t last. The opening chapter mentions that the only island that fits Prendick’s description is uninhabited without sign of Moreau or Montgomery or beast-men or any of them. We know Prendick leaves and is eventually found and brought home.

Once back he finds that Moreau’s island changed him just as it changed the unfortunate animals Moreau took under his knife. Prendick reflects:

I am told that even now my eyes have a strange brightness, a swift alertness of movement.

Much worse is his internal change. He has seen the thin line separating animals from men and now returned he can see it still:

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. … prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood, old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves and all unheeding a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel, and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered Big Thinks even as the Ape Man had done;

This was a deeply topical book. The morality of vivisection was hotly debated in Wells’ time and the implications of evolution and the idea that humanity was not some form of separate creation to animals remained controversial to many. Now those are both largely (though not entirely) settled topics and yet the book retains its power.

As I write this my mind keeps turning to the various forms of savages Prendick encounters: the ship’s captain and crew; Moreau and Montgomery; the beast-men. The beast-men elicit instinctive disgust and pity but for all their barely repressed savagery it’s no accident on Wells’ part that the true cruelties of this book are performed by people.

Wells’ science fiction is the science fiction of big ideas. For some reason his stories seem often to be taken very literally. People seem to miss that The War of the Worlds is about the experience of colonialism for those colonised; or that The First Men in the Moon addresses the need for morality in business and science. It seems more common to pick up that The Time Machine is in large part about class inequality but even that is often taken at a purely surface level. Perhaps it’s because he writes such good adventure stories that people often miss his underlying sharp criticisms most of which sadly remain all too relevant.

On a last note, I read the rather good Pocket Penguin edition of this which comes with sparse but well-judged notes. At one point for example Prendick refers to a “comus rout” among the beast-men which meant nothing to me but which a footnote then helpfully explains both in terms of the direct reference and in terms of a potential source of inspiration for Wells. It’s a really good edition and if you decide to give this a go I entirely recommend it.

Other reviews

Tons I’m sure, but none I know of on any of the blogs I typically follow. If I’m wrong on that I’d be delighted to be corrected in the comments.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Science Fiction, Wells, H.G.

This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

The Proof, by Cesar Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

‘Wannafuck?’

When I read The Proof I enjoyed it but initially found it a little slight. I admired its energy and clarity even if I couldn’t quite see what the point of it was.

I’m now a month or two on and the surprise has been how sharp and bright The Proof has remained in memory. I find myself wanting to read more like it, even though I’m not quite sure what “like it” would look like.

Love that cover.

The book opens with the single compound word I opened this review with – ‘wannafuck?’ It’s an instant shock to the reader. It stops you in your tracks.

It doesn’t quite stop Marcia, the teenage girl it’s directed to, because it takes her a moment to realise she’s its target. She’s an ordinary girl, conventional even, and that kind of greeting is entirely beyond her experience.

Marcia was blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes. Her face was flushed from her walk, but it was always ruddy anyway.

She looks around and sees who called out to her:

They were two punks, dressed in black. Very young, although maybe slightly older than she was, with pale, childish features.

The punks call themselves Mao and Lenin, and it was Mao who called out to Marcia. Mao insists the offer is quite serious and that she’s in love with Marcia on first sight. Marcia isn’t interested but the conversation continues and the three girls head off down the street together.

They go to a café where Marcia tries to understand what it’s like to be a punk. The question doesn’t interest the punks themselves who nihilistically proclaim that nothing matters, or at least nothing Marcia is talking about matters.

There’s a sense of clashing philosophies. Marcia sympathises with a waitress in the café who has to ask them to leave since they won’t order. The punks are contemptuous and take the view that if they cause the waitress to lose her job that’s no great loss for anyone concerned.

Put like that it sounds like an ordinary argument. Idealism versus cynicism. But it’s not that simple because Mao and Lenin are arguing for the purity of love and what could be more idealistic than that? The punks are transcendent: black and white and pure of purpose. Marcia is ruddy, earthy, everyday. Marcia fears that once the punks see how ordinary she actually is they may prefer the waitress to her. She doesn’t see what they do: that love itself makes her extraordinary.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I talked of a sense of clashing philosophies and part of why this stays so sharp in hindsight is that it is just a sense – Aira doesn’t spell anything out and the uncertainty of what’s at stake somehow makes the impact all the more powerful.

While in the café the punks tell Marcia a story of an acquaintance and a lost necklace. It’s a reflection of the wider novel – not in terms of content or structure but in terms of how the two cannot be separated:

Marcia couldn’t believe it. This was the first time in her life that she had heard a well-told story, and it had seemed to her sublime, an experience that made up for all the fears this meeting had caused.

To start with, she grasped that it was not done to go on praising the form; such praise had to be transmitted implicitly in her comments on the content. But she was so dazzled that content and form became intertwined; whatever she might say about the former would inevitably be transferred to the latter.

The conversation ends; the punks declare that love requires proof and from there the novel goes at unstoppable pace to an extraordinary and bloody conclusion. To the extent it was ever realistic it leaves that realism gasping in its wake (yet without any element of the fantastical).

At the end I can’t actually say what The Proof is about, or indeed if it’s even about anything much at all. I don’t understand it. I think that’s part of what I like about it. It’s audacious. It’s tremendous fun. I love it as Mao loves Marcia – for itself but without reason. I’ve already bought more Aira.

Other reviews

Only one I have a note of which is by Grant of 1st Reading here. Grant’s review persuaded me to give this a go and I’m very glad I did.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian Literature, Spanish Literature

… you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

Martin John is one of the best reviewed novels of the past couple of years, both in number and quality of reviews. Not bad for a book which I suspect hasn’t actually sold that well. It epitomises the willingness of small press publishers to take risks on unconventional stories and styles.

At its simplest level Martin John is a novel about a sex offender. Mostly he’s a flasher, but given the opportunity he’s a groper and if left unchecked he is quite capable of escalating to full on assault. He is profoundly damaged and damaging. He lacks remorse or even the most basic willingness to acknowledge the consequences of his actions. One of his refrains is “Harm was done.” He prefers not to consider by or to whom.

What’s truly interesting here is not so much the portrait of Martin John himself, excellent as that is, but the manner in which that portrait is painted. The book opens with an index, as follows:

Index
1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the chair.

These are phrases (“refrains”) that Martin John lives by and which help him give meaning to his world. His mam has sent him to London from Ireland to get him away from the trouble he caused back home and he believes that if he follows certain systems that trouble won’t find him again. His world is carefully built up from patterns, mantras, his mam’s warnings and his own denials.

Much of the book is told from Martin John’s perspective. The style is staccato. A single page might include only four or five lines of text. Each on a single line. We’re locked in Martin John’s head. His experience.

Other perspectives intrude. Mam’s. The narrator’s.

In most novels the narrator is either abstract and omniscient or a character within the fiction. Here the narrator seems to be the author – commenting from within the text on what she’s written and making asides to the reader. At one point Schofield reflects:

Rules have already been broken in this book. The index told us about refrains, not rules. There was no mention of rules early on. Martin John will not like this.

This is a book whose structure is inseparable from its subject. The text is fractured, sly, often opaque. Martin John the book is Martin John the man.

At times this is extremely funny. As Martin John’s mental state unravels he becomes obsessed with his upstairs lodger who he believes to be the vanguard of some inchoate but implacable enemy and Martin John’s reactions to the most ordinary of events become increasingly extreme. He’s losing control. His refrains aren’t working any more. They were never that reliable anyway.

When interviewed, Mr Patel – the most gentle of souls, arthritis in his left knee – could not credit the fight that took place and the bags of sugar that flew, and the tinned steak and kidney pies that were toppled in that brief five-minute bare-knuckle dust-up over the last copy of the Daily Express.

As the book continues both it and Martin John himself find it harder to avoid the reality of what he is and what he does. Slowly the nature of his behaviour emerges. His crimes; his excuses.

Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him.

He likes it too. He likes what they like.

Martin John  is a petty predator. When he goes too far he risks getting in the trouble his mam sent him away to avoid. However, what becomes apparent is quite how much he can get away with before that point. Sitting next to women on the tube and rubbing against them. A little casual exposure here and there. Mostly people just move away or try to ignore him. That silence allows normalisation. Escalation. We’re at page 176 before Schofield comments:

See how still no one mentions the girl?

Before the book closes we’ll find out quite what it was he did that led to his mam sending him away from Ireland. Making a life for yourself in London isn’t much of a punishment. It isn’t really a punishment at all. The girl, now a woman, she still lives with what Martin John did.

Until Schofield asked the question I was paying more attention to Martin John and his life than I was to his victims. They weren’t named. They are faceless women chosen by him for proximity or ease of access. Schofield directs our gaze as society directs its – towards the man. When she turns back to the woman he assaulted it’s devastating.

My last thought is on sense of period in the novel. Interestingly many reviewers don’t seem to have picked up that Martin John isn’t a contemporary novel (Grant at 1st Reading is an honourable exception). No date is ever referenced, but there’s plenty of clues. There’s pay phones rather than mobiles; no mention of the internet; a guard station has an old black and white portable television; Pat Kenny is presenting the Eurovision which is hosted by Ireland (which suggests 1988); there are VCRs and teletext. It’s actually a fairly precise and clear depiction of period. If you read carefully it’s evident that Martin John is set in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.

Why do some miss this? My theory is that it’s because much contemporary literary fiction is terrible at portraying our everyday present. If novels set now feel vaguely historic, which to me they often do, it’s easy to miss the fact that another novel is set in the recent past unless it flat out tells you that it is. So, what time does Martin John take place in:

It was a time when people didn’t see stuff. That was the time it was.

Other reviews

John Self reviewed this at the Guardian here and Grant of 1st Reading reviewed it at his here. I seem to have lost my notes of other reviews so please let me know of them in the comments.

Finally, if you read books both in ebook form and hardcopy this is definitely one to get in hardcopy. The formatting matters here and while it’s preserved in the kindle sample I looked at it’s not nearly as apparent. The pages and structure have an impact which is best seen in the physical version.

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Filed under Schofield, Anakana

“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.

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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