Tuesday 29 October 2013

'My Blood's Country' by Fiona Capp (Review)

It's time for the last of my Christmas Humbook books, the second of Lisa's choices - and it was left to last for a reason.  Firstly, it's a biography (I don't read many of them); secondly, it's a biography of a poet (I'm not much of a fan of poetry); thirdly, it discusses a poet I'd never heard of...

Hmm, long odds here.  So, what will I make of this one?

My Blood's Country is an attempt by writer and journalist Fiona Capp to follow in the footsteps of poet and activist Judith Wright, a very well-known Australian (well, to anyone born here, anyway!).  Capp met Wright for the first time when the older poet came to talk to her school, and she has been obsessed with her work ever since, also keeping up a relationship through letters and occasional visits.

After Wright's death, Capp goes on a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting the three main areas where Wright spent her life in the hope of understanding the effect the environment played on the poetry.  There is another motive however.  She is also half-hoping to see traces of Wright herself in the places she visits...

My Blood's Country isn't a biography as such; it's really more of a travel book.  Capp takes the reader on a trip to the New England plains in New South Wales, Mount Tambourine in Queensland and Mongarlowe, away in the Canberra Hinterland.  By seeing where Wright lived, we (hopefully) will understand her poetry more and also gain an insight into some of her other passions.

While it's not a biography though, we do get a fair bit of information about the poet's life.  Wright comes from a famous farming family in New England, one which owned vast tracts of land, and her grandmother May, the Wright matriarch, shrewdly made the family's fortune with her sound management of the estates.

Judith Wright was initially proud of her background, but in later life she began to turn away from this view.  She started to see the darker side of the family's fortunes, and as a woman (in a family which became ironically patriarchal) she was never going to inherit the land.  In fact, she was destined to lose it completely as one of her brothers overextended and had to sell up, information which had Capp musing:
"The irony, I couldn't help thinking as I wandered the garden at Wallamumbi, was that her exclusion from ownership of the property and the inevitable sense of exile this bred was what had made her a poet.  As is often the case with those whose great achievement is to transform their personal suffering or pain into a work of art, her loss was our gain."
p.47 (Allen & Unwin, 2012)
The loss of Wright's childhood home was a double-edged sword - a sad affair, but one which helped make her the poet she was...

Wright also began to realise the role her family had played in the displacement of the local Indigenous people, with her parents' wealth coming at the expense of the traditional way of life.  When her father reveals the story behind the name of a rock called 'Darkies' Point', she is horrified, and this shock and anger helps propel her into her later career as an activist for reform.

It's the environment though which seemed to be Wright's major love.  Capp concentrates on the natural features of the places the poet lived, and each of three main homes showcases a different feature of Australian nature.  There are beautiful descriptions of the tablelands, the subtropics and the bush, and Capp learns from Wright of the importance of native plants.

Moving away from Wright though, My Blood's Country is just as much about Capp herself as it is about her subject.  This is, in part, her story, an attempt to understand the woman she regarded as a mentor and a friend.  Wright imparted her first advice when Capp was a schoolgirl - in a polite letter:
"I think one of the best disciplines I know of, for young Australians brought up on a diet of English poetry, is to study Chinese and Japanese poems - if not in the original, which you probably never will be able to, then in the best translations you can get.  Their kind of aesthetic, which is a bad word for something important, is much sterner and less sloppy than ours, and it does anyone good to try to pare down words to essentials and to see things clearly." (p.5)
The stripped-back style of Japanese and Chinese poetry obviously had its appeal for Wright at that period of her life, and Capp comments that it is typical for her stark, simple writing.

Capp's hope of retracing Wright's steps in order to better understand her, to somehow reencounter her, are doomed to failure though.  Nothing remains of the past, and the quest becomes an impossible, elusive journey.  The younger writer is disappointed by how the reality differs from the images (gleaned from poems) in her head...

My Blood's Country is an interesting read, even if it's a little confused in its focus.  What is it meant to be?  Is it a biography, a travel book or a story of self-discovery?  It's enjoyable enough, but I suspect that it would be a lot more so if you had heard of the writer before reading it.  Lisa hinted that finishing this book would leave me wanting to try Wright's poems - I'm not so convinced, but you never know...

Before I leave you though, there was one coincidental connection I discovered while reading the book.  Wright's daughter, Meredith McKinney, is a renowned translator of Japanese literature, having brought several classics into English, including... Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura.  And?  Well, I'm a big fan of his (I reread this book very recently), and this was one of my return Humbook choices!

Over to you, Lisa ;)

Sunday 27 October 2013

'Happy Valley' by Patrick White (Review)

After my recent review of Le Colonel Chabert, today it's time for the second of my Christmas Humbook selections.  Lisa, of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, chose a couple of Aussie books for me to try, and this post looks at the first of them.  The novel is not widely read, but the writer is very well-known...

Patrick White is still Australia's only real Nobel Prize for Literature winner (for me, the South-African import J.M. Coetzee doesn't really count...), and Happy Valley, brought out in the Text Classics series, was his first novel, a book which he refused to allow to be republished during his lifetime.  It's a shame because it's a great read, an addition to the body of Australian country literature and an ideal entry into White's work for new readers.

Happy Valley is a small town in country New South Wales, and the story takes place in the mid-to-late 1930s.  It used to be a gold-mining boom town, but now it's sparsely populated, a sleepy bush town with little going on.  The first few chapters introduce us to the town, and some of its residents, seen through the (cinematic) eyes of a hawk, hovering high overhead.  This artistic touch is soon addressed in true Aussie fashion though, as several of the characters think about shooting it down...

In these first few chapters, we meet several pivotal characters.  There's a new arrival, farm manager Clem Hagan, brought in to oversee work on the land of the Furlow family, and Doctor Oliver Halliday, bored of marriage and bored of life in Happy Valley.  Among the women, we meet potential spinster Alys Browne, and Sidney Furlow, a local heiress, beautiful and cold.  And always in the background, the Quongs, descendants of a Chinese immigrant, shopkeepers and silent witnesses to what happens in the town.

On the one hand, Happy Valley is one of those typical tales of the Australian country with its blistering summer heat, isolation, and bushfires.  There's a sense familiar to anyone who's read Oz-Lit before.  One of the minor characters, Sidney's English suitor, feels completely out of his depth:
"There is something here completely foreign to anything I know, felt Roger Kemble, those hands that touch a different substance, and despising what I touch."
p.167 (Text Classics, 2012)
The reader, however, is in very familiar territory.

White draws a skillful picture of the isolated town, small and run-down:
"Happy Valley became that peculiarly tenacious scab on the body of the brown earth.  You waited for it to come away leaving a patch of pinkness underneath.  You waited and it did not happen, and because of this you felt there was something in its nature particularly perverse." (p.138)
It's a town of few amusements, just the pub, the weekly picture hall and the annual races, and in a place where everyone knows everyone else, the arrival of a stranger (Hagan) is a big event.  What really raises interest though is when bored men and women start to look around for something to distract themselves from the torpor of everyday existence - now infidelity is really interesting...

At the heart of the story are the attempts some characters make to break free of the crushing gravitational pull of the town.  Vic Moriarty, the frustrated wife of the sickly local teacher is drawn to bad boy Clem (who also has his eyes fixed elsewhere...).  Dr. Halliday, trapped in a loveless marriage with an older woman, is looking for a transfer to Queensland, but is distracted by a blossoming friendship.  Alys Browne wants to escape to California, and is waiting for her ship (or her shares) to come in.  Many want to leave the town - it's doubtful though whether they'll actually ever manage it...

Happy Valley is a book built around the main love triangles, but there's so much more to enjoy.  White creates a great ensemble cast of characters, including the inscrutable Quongs.  The family faces subtle (and unsubtle) discrimination, looked down upon by the Anglo residents, tolerated for their use in providing daily goods.  Yet they are actually the locals, there from start to finish - the whites are the ones who are simply passing through...

In addition to the interesting plot, the book is also notable for the language used.  After the first few introductory chapters, the language becomes more complex, and there is a definite stream-of-consciousness style, with obvious influences.  Many passages evoke Woolf, and at the heart of the novel the writing becomes almost Joycean in its confusion:
"The wind is wind is water wind or water white in pockets of the eyes was once a sheep before time froze the plover call alew aloo atingle is the wire that white voice across the plain on thistle thorn the wind pricks face the licked fire the wind flame tossing out distance on a reel." (p.225)
Thoughts intermingle, sentences start and trail off, cut down by new thoughts, only half-expressed...  It's not easy to push through at times, but it's always worth it.

As far as I know, there's no paperback version of Happy Valley out yet.  Hopefully, it's on its way as it's a fascinating book, and a worthy introduction to a great writer, one more people should try.  Don't be fooled by the name of the book though - Happy Valley?  Only in the ironic Australian use of the word:
"There never was co-operation in Happy Valley, not even in the matter of living, or you might even say less in the matter of living.  In Happy Valley the people existed in spite of each other." (pp.27/8)
Ah, Australia...

Thursday 24 October 2013

'Bullfight' by Yasushi Inoue (Review)

You'd think that three Ryu Murakami reissues and a new translation into English would be enough Japanese books for a publisher for one year, but Pushkin Press have decided to take a further step in 2013 with their foray into J-Lit.  The latest book to appear is a classic novella, one which looks at life in post-war Japan, with particular reference to newspapers and bulls...

Yasushi Inoue's Bullfight (new translation by Michael Emmerich, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is set in Osaka between December 1946 and January 1947.  Tsugami, editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening Post, is a successful man, a journalist who has worked his way up to an important position.  However, he feels that there's something missing in his life and longs to make a big coup.  It's at this point that Tashiro, a rather shady character, approaches him and makes an unorthodox proposal - why not organise a bullfight, here, in Osaka?

What at first glance seems a stupid idea quickly becomes more attractive.  In the rubble of post-war Japan, people are desperate for entertainment, especially if they can gamble on it:
"Betting, he was thinking, yes, this could work.  Everyone would put money on the bulls - it would be no different here in the urban Hanshin region than it was in W.  In these postwar days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives."
p.19 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Tsugami quickly decides to support the venture and begins drumming up support at the newspaper.  The event, featuring twenty-two snorting beasts transported north from Shikoku, will take place in January at the famous Hanshin (Koshien) baseball stadium.  He'll build it - but will they come?

Bullfight is an absorbing little book, 120 pages that slip by in no time.  The focus is squarely on Tsugami, a man who has found the challenge he's been looking for in the form of the unique event.  Although already a success, he desperately wants to do something to make his mark, and he commits himself to the project despite the obvious risk involved.  The paper, which backs his proposal, is a daring, satirical publication:
"...a paper for the slightly unsavoury intellectual..." (p.23)
Tsugami himself is exactly the kind of man this description is aimed at...

Even though he's a clever fellow, he's out of his depth here.  Costs mount up and the people he deals with are far more cunning than he.  He has to deal with the slimy Tashiro, a wheeler-dealer if ever there was one, and businessman Okabe, a drunkard who offers help while using Tsugami's event for his own gain.  The excrement the bulls produce is far from being the only bullshit around here...

While focused on Tsugami though, Bullfight is also the story of post-war Japan.  Osaka is full of bombed buildings, but these are exciting times, and there are plenty of opportunities to make money if you know how - and have the nerve.  Life is beginning to return to normal, with baseball back in full swing and the New Year's bells ringing in Kyoto for the first time in years.  This bullfight is just another exciting venture to thrill the masses.

Over the course of the novel, Inoue slowly reveals Tsugami's character.  While he is initially calm, calculating and rational, a gambling streak swiftly rises to the surface.  What the reader sees is a man unable to hedge his bets, even when the chance arises (and he has several opportunities to walk away and cut his losses...).  He's simply not the kind of man to share the risks - for Tsugami, it's all or nothing...

The only one who sees this is his girlfriend Sakiko (Tsugami does have a wife and kids, but - in true Japanese fashion - they are safely elsewhere...).  Locked in a stagnant relationship for years, she wants to leave him but never quite can.  She alone knows the fever that burns inside him, and realises that this opportunity is what he's been waiting for all this time:
"They sat for a long time, saying nothing.  It was a peculiarly quiet moment, unlike any Sakiko had experienced in all the years she and Tsugami had been together.  The face of this man, liberated now from his work, as if some possessing spirit had lost its hold on him, looked oddly plain and docile.  Oh, look at him - that helpless face, she thought.  And suddenly, like water spreading through her, she felt something that was neither love nor hatred, but a sense of how truly lost he would be without her.  It was a pure feeling, far removed from desire.  Again and again, endlessly, the bells rang." (pp.51/2)
Sakiko realises that the bullfight is a make-or-break event, for both of them.  But which will it be?

Bullfight is a wonderful story, a very readable tale with a serious moral beneath the surface.  On one level, it's a cautionary tale of one man's tragic flaw, but on another it takes a look at the state of the nation, one which some think is on the up, but others would argue is on a steep moral decline.  The decision to have the book retranslated by Emmerich is a good one - it's a very smooth translation, making the novella even more enjoyable to read.  Entertaining, with a typically-Japanese open ending, reading Inoue's book is simply a great way to spend a couple of hours - and that's no bull ;)

Tuesday 22 October 2013

'The Swimmers' by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre (Review)

Frisch & Co. is a new publisher specialising in translated fiction, with all their titles appearing in digital form only.  I didn't have much luck with the first book I tried, but from the start, today's choice was the one I really had my eye on.  Reviews compare the book with works by Haruki Murakami, David Lynch and Paul Auster - and while those comparisons are fairly apt, this writer has a style all of his own...

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre's The Swimmers (translated by Lucas Lyndes, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novel in fifty short chapters, mirroring the fifty 50-metre lengths the protagonist swims three times a week.  Jonás, our water-loving friend, is a photographer who, after breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, takes a step back from his career, instead taking pictures for newspapers.

Recently, his time has been spent drinking, working part-time and swimming with his best friend, Sergio, and he has been content to let the world slide by at its own pace as he gets on with his life, one length of the pool at a time.  However, when his father informs him that his mother has disappeared, uncontactable for a couple of months, Jonás realises that something is very wrong.  You see, his mother is not the first person to go missing - and she won't be the last...

The Swimmers is an excellent novel, and the comparisons above are (to me, at least) fairly apt.  In Jonás, we have a very Murakamiesque protagonist, and the slow, measured build-up, with the action implied rather than confronting, builds the tension nicely.  The pivotal scene of the book towards the end is comparable to what Murakami does in both The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore - as is the ambiguous ending.

Jonás is a loner, who is simply not adapting to life in his new flat without his partner.  He's begun to retreat from his commitments, almost living just for his swimming and his lunches with Sergio:
"...because his whole life is strapped to his back and right this instant it takes up no more space than that backpack, he could go practically anywhere, he wouldn't be leaving anything that important behind, in truth there's nothing waiting for him, just that fifty-meter stretch across the water."
(Frisch & Co., 2013)
The one thing that allows him to feel in control of his life is the beautiful rhythm of swimming long distances.

The book can be seen as a subtle criticism of society, one where people no longer make the time to see each other.  As Jonás says to his father:
"And don't go obsessing over this thing with Mom.  There are thousands of families in this city who don't see each other on a regular basis, friends who lose track of one another, and that doesn't mean anyone's vanished into thin air all of a sudden.  I've had friends where if I fall out of touch or lose their cell phone number, if they move to a new place or change their email address, I've got no way to find them."
Tired, permanently stressed, he (like many of us) has no time for family and friends.  Modern life, well, it's rubbish...

While I talked about the Murakami feel of the book above, another novel that came to mind while reading The Swimmers was Saramago's Blindness, not so much because of the style but for the connection between the central ideas.  Like Saramago's contagious blindness, Perez Azaústre's mysterious disappearances seem to impose a bizarre new problem on a fairly normal society, with people gradually becoming more and more frightened as they lose contact with their loved ones.  As in Blindness, it doesn't take long everyone to start to panic.
However, it's also possible that the disappearances are merely an allegory - perhaps it's Jonás who's taking a step back from life.  The ever emptier streets and the uncrowded trains might just be a symptom of his problems, representing his gradual withdrawal.  The shadows he sees at the swimming pool, vague outlines lurking behind the large plate-glass windows, might represent the people he's left behind, or lost along the way.  Jonás is certainly nostalgic about his childhood and his lost love - perhaps The Swimmers is a reflection on the loss of contact modern life brings.

The style of the novel is beautiful with long, elegant, sentences mirroring the powerful, driving strokes of Jonás the swimmer (it's no coincidence that there are fifty chapters...).  The writer uses themes of water, light, shadow, heat and coolness to... well, I'm not quite sure, but I'm sure they're there for a reason ;)  The mentions of water are particularly frequent, as you would expect, and there seems to be a connection between the pool, the abandoned water park and the canvas Jonás' mother was working on, one that eventually makes sense.  Even so, it's hard to get your head around everything on a first read - it's a book which deserves to be reread.

I had a quick look around, but I couldn't find any other example of the writer's work in English, which is a surprise.  I loved this book, and it's the kind of novel that many other readers would love too.  Kudos to Frisch & Co., and Lucas Lyndes, on bringing Perez Azaústre's work into English; hopefully, they'll team up again in the future to publish more of his books.

And while we're speaking about the translator, there's a great little piece on the publisher's web-site, in which he discusses the process of translating The Swimmers, with particular mention of style and sentence length.  Anyone interested should definitely take a look :)

Sunday 20 October 2013

The Year So Far...

It's not long until I have my latest bloggerversary (five long years...), but that joyous occasion is usually ignored, coming as it does at the turn of the year.  I thought then that it might be nice to slow down and reflect now, at a time when I'm feeling less rushed than I have been of late.  And, of course, having recently passed a milestone also makes this a good time for a round-up...

Last week I brought up the century, 100 books down for the year, just half-way through October.  That's not too shabby and is comparable to the pace set over the last couple of years.  The big change though has been in the percentage of translated fiction read and reviewed on the blog.  You see, of those 100 books, only eight were originally written in English...

It's not a statistic that should really come as a surprise (to me or my readers).  The last two years have seen an increased, wider focus on literature in translation on Tony's Reading List, starting with my participation in the IFFP Shadow Panel last year.  Where previously I had only really read a lot of German- and Japanese-language novels, 2012 and 2013 have seen a much more varied diet of literature in translation.

Recently, however, I've decided that it's just a bit too much (8%?  I could start a new backlash blog...).  In fact, at times, it seems that I've actively been avoiding Anglophone writers and picking up anything with an exotic feel.  Next year, I'm pretty sure I'll be picking up a few more English-language books - it's definitely time to catch up with some neglected writers...

Another change this year was in the number of review copies falling into my letter box.  In previous years, I've had the odd whinge about not getting freebies, but while I'm still ignored a bit (especially by bigger publishers), I've received many more review copies this year.  In particular, some of the newer, smaller publishers of translated literature have approached me to review books - obviously my fame has spread ;)  Still, at around 50% of my total this year, review copies have taken up far too much of my reading time.  It's time to cut down on ARCs and try more of what I really want to read, regardless of when it was published.

So, what do I want?  Well, don't expect major changes...  As mentioned, I'm hoping to try more English-language writers (Tóibín, Banville, Hollinghurst), and I suspect that the library will be getting more of a workout next year.  Here in Melbourne, we have an excellent library service, and I really should use it more (it came in very useful both during the IFFP reading and my period of Spanish-language literature education earlier this year).

An area that has really suffered over the past few years is rereading, and I'm constantly telling myself to rectify this - why have a big personal library of books if you're not going to reread them?  I've recently reread several books, and I'm really enjoying rediscovering the works on my shelves.  Also, if they've already appeared on the blog, it means I don't have to write another review ;)

As for the blog itself, I doubt there'll be too many changes.  Next year, once again, I'll be trying to restrict myself to two posts a week to protect my health and my sanity, and I'm sure I'll be taking part in the usual challenges (Shadow IFFP, Japanese Literature Challenge, German Literature Month).  Will I be holding my own challenge, January in Japan, again?  Quite possibly - we'll have to see...

This New Year's Eve then, the blog will be five years old, and that seems like a very long time.  I  have to admit that I've often thought of giving it all up this year, especially with five being such a nice round number.  In all probability though I'll carry on - it's become a big part of my life, and it's nice to be part of a like-minded online community who have a passion for something I enjoy.  There's a fair chance that I'll be reviewing translated literature for many years to come :)

Thursday 17 October 2013

'Chasing the King of Hearts' by Hanna Krall (Review)

It's been a while, but I've finally got around to trying another of Peirene Press' two-hour slices of literary pleasure.  Today's offering is the first time the publisher has offered a Polish story, and while the background is a familiar one for most readers, the style is definitely a little different :)

Hanna Krall's Chasing the King of Hearts (translated by Philip Boehm, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is mainly set in Poland during the last few years of the Second World War.  Izolda is a Polish Jew living in the Warsaw Ghetto, and with the writing on the wall, she decides that it's time to start thinking about escape.  On the very first page of the book, she meets fellow Jew Shayek, quickly falling in love with (then marrying) him, and this love is the catalyst for the events which follow.

If you think this sounds like another three-hankie piece of Holocaust Lit though, you'd be mistaken.  Chasing the King of Hearts is not one of those clichéd WW2 novels where the writer ratchets up the tension before playing on the reader's emotions with scenes of torture, death and betrayal.  Instead, Krall focuses on one woman and her quest to save the man she loves - the fact that there's a war going on is just a technicality...

Rather than being a traditional, seamless narrative, the book is divided into many short sections, each lasting a page or so.  This structure has the effect of eliminating dead time, whisking the reader (and Izolda) through the war years, almost without our realising how much time has passed.  Krall's laconic style also means that the horrors of the Holocaust are kept in the background, only very rarely surfacing, and there's a lot of dry humour:
"Izolda understands Lilusia's cunning, but then she takes a closer look at the handbag and sets it on the floor.  How's that?  Does the bag look Jewish there?  She tries the sofa, the stool, the chair.  Because if it does, what exactly about the bag is Jewish?"
p.21 (Peirene Press, 2013)
Even when matters do become a little more emotionally charged, the next section usually sweeps those feelings away - there's no time to dwell on the past here.

The title comes from the fortune-telling Izolda has an acquaintance do for her using a normal set of playing cards.  Shayek is the King of Hearts (Izolda, naturally is the Queen), and the chase takes place both within the deck and all across Europe, as Izolda does her best to keep tabs on her husband, hoping to alleviate his suffering and reunite with him one day.  In the process, she shows herself to be a formidable woman, brave, resourceful and inventive, someone who can always find a way to do the impossible.

Her greatest strength is her adaptability.  She's a woman who's prepared to do almost anything, crawling through sewers, smuggling contraband and marching in and out of the Ghetto, seemingly without blinking an eye.  Her brazenness is also breathtaking, able to lie through her teeth and smile when she's found out, allowing her to charm those who can be charmed and bribe those who can't.  In fact, she's a bit of a chameleon, and at times she begins to see herself as who she's pretending to be, rather than who she was:
"Her suffering is worse, because she is worse.  That's what the whole world thinks, and the whole world can't be wrong when it comes to a sense of good and bad, or rather, better and worse.
 She is worse and that's why she is in disguise.  She has a new name and a new hair colour and a new voice and laugh and a new way of carrying her handbag.  And she prefers her new self to the real thing.  So what does that mean?  That her disguised self... that her pretend self is better than her real self." (pp.55/6)

The key to the whole book though is that it is actually a romance.  From the very start, the reader is told that Izolda is madly in love with Shayek, and everything she does throughout Chasing the King of Hearts is done for him.  However, in the times she finds herself in, this attitude brings with it some moral dilemmas, for in investing so much in one man, Izolda may have to neglect other loved ones - and that neglect may have serious consequences.  Should she be devoting all her time, energy and money to helping Shayek, or would it be better to help the people around her?  It's a rather nasty dilemma to face...

There's a lot to like about the book, one that many people will enjoy.  It's an interesting, different look at a period which, having already been covered extensively, can sometimes leave novels feeling rather stale and old.  I liked it, even if I didn't really love it, and I felt that the short, fleeting sections were both the book's strength and its weakness.  While it kept the reader engaged, I felt that at times a little slipped between the cracks; I would have enjoyed it more if it had slowed down at times, just a little...

I did enjoy the way the book finished though, as we get to experience life after the war and find out what happened to Izolda and Shayek.  The last sections are poignant and force the reader to ask themselves if it was all really worth it, the sacrifices and the suffering.  While we're not sure what Izolda's answer would be, Chasing the King of Hearts is certainly worth the sacrifice of a couple of hours of your time :)

Tuesday 15 October 2013

'Cocaine' by Pitigrilli (Review)

Today I'm looking at another book from new indie publisher New Vessel Press, a recent addition to the world of translated fiction.  Last time, I reviewed some contemporary Argentine literature, but this time we're looking at an Italian classic - a rather controversial one...

Cocaine (translated by Eric Mosbacher, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a reissue of a novel by Pitigrilli, a writer whose work shocked staid authorities in the 1920s.  It's the biting, witty tale of Tito Arnaudi, a young man who runs off to seek fame, fortune and fun in Paris (well, where else?).

Tito is in the prime of his life, but averse to following other people's instructions, so he decides to make a living from a mixture of journalistic instincts and sheer cheek.  His first article, on the shadowy Parisian world of cocaine, makes him an instant hit and opens doors both professionally and socially.  This is his ticket to a world of pleasure, one centred on two lovers - and a lot of the white stuff...

While naughty and witty, Cocaine is not really explicit, but it's unsurprising that the novel was frowned upon by the church in Italy.  Sex and drugs and naked dancing may have been a fair reflection of the time, but it's unlikely to have amused the Vatican.  It's a fun book though, with jokes everywhere you look
Tito looked at him, puzzled.  Then he said: "You've had an unhappy love affair.  Has your mistress been deceiving you with her husband?"
p.138 (New Vessel Press, 2013)
And there are plenty more where that came from :)

In the early parts of the novel, the reader is treated to fantastic scenes of the hedonism of the time.  Forget Gatsby and his lame soirées - people really knew how to party in Paris.  The evening held by Kalantan, one of Tito's lovers, is astonishing in its open description of the way the upper classes spent their free time.  Strawberries and chloroform, butterflies flapping about helplessly, asphyxiated by the fumes of the mind-altering chemicals, naked dancing, cocaine aplenty, and guests openly injecting morphine.  While the orgiastic scenes that inevitably followed are veiled, it's still a rather powerful image.

It's the second girlfriend, Maud, that Tito really falls for though.  Initially a prim and proper Italian girl, she is ruined by the reformatory her parents send her to for her own protection.  Having disappeared from Tito's life, she reappears in Paris, a mid-grade celebrity, a high-priced 'girlfriend' and an enticing figure with a handbag-sized dog (eighty-odd years before Paris Hilton copied the style).  It's little wonder that our hero decides to pursue her.

Tito, obsessed, follows her across the seas to several continents in the hope of winning her heart.  However, Maud is a dancer who can't help feeling wanted; Tito can have her, but not exclusively.  In this impossible quest, and the globe-trotting, there are shades of a hedonistic Candide - in this, the best of all possible worlds, everything (even drug abuse) must be for the best...

Of course, a life lived at this pace has consequences, and Pitigrilli makes this abundantly clear, giving us warnings from the very start.  When Tito goes looking for cocaine for the first time, he encounters a group of female addicts, twitching and desperate for drugs:
"But the four harpies didn't calm down.  Panting, with dilated nostrils and flashing eyes, they clawed at the box of white powder, like shipwrecked persons struggling for a place in the lifeboat." (p.24)
It's a timely warning for our feckless friend...

Tito fails to heed these warnings though, and as his twin obsessions, sex and drugs, blend into one (he even starts calling Maud 'Cocaine'), his downward spiral accelerates:
"Tito's nights were restless.  In the evening he took strong doses of chloral to overcome the insomnia produced by the drug he could not give up.  The result of the incurable insomnia and the useless drug was a hallucinatory state; he spent long hours in a state of wakefulness in which he felt he was dreaming and in a state of sleep in which he felt he was awake." (p.153)
What goes up (the nose), must come down...

In the end, despite the wit and constant light touch, Cocaine is a sobering account of the dangers of drugs and sexual obsession.  Tito is quite obviously doomed to a sad ending, but you suspect that he's quite happy to trade in his twilight years for a brief moment of ecstasy.  It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable story from a forgotten writer :)

Cocaine has an added extra in the form of writer and journalist Alexander Stille's afterword, one which focuses more on the man than the story.  It's an intriguing, fifteen-page tale of a man who... well, wasn't very nice.  Fascist informer, selfish traitor, Dino Segre (Pitigrilli's real name) was a pretty nasty character all round, albeit a very interesting one.  Cocaine is a great read, but I'd definitely leave the real story until after you've finished the novel ;)

Sunday 13 October 2013

'Le Colonel Chabert' by Honoré de Balzac (Review)

When I decided to take part in the Christmas Humbook event, organised by Emma and Guy, it seemed a fairly easy thing to commit to.  Reading three books over the following year, two chosen by a fellow blogger, one by the host - no worries, right?  Except that nine months on, I had yet to try one...

Time to get cracking then, and today sees me review one of those three books, the one Emma and Guy chose for me.  Unfortunately though, even this isn't quite as straightforward as it should be.  You see, they chose a classic by Honoré de Balzac, Eugenie Grandet - but I decided to go for something else instead (I had my reasons...)

Le Colonel Chabert (Colonel Chabert) is a novella which takes place in and around Paris, just after the Napoleonic wars.  The story starts with banter in a lawyer's office where some clerks are making fun of an old man waiting to see their employer.  Once they deign to talk to the man, the fun continues - until they happen to ask his name:
"Monsieur, lui dit Boucard, voulez-vous avoir la complaisance de nous donner votre nom, afin que le patron sache si...
- Chabert.
-Est-ce le colonel mort à Eylau? demanda Hulé qui n'yant encore rien dit était jaloux d'ajouter une raillerie à toutes les autres.
- Lui-même, monsieur," répondit le bonhomme avec une simplicité antique.  Et il se retira.

"Sir,"  said Boucard, "would you be so kind as to give us your name, so that our employer might know whether..."
"Isn't that the colonel who died at Eylau?" asked Hulé who, not having said anything to that point, was keen to add a barb to all the others.
"The very same, sir," the old man replied with old-fashioned simplicity.  And he left.***

As surprised as the clerks are by the mysterious stranger's answer to their question, that is nothing compared to what their boss, Monsieur Derville, feels when he hears the full story.  The truth of the matter is that somehow, miraculously, the famous colonel, long thought dead in battle, has managed to survive and has returned to reclaim his life, his riches and his wife.  Now, if only his wife can be made to comply...

I decided to try Le Colonel Chabert after seeing it mentioned in some books I read this year.  It comes up a couple of times in Sebald's Austerlitz, but it actually forms a vital component of Javier Marías' most recent novel, The Infatuations, another story about secrets from beyond the grave.  In his novel, Marías poses the question as to whether a woman who has lost her husband would really want him to return from the grave after a long absence, and this question forms the whole basis of Balzac's story.

The physical description of Chabert at his first meeting with his lawyer is a telling one.  He literally looks like a corpse - and it's little wonder considering the ordeals he's gone through.  He's a man who has been buried alive, only to escape from the earth as naked as the day he was born.  It's a twisted kind of rebirth:
"Mais, avec une rage que vous devez concevoir, je me mis à travailler les cadavres qui me séparaient de la couche de terre sans doute jetée sur nous, je dis nous, comme s'il y eut eu des vivants!  J'y allais ferme, monsieur, car moi aussi!  Mais je ne sais pas aujourd'hui comment j'ai pu parvenir à percer la couverture de chair qui mettait une barrière entre la vie et moi."

"But, with a rage that you can imagine, I set to work on the cadavers which separated me from the layer of earth which had undoubtedly been thrown upon us, I say us, as if there was anyone alive down there!  I put my back into it, sir, for I was alive too!  But today I couldn't tell you how I managed to break through the covering of flesh which formed a barrier between life and me."
It's a tall tale though - who could ever believe him?

Certainly not his wife...  She has benefited financially from his death and is now married once more, with two young children at home.  Having risen in the world thanks to her new husband, she is terrified of losing him (and her station) - which is actually quite possible, as he suspects that her humble origins are beginning to hold him back.  In short, she is willing to do anything to stop the poor war hero from being recognised as a living, breathing soul.

There are also political complications to Chabert's quest to have his existence recognised.  While the colonel was a favourite of the Emperor, times have changed, and far from being welcome, his return from the grave would probably be little more than an inconvenience.  He is a throw-back to the old Napoleonic era, with its ethics and old-fashioned honour code, and the writer makes it clear that very different values rule now.  The restoration has brought about an age of commercialism, where getting ahead at any cost is more important than moral niceties.

A further problem is the financial reality of the old soldier's predicament.  To regain his position and fortune, he will need to go through the courts - but how can you prove a point in law without status or money?  In short, Chabert is a man in a void, a creature that others would rather see vanish:
"J'ai été enterré sous des morts, mais maintenant je suis enterré sous des vivants, sous des actes, sous des faits, sous la société tout entière, qui veut me faire rentrer sous terre!"

"I was buried beneath the dead, but now I am buried beneath the living, beneath files, beneath facts, beneath all of society, which would have me six feet under again!"
I challenge the reader not to feel sympathy with his plight...

Le Colonel Chabert is more like a play than a novella; its long, conversation-dominated scenes seem perfect for the stage, and with the exception of the final part, the story mostly keeps to the unities of time, place and plot (well, loosely, anyway!).  Occasionally, though, Balzac does escape into prose and waxes lyrical, particularly in describing certain aspects of the novel.  Chief among these are the spectral appearance Chabert makes at Derville's chambers, the vivid escape the colonel makes from the grave, and a detailed look at the rundown house where he lodges (a passage which brings back memories of the minutely-detailed start to Le Père Goriot).

It's not giving too much away to hint that things don't end as the reader would like them to, but Le Colonel Chabert is much more than a sad story of a poor soul betrayed by an ungrateful loved one (it's no coincidence that Derville also represented Old Goriot in the previous novel).  A horror story, then?  Yes, but as Derville himself points out, no novelistic creation could ever match up to the terrors of reality.  Poor Chabert is doomed to unhappiness from the moment he claws his way through the soil separating the land of the living from the realm of the dead:
- Les morts ont donc bien tort de revenir?

"So the dead are wrong to want to come back to life?"
Unfortunately, the answer Balzac (and Marías) would reluctantly give is yes...

*** All translations into English are my own, misguided, attempts (with one kind correction, courtesy of Richard McCarthy, AKA @Barsacq)

Thursday 10 October 2013

'The Story of a New Name' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

After reading the wonderful My Brilliant Friend a few months back, I was itching to get stuck into the sequel to Elena Ferante's novel of a Neapolitan childhood.  Luckily for me, Europa Editions have just published it - and it's another superb read.  A note of warning before we begin though - in reviewing the second book, I will (inevitably) be revealing some plot details from the first one.  *Please proceed with caution* ;)

The Story of a New Name (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of the publisher) picks up where we left off, with the cliffhanger at Lila's wedding.  Her decision to wed to escape poverty appears misguided from the very start, with her husband having seemingly betrayed her to the people she hates most in the world.  As Lenù looks on (slightly distracted by the handsome figure of Nino Sarratore), she begins to feel that for once Lila has overplayed her hand...

Soon enough though, it is Lenù herself that starts to feel lost.  As Lila slowly adapts to life as a married woman, her friend struggles with her studies, always doubting her ability to truly fit in with the people around her.  Having deliberately distanced herself from her family and friends, Lenù now finds herself caught in a no-(wo)man's land, stranded between two social spheres, neither of which she really belongs to.

Again, the old competitiveness and jealousy raises its head, and Lenù tries to console herself that she is, at least, happier than Lila.  The new Signora Carracci, however, is a woman both enigmatic and fearless, and no matter what life throws at her, she is likely to get what she wants in the end.  Which is when Nino enters the story once more...

From the paragraphs above, you might be forgiven for thinking that I've decided to start reading romance fiction, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Taking up the themes of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name is a twisting, caustic account of the life of women in mid-twentieth-century Naples, a feminist look at the struggles women faced in escaping from the poverty trap and a lifetime of subservience to men.

The first part of the book largely takes place in the neighbourhood, an oppressive, cramped world in itself, where a handful of families rule the roost, lending money and cheating customers at the grocery scales.  While Lila has ostensibly married into this 'ruling' class, she is a woman, with no real rights, and like all wives who hesitate to accept this 'truth', she will suffer for her obstinacy.  Lenù, our eyes and ears, is frightened by a sudden realisation of what happens to women when they become wives and mothers:
"That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood.  They were nervous, they were acquiescent.  They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harrassed them.  Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up.  And, good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me."
p.102 (Europa Editions, 2013)
Lila is now one of these women, and her introduction to married life is brutal and upsetting.  It does not make for pleasant reading.

The new name of the book reflects Lila's new state as a married woman - Lila (or Lina) Cerullo has become Signora Carracci, and this change of name does bring some advantages.   She gains financially, moving into a large, modern apartment, and she never needs to worry about money, taking freely from the tills of her husband's businesses.  She has also risen in the world in terms of status, walking around the streets of the neighbourhood like a Neapolitan Jackie Onassis.  But at what cost?  Her freedom, her intellectual development and her self-respect...

The widening gulf between Lenù and Lila reflects the general division in the novel between the literate, intellectual characters and the rest of the neighbourhood.  Those wanting to further their minds are able to retreat to a place in their heads where their partners, friends or enemies are unable to reach them, and Lenù sees a need to keep away from her oldest friend, fearing that Lila's problems will drag her back down into the morass of the neighbourhood...

Part of the magic of Ferrante's work though is the way that the two women's lives are so inextricably entwined that there is never a chance of a complete break:
"But Lila knew how to draw me in.  And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that's enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, of the means by which she invented it for herself." (p.274)
Every time Lenù believes that their friendship is finally over, she can't resist going back to see her friend, looking for something she could never really explain - praise, redemption, a feeling of superiority?

Whatever it is, she's unlikely to leave satisfied - no matter how successful Lenù becomes, there's something about Lila, something innate, which allows her to effortlessly surpass her friend, to always be two steps ahead.  It's a tortured relationship at times:
"When I saw Lila again, I realized immediately that she felt bad and tended to make me feel bad, too.  We spent a morning at her house in an atmosphere that seemed to be playful.  In fact she insisted, with growing spitefulness, that I try on all her clothes, even thought they didn't fit me.  The game became torture." (p.97)
Ah, friends...

A further strong point of Ferrante's writing is her wonderful characterisation.  The two main women are strongly depicted, and can be very attractive, but there is no black and white here.  Lila is whimsical, changing her mind more often than is good for her (and the people around her), but she can also be perversely stubborn, often when giving in a little might actually benefit her.

Lenù, despite being our conduit into Ferrante's world, is a coldly honest portrayal of a character the reader might be tempted to associate with.  Egotistical, immature and often self-serving, she is also somehow easily swayed and unable to keep her nose out of matters that don't concern her, even if she kids herself that she wants no part of life in the neighbourhood.  These flaws though, far from marring the two women, make them real, complete, people we can truly sympathise with.

Ferrante's novel reflects another time, another world, one in which, of the two paths the friends choose, Lila's housewife role seems the most likely route to success.  Sadly though, that's not really the case.  Even in twenty-first-century Australia, true equality is very far from being a reality...

After our recent Federal election, won comfortably by the conservative opposition, the new Prime Minister (a deeply religious and conservative politician) announced his new cabinet.  Of the eighteen ministers announced, only one was a woman, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (Abbott himself decided to take on the women's affairs portfolio...).  A cartoon in the newspaper the next day had a worried-looking colleague asking Abbott if having one woman in the cabinet was a problem.  The cartoon PM replied by saying that it would all be good - she'd be overseas most of the time anyway...  Just a joke, right?  I'm not convinced...

In a climate like this, books like Ferrante's are a reminder of how far we've come, but also of how far we've yet to go - and it's another great read.  So, can I have the final book in the trilogy now, please? ;)

Monday 7 October 2013

Some Ideas for German Literature Month 2013

By (very) popular demand, November sees the return of German Literature Month, Lizzy and Caroline's third annual festival of all things originally written in the German language.  As you may have guessed, I'll be participating in a major way, with all of my November posts to be dedicated to the event :)

A notable feature of this third edition is an attempt by the host(esse)s to even up the gender imbalance of the past two years.  The month has been divided up as follows in an attempt to get more people to review books by female writers:

Week 1 (1-7/11): Ladies Week
Week 2 (8-14/11): Gents Week
Week 3 (15-21/11): Ladies Week
Week 4 (22-28/11): Gents Week
Weekend (29-30/11): Read as you please

I'm not sure my reading will be a fifty-fifty split, but I have no doubt that a few female writers will be featured on the blog over the course of the month.

So what will I be reading and reviewing in November?  Well, the first port of call is my German bookshelf, where I have a few neglected works itching to be read.  I have a couple from Peter Stamm (Agnes and Wir Fliegen/We're Flying) to choose from, and there's more contemporary fiction in the form of Alois Hotschnig's Leonardos Hände (Leonardo's Hands) and Judith Hermann's collection Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts).  Rounding off this selection is Sebald's Austerlitz (a book I've just finished reading and reviewing).

There are also several older books up there, including Eduard von Keyserling's Wellen (Waves), one of Caroline's recommendations from a couple of years back, Robert Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten, Hans Keilson's Das Leben geht weiter (Life Goes On) and Peter Handke's Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty) - a book I've been meaning to get to for quite some time now...

Then, naturally, there are the books I've bought from The Book Depository, which are winging their way to Australia as we speak to join the rest of my collection.  I've ordered Christa Wolf's Was Bleibt (What Remains) and Thomas Bernhard's Holzfällen (The Woodcutters), both books I'm keen to get stuck into for November.  I also have one more which might just sneak in - my preordered copy of the paperback version of Anna Kim's Anatomie einer Nacht (Anatomy of a Night) is being released on the 11th of November...

The fun doesn't end there.  Thanks to my Kindle and the evil nice people at Amazon, I have a whole host of out-of-copyright classics loaded up ready to read.  To even up the gender balance, I might try something by Lena Christ or Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.  But then, there's also Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Adalbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller...

Well, there are definitely a lot of ideas amongst that lot, but there's only one thing I can promise about my choices - there's absolutely no way I'll get through all of them in one month.  Now, about December...

Saturday 5 October 2013

September 2013 Wrap-Up

September was a busy month, both for reading and reviewing, but the highlight was probably the multilingual nature of my books.  While I'm always up for a bit of translated fiction, this month some of the translating was going on in my head - and I even managed to finish a book in Spanish, not one of my better languages :)

But, as ever, the cold, hard figures...
Total Books Read: 12 

Year-to-Date: 94

New: 12

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 2
Review Copies: 8
From the Library: 1
On the Kindle: 3 (2 review copies)

Novels: 7
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 2
Plays: 1
Poetry: 1

Non-English Language: 11 (2 Spanish, 2 Italian, 2 French, Dutch, Japanese, Latvian, Norwegian, German)
In Original Language: 4 (2 German, French, Spanish)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (3/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 7: 1 (9/1)

Books reviewed in September were:
1) From the Fatherland, with Love by Ryu Murakami
2) Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm
3) Multiples by Adam Thirlwell (ed.)
4) Ghosts by César Aira
5) Under this Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued
6) Open City by Teju Cole
7) The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
8) The Nihon-ryōiki by Kyōkai
9) The Foxes Come at Night by Cees Nooteboom
10) High Tide by Inga Ābele
11) Shades of the Other Shore by Jeffrey Greene
12) Ballade Nocturne by Gao Xingjian

Tony's Turkey for September is:
Carlos Busqued's Under this Terrible Sun

In fairness, this is here mainly because it just wasn't my kind of book (and I probably would have picked something else up to try if I'd read the review describing it as 'stoner noir' earlier).  Nevertheless, I'm compelled to be honest, so Busqued's book ends up on the turkey shelf...

Tony's Recommendation for September is:
Jón Kalman Stefánsson's The Sorrow of Angels

Easily the pick of the bunch for this month, a book that I'm hoping will do well in next year's IFFP.  Other highlights include Nooteboom's short-story collection, Aira's slight, but memorable, tale and Teju Cole's ode to New York.  However, there was only ever going to be one winner here :)


German Literature Month has just been announced for November, so there'll be a lot of German-language reading going on around these parts in October.  Don't worry though - I've got a good few other reviews all lined up, ready to go :)