0

Latvia (June 2018)

The third stop on our Baltic adventure, featuring much walking, pretty buildings, and a Folk Festival.

0.00 – Gauja National Park | 0.40 Cesis | 1.06 Sigulda Bobsleigh Track | 1.56 Riga | 4.27 Baltica Folk Festival

Music:
‘Song 2’ by Blur | ‘King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1’ by Neutral Milk Hotel | ‘If Only’ by The Kooks | ‘A Quiet Evening’ by Mae

Advertisements
2

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink **

Like many readers, I very much enjoyed Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader when I read it quite some time ago.  For some reason, however, I had not picked up any of his other books in the intervening years.  The Woman on the Stairs, first published in German in 2014 and in English translation by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt in 2016, is described as ‘a tale of obsession, possession and a mystery painting’, and its description certainly intrigued me enough to buy it.

Just as mysteriously as a painting disappeared, it is found again, donated anonymously to a gallery in Sydney.  At this revelation, ‘the art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs.’  These men, one after another, manage to track her down to a dilapidated cottage on an isolated headland near Sydney.  ‘Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past – but time is running out.’9781474600651

I did enjoy some of the descriptions in The Woman on the Stairs.  Schlink describes the painting like so: ‘A woman descends a staircase.  The right foot lands on the lower tread, the left grazes the upper, but is on the verge of its next step.  The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde, above and below; the crown of her head gleams with light.  Nude, pale and blonde – against a grey-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls, the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer.  And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.’

The Woman on the Stairs is told using very short chapters, the majority of which consist of just two or three pages.  The prose here did not grab me at all; I found it rather matter-of-fact, and consequently, some of the chapters felt rather dull.  The plot was flimsy and stretched in places, particularly given the space in the novel which was devoted to certain elements.  The narrator of the piece, a self-important lawyer, did not feel realistic.  Despite the first person perspective, there was a sense of detachment and impersonality throughout.  The pace also felt problematic; it plods along from one chapter to the next, and nothing about it was particularly interesting.  I did not connect in the slightest with either the characters or the slowly ensuing story.

There is often no distinction between past and present here, and consequently, the book becomes rather muddled.  I found that there is barely any depth within The Woman on the Stairs; it is rather a superficial novel.  Indeed, there is barely anything else within the plot which is not suggested or baldly stated in the blurb.  The love story element, which was horribly inevitable, is wildly overblown, and highly rushed.

Whilst I was impressed with The Reader, there seems to be very little, if any, of the power which suffuses its plot and pages in this particular tome.  In fact, if I were to read both The Woman on the Stairs and The Reader without knowing which was the earlier book, I would select the former; it feels unpolished, and almost as though it is a first draft.  I found the novel lacklustre, and whilst I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did The Reader, I still expected that it would be well written, taut, and poignant.  Unfortunately, none of these are words which I would use describe the novel.  The prose is too plodding, and the dialogue offered very little, no matter which character was speaking.  There is no emotion here, and I have come away from the novel wondering why I bothered to read it in its entirety.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Innocence’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

I sadly only have a couple of the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels left to read, and a few of her non-fiction books.  I purchased Innocence (1986) several months ago, but chose to leave it on my to-read shelf as a special treat to snuggle down with, rather than immediately rushing into it and then having to wait an age to find her outstanding titles.  I was moderately disappointed by Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning Offshore, but have very much enjoyed the rest of her books to date.

9780544359468A.S. Byatt calls Innocence ‘exquisite’, and The Guardian deems it ‘Delightful… a bubbling and beautiful book.’  The novel begins in 1955 in Florence, and follows the once-moneyed Ridolfi family who, ‘like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days.’  The character whom Fitzgerald has placed most focus upon is the eighteen-year-old Ridolfi daughter, Chiara.  Her vitality is ‘matched by innocence – a dangerous combination.’

Chiara has fallen head-over-heels for Salvatore Rossi, ‘a young doctor who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one.’  Chiara, frustrated by her own progress in the matter, has to ask one of her English friends from the convent school which she attends to help her set them up.  ‘And so,’ writes Fitzgerald, ‘ensues a comedy of manners, in which lovers, with the best of intentions and the kindest of instincts, succeed in making one another astonishingly miserable…’.  Indeed, the novel feels Shakespearean in its scope, and in the witty asides made at times.

Fitzgerald makes us aware of Chiara’s limitations when at home: ‘Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty, but not thought beautiful in Florence.  Her American mother’s family had once been Scottish, her looks were northern, her delicate high colouring was suited not to a fierce climate but to the mild damp and mist of the north.  Only the lids of her blue eyes were Florentine, round and languid…  her half eager, half diffident approach to whatever came along hadn’t the ruthlessness of the ancient money-making city which in its former days had questioned the bills of the world’s greatest artists…’.  In this manner, Fitzgerald intertwines the history of the Ridolfi family, as well as the Florentine people, with the present-day stories of Chiara and her father, Giancarlo.

Fitzgerald is highly informed about Italian culture, and the differences between separate regions; this knowledge translates marvellously to the page, and makes each setting all the more vivid.  There is also a focus upon the minutiae of life, and the use of colour and sense are particularly striking throughout.  Fabric comes in shades of ‘tender grey’, the sky is a ‘darkish olive-green’, and the air is ‘damp and caressing’.   Of the Ricordanza, the secluded house in which the Ridolfis live, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The ground floor was used for storage and was lit only by two round windows.  This raising up of the front door made the whole house look unwelcoming and inaccessible.  The lemon trees in their terracotta jars, each balanced on an empty one turned upside down, dispensed their bitter green smell: their dark green leaves were startlingly fresh against the blank, bleached, cracked and faded house.’

As with her other novels, I found Innocence both shrewd and immersive.  Fitzgerald’s writing is as finely crafted as it is highly distinctive; there is a playful sharpness to it.  Full of wisdom, humour, and measured reasoning, Innocence is a wonderfully mesmeric read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

Purchase from The Book Depository