Therese Desqueyroux is my first Francois Mauriac title. I read, not the edition pictured, but an older Penguin Classics compilation of the titular story, Therese Desqueyroux (1927) as well as three other tales which follow Therese’s life – ‘Therese and the Doctor’ (1928), ‘Therese at the Hotel’ (1928), and ‘The End of the Night’ (1935). The dates mentioned relate to their original French publication; the years in which they were first translated into English are 1928 for the original, and 1947 for the three others. Gerald Hopkins is the translator for both Penguin editions.
The two novellas, and two short stories, which follow Mauriac’s most famous literary creation, are set in Bordeaux and Paris. They chart her ‘passionate, tortured life… Her story, brilliantly and unforgettably told, affirms the beauty and vitality of the human spirit in “the eternal radiance of death”‘. Of Mauriac’s writing, Justin O’Brien tells the following in the New York Times: ‘Both his subject and his style frequently recall Racine and Baudelaire; and indeed we often feel that we are dealing here with a poem, so rich is the symbolism and so fleet is the arrangement of themes.’ Martin Seymour-Smith says that: ‘His books are bewitchingly readable.’
The author’s foreword, directed as it is toward Therese, ends: ‘I take my leave of you upon a city’s pavements, hoping, at least, that you will not for ever be utterly alone.’ The title story begins with Therese walking from court, ‘having been charged with attempting to poison her husband’. We then follow Therese as she is banished from her home, escapes to Paris, and spends her final years of solitude waiting. Mauriac’s depiction of the Paris cityscape is nothing short of stunning: ‘It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm.’
There are so many small yet unusual details which render Therese a believable, and markedly human, character: ‘She took off her left-hand glove and began picking at the moss which grew between the old stones of the walls they passed’, and ‘Once more she breathed in the damp night air like someone threatened with suffocation.’ Mauriac clearly believes that he has built her up to such a realistic position; he writes: ‘But compared with her own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist would have seemed thin and colourless.’ His depiction of Therese’s motherhood is often startlingly beautiful: ‘There, in the darkness, the young mother would hear the even breathing of her slumbering child, would lean above the bed and drink down, like a draught of cool, refreshing water, the small sleeping life.’
In Therese Desqueyroux, Therese tries desperately to remember why she married her husband; she loves him, both for himself, and what he stands for – property, family, security – but the passion which she would have imagined she had felt is unavailable to her. Soon after their marriage, Mauriac shows that things began to go sour, particularly for her husband, Bernard: ‘… their being together no longer gave him any happiness. He was bored to death away from his guns, his dogs, and the inn… His wife was so cold, so mocking. She never showed pleasure even if she felt any, would never talk about what interested him.’ As for Therese: ‘She was like a transported criminal, sick to her soul of transit prisons, and anxious only to see the Convict Island where she would have to spend the rest of her life.’
Therese Desqueyroux has been both beautifully written and translated. Therese’s story is incredibly sad, and demonstrates how one can be overruled and shunned in terms of their character and choices. One cannot help but feel for Therese; she is a fascinating character to study. I did not quite love the collection, but the title story particularly was so interesting to read.
Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author indeed, writing fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, biographical works, travel literature, and a column on gardening, amongst other things. Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita, a biography which portrays the lives of both her grandmother, Josefa, whom she never met, and her mother Victoria, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press in 1937. The edition which I read was sadly not an original, but it did include rather a lovely introduction written by Alison Hennegan.
Josefa, lovingly known as Pepita to those around her, was ‘the half-gypsy daughter of an old-clothes pedlar from Malaga’, who made her fortune as a dancer, first in Madrid, and then as the ‘toast of all Europe’. In May 1852, when she was just twenty-two years old, she arrived in London, already having been married and separated. She soon met and became the ‘contented though severely ostracized mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an English aristocrat and diplomat’. and bore him five illegitimate children, of whom Sackville-West’s mother was the second eldest.
After Pepita’s death, her nine-year-old daughter Victoria was sent to live in a convent, where she stayed until she was eighteen. At this juncture, she was summoned to Washington to become ‘mistress’ of her diplomat father’s household. She goes on to find herself ‘the volatile and wayward mistress of Knole’ in what is termed in Pepita‘s blurb as an ‘unlikely inheritance’.
In her introduction, Hennegan states: ‘For what appears to be a straightforward joint biography of her grandmother and mother becomes the means whereby Vita explores and makes sense for herself of those warring elements in her own past and temperament which most exercised and perplexed her.’ She goes on to say that for Vita, it was her ‘”Spanishness” which enabled her to accept her lesbianism comparatively easily, her “Englishness” which forbade anything as “vulgar” as a public acknowledgement of it.’ Sackville-West herself saw Pepita as a ‘gift to herself of the mother she almost had… [and] an extended love letter to the woman she wanted her mother to be.’ She writes: ‘Pepita, can I re-create you? Come to me. Make yourself alive again. Vitality such as yours cannot perish. I know so much about you: I have talked to old men who knew you, and they have all told me the same legend of your beauty’ of the section on her grandmother. She extends this rule of exploration, and the hearsay she has been told, when she writes about, and tries to understand, her mother.
Despite Sackville-West’s proclamation in her own introduction to the book that everything which she has written is true, it seems rather fanciful and unrealistic at times. Due to the style which Sackville-West has adopted, Pepita reads more like a novel than a work of biography. The historical context has been used well, and does give one a feel for the backdrop which both Pepita and Victoria lived against. Sackville-West does recognise that her portrayal of both her mother and grandmother are heavily biased as, of course, one would expect: ‘The one person who never speaks in this whole history, is Pepita herself. We see her always objectively, never subjectively… Pepita herself is never explicit. In order to understand her at all, we have to find a piece from a different part of the puzzle, and fit it in.’
What I found most interesting about this account was the effect which Pepita had upon Lionel. Sackville-West writes: ‘I mean no disrespect to my grandfather, but I do not think he was the man ever to enjoy dealing with a difficult situation: he far preferred to go away if he decently could and leave it to somebody else. Hitherto, Pepita had ordered his life, and now [after her death] there was to be an uncomfortable period of transition until Pepita’s eldest daughter was of an age to assume the same responsibility.’ The psychological effects of the First World War which Sackville-West presents are also fascinating.
There is a lot of Vita herself within the book, and not just in the fact that she is writing about her ancestry. She measures herself against her mother and grandmother at junctures, and is always passing her own opinion about their characters, or the decisions which they made. Of course she has a strong connection with both of her subjects, but there is nothing objective about this biography; there is not the level of detachment and feeling of truthfulness which I expect of works of this kind. Sackville-West does not remove her own self from the book enough for it to be anything like a full and far-reaching biography.
Pepita is a relatively entertaining book, but I feel as though it pales in comparison to much of Sackville-West’s other work. It is difficult to take Pepita at face value, and it lacks that engagement which I have come to expect from Sackville-West’s books. It is clear that her relationship with her mother was turbulent, but it feels at times as though episodes have been suppressed, or skimmed over. There is no real explanation as to their relationship which lasts long enough to be entirely satisfying. Overall, Pepita did not quite live up to my expectations.
Loving stories about old houses, and the families which live in them, Black Lake by Johanna Lane piqued my interest as soon as I spotted its blurb on my local library catalogue. Despite Ireland being a country that I love to visit, I have found of late that barely any Irish literature has made its way onto my yearly reading lists. Of course, I wanted to rectify this, and again, Black Lake ticked that box.
The Irish Examiner calls the novel: ‘A complex and beautifully structured story’, and the Irish Independent writes: ‘Lane’s prose is graceful, textured and her elegant style reflects the Campbells’ glazed retrograde world.’ John Burnside also praises the novel highly, deeming it: ‘A beautiful portrait of a family faced with unbearable loss.’
The Campbell family have lived on a sprawling estate named Dulough, the Irish for ‘black lake’, on the Irish coast of Donegal, for generations. Like many families whose homes have been handed down, the Campbells have run out of money, and have little choice but to let the government take over the care and upkeep of the house, making it into a ‘tourist attraction’ in the process. The family have to therefore move into a ‘small, damp caretaker’s cottage’ on the estate. The ‘upheaval of this move strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family, and when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings are forced to the surface.’
Black Lake opens in autumn, when the family have opened up the house to the public, and moved into their new cottage. The tragic accident described in the blurb has taken place at this point, and the family’s mother struggles to cope; she ends up taking her daughter, twelve-year-old Kate, from her boarding school, and locking her into the abandoned ballroom with her for long stretches of time. At first unnamed, and without voices of their own, the initial chapter gives an insightful glimpse into the Campbell’s family dynamic. As winter approaches, Lane describes the way in which, in her beautifully sculpted prologue: ‘The girl remembers when the snow began, flakes settling into the windowpane, muffling everything outside, even the wind. The tourists were gone by then and it was just the sound of her father and the housekeeper moving about below, shutting up the house, covering the beds in dust sheets, rolling up the rugs, stowing away quilts no one ever slept under. The girl missed the sound of the visitors, the guide herding them from room to room, story to story. Surely, when the house was finally locked for winter, the father would say that they had to leave, too?’
Lane takes notice of incredibly small details; of the removal men, she writes, from the perspective of the Campbell’s eight-year-old son: ‘The men were older than his father; they had deep lines in their faces, like valleys, Philip thought. He imagined tiny glaciers settling into their skin, the ice cracking and expanding.’
Whilst Black Lake is well structured, with different chapters following each of the characters in turn, there is a sense of detachment to the whole, which is exacerbated by the loose third person narrative voice. I do not feel that Black Lake reached its potential; it was rather run-of-the-mill for a familial saga, and the writing was nowhere near as poetic as I expected after reading its prologue. Unfortunately, Black Lake quite failed to hold my interest; it is not a bad book, but simply did not stand out enough for my personal liking.
I have decided to begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite non-fiction picks of 2016. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads to come up with the following list of intriguing non-fiction books, all of which have rather elaborate titles. As ever, let me know which pique your interest!
1. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
‘What is it like to be a brain surgeon? How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut into the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason? How do you live with the consequences of performing a potentially life-saving operation when it all goes wrong? In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to ‘do no harm’ holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, Henry Marsh must make agonising decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty. If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practised by calm and detached surgeons, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candour, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humour that characterise a brain surgeon’s life. Do No Harm is an unforgettable insight into the countless human dramas that take place in a busy modern hospital. Above all, it is a lesson in the need for hope when faced with life’s most difficult decisions.’
2. Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum by Gavin Francis
‘We assume we know our bodies intimately, but for many of us they remain uncharted territory. How many of us understand the way seizures affect the brain, how the heart is connected to wellbeing, or the why the foot carries the key to our humanity? In Adventures in Human Being, award-winning author Gavin Francis leads readers on a journey into the hidden pathways of the human body, offering a guide to its inner workings and a celebration of its marvels. Drawing on his experiences as a surgeon, ER specialist, and family physician, Francis blends stories from the clinic with episodes from medical history, philosophy, and literature to describe the body in sickness and in health, in living and in dying. At its heart, Adventures in Human Being is a meditation on what it means to be human. Poetic, eloquent, and profoundly perceptive, this book will transform the way you view your body.‘
3. Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World by William R. Leach
‘A product of William Leach’s lifelong love of butterflies, this engaging and elegantly illustrated history shows how Americans from all walks of life passionately pursued butterflies, and how through their discoveries and observations they transformed the character of natural history. Leach focuses on the correspondence and scientific writings of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists who traveled across the country and throughout the world, collecting and studying unknown and exotic species. In a book as full of life as the subjects themselves and foregrounding a collecting culture now on the brink of vanishing, Leach reveals how the beauty of butterflies led Americans into a deeper understanding of the natural world. He shows, too, that the country’s enthusiasm for butterflies occurred at the very moment that another form of beauty—the technological and industrial objects being displayed at world’s fairs and commercial shows—was emerging, and that Americans’ attraction to this new beauty would eventually, and at great cost, take precedence over nature in general and butterflies in particular.‘
4. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology by Bernd Heinrich
‘From Bernd Heinrich, the bestselling author of Winter World, comes the remarkable story of his father’s life, his family’s past, and how the forces of history and nature have shaped his own life. Although Bernd Heinrich’s father, Gerd, a devoted naturalist, specialized in wasps, Bernd tried to distance himself from his “old-fashioned” father, becoming a hybrid: a modern, experimental biologist with a naturalist’s sensibilities. In this remarkable memoir, the award-winning author shares the ways in which his relationship with his father, combined with his unique childhood, molded him into the scientist, and man, he is today. From Gerd’s days as a soldier in Europe to the family’s daring escape from the Red Army in 1945 to the rustic Maine farm they came to call home, Heinrich relates it all in his trademark style, making science accessible and awe-inspiring.‘
5. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson
‘Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told. In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us? Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered, and they are at the root of biology’s most enduring debate. They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice. They have decorated queens, jesters, and priests. And they have inked documents from the Constitution to the novels of Jane Austen. Feathers is a captivating and beautiful exploration of this most enchanting object. ‘
6. Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality by Helen Scales
‘Poseidon’s Steed trails the seahorse through secluded waters across the globe in a kaleidoscopic history that mirrors man?s centuries-old fascination with the animal, sweeping from the reefs of Indonesia, through the back streets of Hong Kong, and back in time to ancient Greece and Rome. Over time, seahorses have surfaced in some unlikely places. We see them immortalized in the decorative arts; in tribal folklore, literature, and ancient myth; and even on the pages of the earliest medical texts, prescribed to treat everything from skin complaints to baldness to flagging libido. Marine biologist Helen Scales eloquently shows that seahorses are indeed fish, though scientists have long puzzled over their exotic anatomy, and their very strange sex lives?male seahorses are the only males in the animal world that experience childbirth! Our first seahorse imaginings appeared six thousand years ago on cave walls in Australia. The ancient Greeks called the seahorse hippocampus (half-horse, half-fish) and sent it galloping through the oceans of mythology, pulling the sea god Poseidon?s golden chariot. The seahorse has even been the center of a modern-day international art scandal: A two-thousand-year-old winged seahorse brooch was plundered by Turkish tomb raiders and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A book that is as charming as the seahorse itself, Poseidon’s Steed brings to life an aquatic treasure.’
7. Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur by Carl Safina
‘Though nature is indifferent to the struggles of her creatures, the human effect on them is often premeditated. The distressing decline of sea turtles in Pacific waters and their surprising recovery in the Atlantic illuminate what can go both wrong and right from our interventions, and teach us the lessons that can be applied to restore health to the world’s oceans and its creatures. As Carl Safina’s compelling natural history adventure makes clear, the fate of the astonishing leatherback turtle, whose ancestry can be traced back 125 million years, is in our hands. Writing with verve and color, Safina describes how he and his colleagues track giant pelagic turtles across the world’s oceans and onto remote beaches of every continent. As scientists apply lessons learned in the Atlantic and Caribbean to other endangered seas, Safina follows leatherback migrations, including a thrilling journey from Monterey, California, to nesting grounds on the most remote beaches of Papua, New Guinea. The only surviving species of its genus, family, and suborder, the leatherback is an evolutionary marvel: a “reptile” that behaves like a warm-blooded dinosaur, an ocean animal able to withstand colder water than most fishes and dive deeper than any whale.‘
8. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff
‘Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the White House floor, to twentieth-century doctors who used their knowledge of new species to conquer epidemic diseases. Acclaimed science writer Richard Conniff brings these daredevil “species seekers” to vivid life. Alongside their globe-spanning tales of adventure, he recounts some of the most dramatic shifts in the history of human thought. At the start, everyone accepted that the Earth had been created for our benefit. We weren’t sure where vegetable ended and animal began, we couldn’t classify species, and we didn’t understand the causes of disease. But all that changed as the species seekers introduced us to the pantheon of life on Earth—and our place within it.‘
I came across a copy of Robert Twigger’s White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas whilst browsing for books to take on holiday. I hadn’t heard of it before, but was very much intrigued by the title and blurb. I love travelogues and travel literature, and imagined that this would be a mixture of the two. Its blurb says: ‘These mountains, home to Buddhists, Bonpas, Jains, Muslims, Hindus, Shamans and animals, to name only a few, are a place of pilgrimage and dreams, revelation and war, massacre and invasion, but also peace and unutterable calm.’
In White Mountain, Twigger professes that he wishes to look at and explore the links between real and imagined journeys over the vast range of the Himalayas. His father was born there, and he therefore feels a connection, which pushes him toward exploring the mountains himself. In his own trips to the region, he ‘encounters incredible stories from a unique cast of mountaineers and mystics, pundits and prophets. The result is a sweeping, enthralling and surprising journey through the history of the world’s greatest mountain range.’
White Mountain did not live up to my expectations. Rather than the geographical biography which I was expecting, I was met with an incredibly imbalanced range of chapters, some of which are so short as to say barely anything, and others which are so long that they ramble and meander around points which could be interesting, had they been focused upon. The historical detail was fascinating; the religious detail was rather overblown, and saturated the whole. The nods to science are rendered intelligently.
However, Twigger has an odd habit of repeating himself throughout, and giving the same details over and over again. Much of White Mountain, indeed, is about Twigger himself; he comes across as rather self-righteous, and often overshadows the fascinating stories of explorers in the region with his own experiences. Quotes from others have been included, but these are often left alone, and not analysed in any way.
Upon finishing White Mountain, I awarded it three stars, but after mulling my decision over, I have decided to downgrade it to two. The book had such a lot of potential which simply has not been reached, and the way in which it has been structured is jarring, and lacks balance. Photographs have been randomly placed throughout; they have little bearing for the most part about what has been written, and serve to interrupt the narrative. I would, for all of these reasons, steer clear of Twigger’s books in future.