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One From the Archive: ‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector ****

Translated from the original Portuguese by Idra Novey, The Passion According to G.H. was the first book by Clarice Lispector which I had the pleasure to read.  Many rave about the Brazilian author, but I have sadly found her books rather difficult to find thus far.  Lispector, born in Ukraine in 1920, was revered for her novels and short stories in South America, the first of which was published when she was just twenty-three.  To begin with some of the favourable reviews dotted around the book’s dust jacket, Orhan Pamuk deems her ‘one of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers’, and the New York Times Book Review heralds her ‘the premier Latin American prose writer of this century’.

9780141197357The novel is a strange but compelling one, and follows the inner thoughts of a well-to-do sculptress named G.H. in Rio de Janeiro.  After killing a cockroach in her maid’s room, G.H. goes through an existential crisis, in which she questions both her position in the world, and her very identity.  An ‘act of shocking transgression’ follows.  Lispector presents a fascinating and well-evoked glimpse into the female psyche, and the stream-of-consciousness-esque style which she adopts fits the plot marvellously.

Much of Lispector’s imagery is striking: ‘Then, before understanding, my heart went gray as hair goes gray’, for instance. Her prose is incredibly sensual; we feel, hear, sense, and see things just as our narrator does.  Sometimes this feels stifling, but it is necessary to the whole.  Each sentence has been richly – and sometimes confusingly – crafted: ‘I stayed still, calculating wildly.  I was alert, I was totally alert.  Inside me a feeling of intense expectation had grown, and a surprised resignation: because in this state of alert expectation I was seeing all my earlier expectations, I was seeing the awareness from which I’d also lived before, an awareness that never leaves me and that in the first analysis might be the thing that most attached to my life – perhaps that awareness was my life itself’.  The entire book is filled to the very brim with ideas, some of which are repeated three- or fourfold.  Lispector has also asked pertinent and pressing questions: ‘To find out what I really cold hope for, would I first have to pass through my truth?  To what extent had I invented a destiny now, whilst subterraneously living from another?’

The crux of the plot is about so little – the killing of a cockroach, which lasts for several pages – but it soon becomes a pivotal and all-consuming point from which everything else is born; the catalyst, as it were.  The Passion According to G.H. is fascinating, and is quite unlike anything I have read before.  For me, there were elements of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis present, but the novel is something so originally itself too.  Lispector, it is clear, is a marvellous author, and Novey’s is a fluid translation which, I imagine, reads with all the wonder and terror of the original.  The novel held my attention entirely until all of the religious-inspired prose came into play; yes, this is an important part of an existential crisis, I suppose, but I felt as though it was drawn out far too much to retain any interest.  Marvellously paced, The Passion According to G.H. is best savoured slowly.

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‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson ****

Life After Life is one of the most recent novels from one of Britain’s finest contemporary authors, Kate Atkinson. Here, Atkinson has used ‘the most turbulent events of the 20th century’ as her backdrop, and has proffered the question: ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’ Interesting foundations abound, and the story which she has crafted certainly builds upon this creativity.

9780552779685The beginning of the book takes November 1930 as its setting, but that is by no means the beginning of the story. The structure is such that it flits between one time period and the next, bobbing into the past and hurtling into the future from one chapter to another. In the first vignette, Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, finds herself in a café with Adolf Hitler: ‘He loved his cakes’, our omniscient narrator muses. ‘No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed to public view’. Armed with an old pistol, Ursula shoots him. Here the vignette ends.

The second sketch takes us back to rather a domestic scene in February 1910, where a baby girl, our very own Ursula Todd, is born blue, ‘strangled’ by her umbilical cord, ‘the poor wee thing’. In the third vignette which follows, the very same baby is ‘bonny’ and ‘bouncing’, and full of life. Ursula is the third daughter of a young married couple, Hugh and Sylvie Todd, who already have two children. When meeting his baby sister for the first time, the eldest son, Maurice, ‘gloomily’ utters ‘Another girl’, showing the start of his childish distaste for everything around him. The story whirls through Ursula’s childhood, allowing us to see the best and worst consequences of the First and Second World Wars, and the impact which such events had on one family, the endearing and wholly likeable Todds.

A rather playful structure has been used throughout Life After Life. There are eleven sections entitled ‘Snow’, five called ‘Armistice’, and three which fall under the optimistic heading of ‘A Lovely Day Tomorrow’. The novel is set on rather a repetitive cycle, wherein the same days and events are played over and over again. Somehow, rather than making this monotonous, such repetitions never seem stolid or overly similar. The author brings new details to light in each chapter, building up her characters all the while. Others are introduced merely in order to avert crises – a fellow painting on the beach who heroically wades into the Cornwall sea to rescue Ursula and her elder sister Pamela when they are washed out of their depth whilst on holiday, for example. Strands of the story are woven through each section and are picked up like dropped stitches every once in a while.

Throughout Life After Life, Atkinson’s wit shines. When Sylvie Todd is musing about the death of her father, the following statement is uttered by the third person narrator: ‘He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously’. When talking about her neighbours, too, Sylvie’s naivety is rather touching in the most amusing way: ‘“Jewish,” Sylvie said in the same voice as she would use for “Catholic” – intrigued yet unsettled by such exoticism’.

Life After Life is an historical novel of the most contemporary kind, and its rather unique structure has clearly been deftly plotted. The entire novel is crammed with the wit, humour and compassion for her characters which is evident in every single one of her books to date. Atkinson captures each period which she writes about wonderfully, and she also weaves in the seemingly distant pasts of Hugh and Sylvie. Life After Life is certainly a strong and absorbing novel, and it is one which will surely not disappoint even the most reluctant reader of historical fiction.

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The Book Trail: From Flowers to Politics

We begin with one of my favourite novels here, and find some fascinating books along the way!  As always, this list has been collated from the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool, which I find invaluable for ensuring that I will never get through my TBR lists, even if I should live to the age of 150 or thereabouts.

1. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
13366104The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

2. The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar 7107515
Thrity Umrigar, acclaimed author of The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven, returns with a breathtaking new novel—a skillfully wrought, emotionally resonant story of four women and the indelible friendship they share.

 

3. The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
Roy has returned with another masterpiece that is already earning international prize attention, an evocative and deeply moving tale of a young woman making a new life for herself amid the foothills of the Himalaya. Desperate to leave a private tragedy behind, Maya abandons herself to the rhythms of the 12869231little village, where people coexist peacefully with nature. But all is not as it seems, and she soon learns that no refuge is remote enough to keep out the modern world. When power-hungry politicians threaten her beloved mountain community, Maya finds herself caught between the life she left behind and the new home she is determined to protect.   Elegiac, witty, and profound by turns, and with a tender love story at its core, The Folded Earth brims with the same genius and love of language that made An Atlas of Impossible Longing an international success and confirms Anuradha Roy as a major new literary talent.

 

4. The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai 11346464
A triptych of beautifully crafted novellas make up Anita Desai’s exquisite new book. Set in modern India, but where history still casts a long shadow, the stories move beyond the cities to places still haunted by the past, and to characters who are, each in their own way, masters of self-effacement.    In ‘The Museum of Final Journeys’ an unnamed government official is called upon to inspect a faded mansion of forgotten treasures, each sent home by the absent, itinerant master. As he is taken through the estate, wondering whether to save these precious relics, he reaches the final – greatest – gift of all, looming out of the shadows.  In ‘Translator, Translated’, middle-aged Prema meets her successful publisher friend Tara at a school reunion. Tara hires her as a translator, but Prema, buoyed by her work and the sense of purpose it brings, begins deliberately to blur the line between writer and translator, and in so doing risks unravelling her desires and achievements.  The final story is of Ravi, living hermit-like in the burnt-out shell of his family home high up in the Himalayan mountains. He cultivates not only silence and solitude but a secret hidden away in the woods, concealed from sight. When a film crew from Delhi intrude upon his seclusion, it compels him to withdraw even further until he magically and elusively disappears…  Rich and evocative, remarkable in their clarity and sensuous in their telling, these stories remind us of the extraordinary yet delicate power of this pre-eminent writer.

 

5. All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani
1252537Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced. H. Hatterr is the son of a European merchant officer and a lady from Penang who has been raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. His story is of his search for enlightenment as, in the course of visiting seven Oriental cities, he consults with seven sages, each of whom specializes in a different aspect of “Living.” Each teacher delivers himself of a great “Generality,” each great Generality launches a new great “Adventure,” from each of which Hatter escapes not so much greatly edified as by the skin of his teeth. The book is a comic extravaganza, but as Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction, “it is the language that makes the book. . . . It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.”

 

6. Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists by Rudolf Wittkower 204770
Born Under Saturn is a classic work of scholarship written with a light and winning touch. Margot and Rudolf Wittkower explore the history of the familiar idea that artistic inspiration is a form of madness, a madness directly expressed in artists’ unhappy and eccentric lives. This idea of the alienated artist, the Wittkowers demonstrate, comes into its own in the Renaissance, as part of the new bid by visual artists to distinguish themselves from craftsmen, with whom they were then lumped together. Where the skilled artisan had worked under the sign of light-fingered Mercury, the ambitious artist identified himself with the mysterious and brooding Saturn. Alienation, in effect, was a rung by which artists sought to climb the social ladder.  As to the reputed madness of artists; well, some have been as mad as hatters, some as tough-minded as the shrewdest businessmen, and many others wildly and willfully eccentric but hardly crazy. What is certain is that no book presents such a splendid compendium of information about artists’ lives, from the early Renaissance to the beginning of the Romantic era, as Born Under Saturn. The Wittkowers have read everything and have countless anecdotes to relate: about artists famous and infamous; about suicide, celibacy, wantonness, weird hobbies, and whatnot. These make Born Under Saturn a comprehensive, quirky, and endlessly diverting resource for students of history and lovers of the arts.

 

7. The New York Stories by Elizabeth Hardwick
7574318Elizabeth Hardwick was one of America’s great postwar women of letters, celebrated as a novelist and as an essayist. Until now, however, her slim but remarkable achievement as a writer of short stories has remained largely hidden, with her work tucked away in the pages of the periodicals—such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books—in which it originally appeared. This first collection of Hardwick’s short fiction reveals her brilliance as a stylist and as an observer of contemporary life. A young woman returns from New York to her childhood Kentucky home and discovers the world of difference within her. A girl’s boyfriend is not quite good enough, his “silvery eyes, light and cool, revealing nothing except pure possibility, like a coin in hand.” A magazine editor’s life falls strangely to pieces after she loses both her husband and her job. Individual lives and the life of New York, the setting or backdrop for most of these stories, are strikingly and memorably depicted in Hardwick’s beautiful and razor-sharp prose.

 

8. The Middle of the Journey by Lionel Trilling 544060
Published in 1947, as the cold war was heating up, Lionel Trilling’s only novel was a prophetic reckoning with the bitter ideological disputes that were to come to a head in the McCarthy era. The Middle of the Journey revolves around a political turncoat and the anger his action awakens among a group of intellectuals summering in Connecticut. The story, however, is less concerned with the rights and wrongs of left and right than with an absence of integrity at the very heart of the debate. Certainly the hero, John Laskell, staging a slow recovery from the death of his lover and a near-fatal illness of his own, comes to suspect that the conflicts and commitments involved are little more than a distraction from the real responsibilities, and terrors, of the common world.  A detailed, sometimes slyly humorous, picture of the manners and mores of the intelligentsia, as well as a work of surprising tenderness and ultimately tragic import, The Middle of the Journey is a novel of ideas whose quiet resonance has only grown with time. This is a deeply troubling examination of America by one of its greatest critics.

 

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‘Heat Lightning’ by Helen Hull **

Helen Hull’s sixth novel, Heat Lightning, was first published in 1932, and was (relatively) recently reissued by Persephone. According to the publishing house’s magazine, The Persephone Biannually, the idea for Heat Lightning came to the author when she read the following sentence in a magazine article: ‘Here in America we stem from many races, we have no homogenous roots, no common traditions’. The preface to the volume has been provided by Patricia McClelland Miller, who states that Heat Lightning is ‘at its core, a novel of ideas’. Miller’s informative writing shows the psychology of the characters, particularly of the novel’s protagonist, Amy. She states the way in which Amy is presented with ‘a dilemma common to many of Helen Hull’s characters: how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?’

9781903155912The novel, set in 1930, begins with Amy Westover, a thirty five-year-old woman, who is returning to her Michigan hometown with ‘a small pyramid of luggage at her feet’. She spent her childhood in a fictional town named Flemington, which she has fled to once more to escape her unhappy marriage in New York. ‘They would all wonder why she had come,’ Hull writes, ‘where her husband Geoffrey was, – and the joke was that she didn’t know the answer’. Despite returning under the guise of resting after a tonsil operation, she admits to her grandmother in an early conversation, ‘Yes, I ran away, alone’. Amy is ‘too thin, too tense, head with dark fluff of hair strained forward… and the dark eyes gave back an anxious stare’. Throughout, memories of her past is woven in, and these come to light when particular senses are affected by what she sees and feels around her – for example, the smell of ‘hot vinegar and spices’ remind her of making pickles on hot summer mornings.

A list of principal characters has been provided at the outset, ranging from our protagonist and her immediate family members to Charley Johnson, Amy’s grandmother’s former chauffeur. This list provides a useful reference point, as a lot of individuals are introduced in a kind of barrage in just a few pages. Whilst we learn rather a lot about Amy as the novel progresses, she still feels like a somewhat distant protagonist. We as readers are her overseers, and we are distinctly not part of her story. We watch her and her actions with mild interest, but there is a kind of barrier which Hull has erected which stops us from becoming too involved or too compassionate towards Amy. The other characters, too, are either not developed enough, or come across as superficial or cruel. Amy’s grandmother, for example, is incredibly judgemental of those around her, and is never scared of giving her often crude and bigoted opinions: ‘Curly doesn’t approve of immigration… No more do I. Too many foreigners. Too many right in our own family’.

The novel deals with Amy’s struggle of how to behave in two entirely different places – one as a responsible wife and mother to the oddly named Buff and Bobs, and the other as a child herself to her parents, who are ‘so familiar, so foreign’. Amy says, when speaking about her tonsils, ‘They leave you melancholy when they go’, which could equally be a comment upon her children leaving for camp, or even metaphorically, with their growing up. She does seem to relax slightly when in her Michigan life, and one touching sentence describes the way in which ‘She took their good-night kisses, still their child’.

Hull’s descriptions of place and weather are the definite strength of the novel. The summer is ‘tucked in at the horizon inescapably’, and the heat of the day was ‘wavering, full of unsteady motes’. Later on, the sun lays ‘metallic fingers at the roots of her [Amy’s] hair’. The writing style is very rich, but the conversations often feel a little stolid. Rather than providing a comment upon life in small-town America, Heat Lightning focuses upon family dynamics, and the family unit as a whole. It also presents a small insight into a relatively early twentieth century marriage, saying of Amy and Geoffrey, ”This past year their attitude toward each other had been a tight-rope on which she struggled, with painful, awkward contortions, to keep her balance. And Geoffrey – he had jiggled the tight-rope’.

Heat Lightning is an important addition to the Persephone list in that it does deal with some growing issues which women faced in the early 1930s – for example, Amy’s disillusionment with her new life and her relationship with her husband, and her cousin Harriet’s lesbianism: ‘My cousin Harriet is awfully modern, isn’t she?’ The novel itself is well written, but the meandering storyline is difficult to engross oneself into, and the characters, even those we know the most about, are difficult to feel compassion for. A sense of momentum is never really gained, and the novel feels a little flat in consequence. It is worth reading for the writing style alone, but the characters are neither strong nor realistic enough to warrant as much love for this particular Persephone title as they are in almost all of the other books the firm publishes.

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