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Abandoned Books: ‘Collected Stories’ by Colette and ‘After the Death of Ellen Keldberg’ by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Collected Stories by Colette 9780374518653
I have been looking forward to Colette’s Collected Stories for such a long time. Translated by Antonia White, an author whom I enjoy, I expected that these tales would be immersive, beautifully written, and memorable. I normally find Colette’s work immediately absorbing and transporting, so I was surprised when I did not find myself becoming immersed in this early on. These are largely really more like sketches and monologues than short stories, and as most of them feature Colette, or a facsimile of herself, either as narrator or main character, it feels like a series of biographical fragments rather than a collection of stories.

Collected Stories had very little of the pull which I was expecting. There was little of the charm and wit of her longer works, too. Perhaps because the collection which I read is comprised of earlier stories, they are not as polished as her later work. Regardless, I felt markedly underwhelmed by this collection. I enjoyed a couple of the stories, but the plots included were largely very thin on the ground, and the characters difficult to connect with.

White’s translation felt seamless, and I had no problem with the prose itself. Collected Stories feels like an anomaly in what I have read of Colette’s thus far. I found this collection lacklustre and disappointing, but am hoping that it is just a blip in her oeuvre, as I would very much like to read the rest of Colette’s full-lenth work in future.

 

9781999944841After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg has been translated from its original Danish by Toby Bainton. Set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which is ‘an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals belong there in winter’, a mystery begins to unfold when the dead body of a woman named Ellen Keldberg is discovered on a bench.

Petersen immediately sets the scene, in brief descriptive prose: ‘Bluish white, like skimmed milk, the mist seems so near that you could gather it up in your hands. The storm has blown itself out in the night and the wind has dropped, but you can still hear the waves breaking in a hollow roar out by the bay.’ There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but I found the conversations to be stilted and unrealistic for the most part, and the majority of the writing which followed too matter-of-fact, and even a little dull at times. The translation used some quite old-fashioned words and phrases which made the novel seem dated.

My expectations were markedly different to what I found within the pages of this novel. Whilst I found the premise of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg interesting enough, for this genre of novel, it felt too slow-going, and plodded along in rather a sluggish manner. The book’s blurb proclaims that this is a ‘subtle novel… an enthralling family saga, a slow-burning murder mystery, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of alliances and old secrets.’ Slow is correct. Whilst I was expecting a piece of immersive Nordic Noir, I received something which felt as though it hardly got going.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was not at all what I was expecting, and I felt distanced from the characters from the outset. They did not appear particularly interesting to me; nor were they three-dimensional. The entirety of the novel felt rather lacklustre, and I would not rush to read another of Petersen’s novels.

 

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Dialogue of Two Snails’ by Federico Garcia Lorca ***

9780241340400I was looking forward to trying a selection of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, having never read any of his work before.  The 42nd Penguin Modern, The Dialogue of Two Snails, is described as ‘a dazzling selection of the beautiful, brutal and darkly brilliant work of Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet.’

The collection, which has been translated by Tyler Fisher, contains work which appears in English for the first time, and presents a ‘representative sampling of [his] poetry, dialogues, and short prose.’  The poems collected here also appear with the dates in which they were written, which I think is a useful touch.

Other reviewers have commented that the placing of poems here feels disjointed, and that the quality of the translation renders the poems stilted.  I have no reference points with which to compare Garcia Lorca’s work, and so I did not let this affect my reading of The Dialogue of Two Snails.

As I find with many collections, there were poems here which I didn’t much like, and others which I thought were great.  Some of Garcia Lorca’s ideas are a little bizarre and offbeat, but I am definitely intrigued enough to read more of his work, and to see how the translations compare.  Some of what he captures here is lovely, and so vivid, and I enjoyed the diversity of the collection.  As ever, I will finish this poetry review by collecting together a few fragments which I particularly enjoyed.

From ‘The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail’:
There is a childlike sweetness
in the still morning.
The trees stretch
their arms to the earth.

From ‘Knell’:
The wind and dust
Make silver prows.

‘Seashell’:
They’ve brought me a seashell.

It’s depths sing an atlas
of seascapes downriver.
My hear
brims with billows
and minnows
of shadows and silver.

They’ve brought me a seashell.

 

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‘Rhyming Life and Death’ by Amos Oz **

I received a copy of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death from a dear friend for my birthday.  I had not read any of prizewinning author Oz’s work before, and was suitably intrigued by the blurb of this novel, which was first published in 2007, and has been translated from its original Hebrew by Nicholas Lange.  The Guardian calls Rhyming Life and Death ‘A master class in interlocking character sketches, and a fable on the themes of sex, death and writing pitched somewhere between the fictional universes of JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera.’  The Scotsman declares it ‘a meditation on the art of writing, the relationship between literature and life, between life and death.’

9780099521020In the novel, which is set during the 1980s, an unnamed author spends a window of time, before he is due to give a reading, waiting in a bar in Tel Aviv ‘on a stifling hot night’, making up ‘the life stories of the people he meets.’  The story culminates in his asking a woman who declares herself a huge fan of his work for a drink.  Although she declines, he ‘walks away, only to climb the steps to her flat that night.  Or does he?  In Amos Oz’s beguiling, intriguing story the reader never really knows where reality ends and invention begins…’.

Rhyming Life and Death opens with a wealth of frequently asked questions which have been posed to ‘the Author’, as he is referred to throughout.  They include: ‘Why do you write the way you do?’, ‘Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?’, and ‘Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things?’  There are many such questions, and a lot of them cross the line between public and personal.

Oz’s writing errs on the sensual.  He seems particularly concerned with evoking the smells of Tel Aviv.  Of a man lying in the terminal ward of a hospital, he writes: ‘With every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells: urine, sedatives, leftover food, sweat, sprays, chlorine, medicines, soiled dressings, excrement, beetroot salad and disinfectant.’  Sounds, too, are important to Oz’s descriptions of Israel, and they are paired in the novel with musings about the Author, and the strange power which his fans believe him to possess: ‘The night is pierced by the staccato alarm of a parked car struck by sudden panic in the darkness.  Will the Author say something new this evening?  Will he manage to explain to us how we got into this state of affairs, or what we have to do to change it?  Can he see something we haven’t seen yet?’

In this novel, Oz certainly gives insight into elements of what it is like to be a writer, and to be known.  The public throughout have quite unrealistic expectations of him, as, indeed, he has of others.  The stories which he invents of people whom he meets are often overly detailed.   I found some of these inventions more interesting than others, but the constant repetition of details did become tiresome rather quickly.  There are scenes here which are rather cringeworthy, and crammed with a series of cliched metaphors.

Whilst the novel was interesting enough to read, and I could never quite guess in which direction it was going, it has not made me want to pick up any of Oz’s other work in a hurry.  I found Rhyming Life and Death rather rambling and peculiar in places, and the story meanders rather than takes a natural path.  There is, however, a definite feeling of purpose to Oz’s chosen structure.  The novel is gritty at times, and muses upon the meaning of life.  I can certainly see why his writing has been compared to Kundera’s, but I must admit that on my experience of reading this book alone, I far prefer Kundera’s work to Oz’s.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ by Betty Friedan ****

The 41st book in the Penguin Moderns series is Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name.  The selected work in this volume was first published in her seminal The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which Friedan ‘gave voice to countless American housewives… and set the women’s movement in motion’.  In The Problem That Has No Name, one finds the titular essay, as well as a piece entitled ‘The Passionate Journey’.

I have read criticism about Friedan’s work before, and other tracts which mention her, but this was my first taste of her original work.  Friedan notices a marked shift between the 1920s and 1950s in the priorities of women in the United States: ‘A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband.  By the mid fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bat.’  This denotes a crisis in society; few women decided to pursue careers for their own fulfilment, working instead to support their families.9780241339268

Friedan’s work is all-encompassing, and she is very understanding of Everywoman.  The first essay begins in the following way: ‘The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”‘  As the title of this work suggests, Friedan suggests reasons as to why a name had never before seen given to ‘this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women…’.  The ‘problem that has no name’ consisted of the many women believing that any individuality they once had was swallowed up as soon as they became wives and mothers.

Useful statistics have been woven in throughout The Problem That Has No Name, in order to reinforce or better illustrate Friedan’s points.  She also makes use of the many interviews which she has conducted with females all across America, discussing various problems which they had with their husbands or children.  It is in these instances that her profession of magazine journalism really shows.  She notes the point at which she began to notice signs of something buried within widespread society, and common for so many different women: ‘But after a while I began to recognize the telltale signs of this other problem.  I saw the same signs in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living rooms in the Midwest.’  In the 1960s, Friedan notes that news outlets began to report on ‘the actual unhappiness of the American housewife.’  Although she does not talk about her own life in detail, Friedan also touches upon her own experiences of bringing up her children during this period.

The dissatisfaction of women is a major theme in the second essay too, but from an historical perspective which focuses on the path to women’s rights.  ‘The Passionate Journey’ begins: ‘It was the need for a new identity that started women, a century ago, on that passionate journey… away from home.’  Of this journey, which women felt compelled to make in order to keep a grasp on their personal individuality, and to try and escape from societal confines, Friedan writes: ‘Theirs was an act of rebellion, a violent denial of the identity of women as it was then defined.  It was the need for a new identity that led these passionate feminists to forge new trails for women.  Some of these trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.’  This essay is a real celebration of what women have achieved.

Friedan’s writing style is highly accessible, and she takes a clear point of view throughout.  Her prose is highly engaging and quite easygoing, despite the wealth of information which she denotes.  She is incredibly perceptive of womankind, viewing them as individuals rather than as a singular collective, and recognising that many women who were suffering silently during the period which she examines did so for myriad reasons.  The Problem That Has No Name is an empowering tome, and I will certainly be reading the rest of The Feminine Mystique at some point.  Despite the fact that it was published over five decades ago, Friedan’s work is still highly relevant in the twenty-first century.

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‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis ****

Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric…  This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’  Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’  I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself. 9781473625112

The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765.  Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator.  Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’  In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’  However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.

The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again.  She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date.  And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind.  Without that, it is a very poor tally.’  Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.

Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases.  This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield.  Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation.  Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’.  Anne has a rather hard and cold interior.  Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’

As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual.  She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning.  As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her…  I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’  Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.

Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset.  For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow.  I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’  When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him.  I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him.  He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how.  We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height.  The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’  Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’  Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life.  A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives.  When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone.  The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further.  A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible.  Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible.  There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’

The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist.  Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive.  I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising.  There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished.  I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.

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