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‘The Still Storm’ by Francoise Sagan ****

To date, I have read quite a few of Francoise Sagan’s books.  Like the majority of English speakers, I imagine, I began with her quiet masterpiece, Bonjour Tristesse, which was published when the author was just nineteen, and led her to become something of a literary sensation.  I have since encountered such gems as A Certain Smile and her short story collection, Incidental Music.  Each time I come across one of her books therefore, regardless of the invariable ugliness of the paperback copy, I will happily pick it up.

The Still Storm has been heralded ‘Sagan’s finest love story’ by Elle, and The Guardian deems it ‘serious, skilled and successful’.  The rather short novel is set in Angouleme, in the French province of Aquitaine, where Flora de Margelasse, a young woman recently widowed, has arrived to reclaim her family estate.  A local man named Nicholas Lomont, who works in the legal profession, narrates the whole.  He immediately falls in love with Flora, but she is quite unable to return such feelings to him.  When she falls in love with someone else, ‘the son of a farm labourer, who shamelessly betrays her, the world of Nicholas Lomont51ewftrip-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ and the provincial French bourgeoisie is shattered.’

Told in retrospect, Nicholas attempts to relay his memories of Flora: ‘Writing and remembering, both, have dangerous and painful consequences…  I continue to write for no reason and for no one’s benefit.  The scratching of this pen is an end in itself…’.  He is honest, sometimes painfully so, of his experiences of loving Flora: ‘Let us simply say that right from the start I was resigned to loving Flora; worse, I was proud to love her, proud in advance of all that she would bring upon me, including the cruellest unhappiness.’  He goes on to recount her relationship with the young farmhand, Gildas.

The Still Storm begins in the following manner, which effectively sets the tone of the whole: ‘If one day someone else should read these pages – if an author’s blind vanity or some quirk of fate prevent me from destroying them – that reader should know that it is for my own recollection, and not for the entertainment of others, that I embark on this account of the summer of 1832 and the years that followed.’  Sagan’s style of writing, and the plot which she has woven, put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier throughout.

The French countryside has been vividly evoked, and the changing of the seasons depicted with such care: ‘Despite the little, round, prancing clouds – pink, white, blue, and bright red in the west at sunset – the sky dominates the landscape.  It seems to rest on our meadows, our churches, our little towns, lying heavily on our land and stretching to the horizon on all sides, day after day…  The weather is of more importance here than elsewhere because the sky is closer and the sunshine more direct.  The nights are darker, the winds wilder, and the heat and snow more still.’  Sagan also has a real strength in demonstrating her characters, from their passions to their appearances.  The final time in which Nicholas sees Flora, he writes: ‘I remember her as I saw her then.  She wore a dress of crumpled silk, and her superb profusion of blonde hair danced in the bright sunlight like an oriflamme captured from the enemy that was branded in derision over her face now white and sexless and ageless.’

The edition which I read has been wonderfully translated from its original French by Christine Donougher, and was published in France in 1983, and English for the first time the year afterwards.  The Still Storm is engaging from start to finish.  Sagan’s writing is rich, and has a beautiful clarity to it.  There is undoubtedly a touch of the Gothic, and of overblown melodrama, but that makes it all the more fun to read.  The Still Storm is a wise and contemplative novel, sometimes dark and surprising, which reflects upon both individuals and the wider society.

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Reading the World: ‘But You Did Not Come Back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens ****

In 1944, when she was just fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens and her father were arrested in occupied France, and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  At the concentration camp, the pair were forcibly separated, and she was only able to speak to her father once more.  But You Did Not Come Back is a letter to the father whom ‘she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life.  With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world’.  Le Parisien calls Loridan-Ivens’ memoir ‘one of the most beautiful books of the year’, and promise that ‘you will read it in one sitting’.  But You Did Not Come Back has been translated from its original French by Sandra Smith, who handles all of the Irene Nemirovsky translations.  It was first published in 2015, and in English last year.

9780571328024But You Did Not Come Back begins in the following way: ‘I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. …  But I’m changing.  It isn’t bitterness, I’m not bitter.  It’s just as if I were already gone. …  I don’t belong here anymore.  Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will.  I’m slowing down.’  She goes on to harrowingly describe the situation which she and her father were thrust into, and how their separation affected her: ‘Between us stood fields, prison blocks, watchtowers, barbed wire, crematoriums, and above all else, the unbearable certainty of what was happening to us all.  It was as if we were separated by thousands of kilometers.’

Loridan-Ivens meets her father once more, quite by chance when returning from a work detail.  When the pair embrace, she describes the following: ‘Our senses came alive again, the sense of touch, the feel of a body we loved.  That moment would cost us dearly, but for a few precious seconds, it interrupted the merciless script written for us all.’  The next day, she passes him again: ‘You were there, so close to me, very thin, wearing a baggy striped uniform, but still a magician, a man who could astonish me.’  She is just as honest about what being imprisoned in such a notorious concentration camp does to her, and those around her: ‘The first things we lost were the feelings of love and sensitivity.  You freeze inside so you don’t die.  There, you know very well how the spirit shrivels, the future lasts for five minutes, you lose who you are.’  Whilst detailing her experiences within the camp, Loridan-Ivens often writes using ‘we’ rather than ‘I’; through this narrative choice, she demonstrates just how many were in the same situation as her, and the collective feelings which were shared.  Her voice continually speaks to her father; she addresses questions to him, and aches to know his opinions.

Loridan-Ivens was eighty-six when she chose to write But You Did Not Come Back, and it is clear that doing so was a very painful experience.  She describes her isolation when the war ends and Bergen-Belsen, where she is transported to, is liberated; returning home, she finds that nobody but her father understood what she went through in the camps, and the majority of people around her forbid her to talk of her experiences.  She writes: ‘I wasn’t running away from ghosts, quite the contrary, I was chasing after them, after you.  Who else could I share anything with?’

But You Did Not Come Back is incredibly moving and poignant; it is as heartfelt as it is heartbreaking.  Just one hundred pages long, it can be read in a relatively short time, but its messages are unlikely to be forgotten.  Loridan-Ivens demonstrates in her beautiful and brave memoir, which has been seamlessly translated, that the bond between father and daughter can never truly be broken.

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In Praise of the New York Times Book Review

I have been a fan of the New York Times Book Review since I first discovered it online,

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The New York Times Book Review from November the 20th 2011

and thought I’d offer something a little different on the blog today.  I was reading a fantastic Jim Shepard review of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body in its archives recently (find it here), and came across so many fantastic articles, which led my attention away from work for quite a while (oops…!).  I thought I’d put all of these together in the hope that you may find one or two (or perhaps all of them, as I did) of interest.

  1. Ernest Hemingway’s first short story, which he wrote at the age of ten, is found in Key West, Florida – here
  2. A review of the Broadway adaptation of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – here
  3. ‘The Story of Louisa Alcott’s Baby Sister, and Other Characters from Literature’s Sidelines’ – here
  4. ‘An Antigone for a Time of Terror’; a review of Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire here
  5. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘Visions for his Daughter’ – here
  6. ‘The Transcontinental Life of an 18th-Century Woman of Letters’; a review of The Extraordinary Life of Lady Anne Barnard by Stephen Taylor – here
  7. ‘A Guide to Graveyard Tourism’ – here
  8. A review of Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three by David Plante – here
  9. The Real Story Behind Roald Dahl’s ‘Black Charlie’ – here
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‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro ****

The 2017 laureate for the Nobel prize in literature is none other than the British author of Japanese descent, Kazuo Ishiguro. Despite my fascination with Japanese literature (I know he’s technically not considered part of the Japanese literary world but still..) I have to admit that I had only read his short story collection, Nocturnes, about 4 to 5 years ago. As soon as Dolce Bellezza proposed a read-along of two of his novels, I knew I had to participate. The Remains of the Day is the only novel of his that I own in English (my mum being a fan of Ishiguro’s writing, we own everything of his that’s been translated into Greek) so I opted for that.

28921For a long time now, I have been very intimidated by this novel. Although very highly praised by some, others have described it as slow, boring and overly wordy. I had made an attempt to read it a few years ago but I never got past page 2; that’s probably because what I needed at that moment was a fast-paced story that didn’t require much chewing over. This novel, however, is everything but that, since it makes you ponder about the issues raised in it for days after reaching the last page.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Stevens, a butler, who works in Darlington Hall, which, after WWII, came to the possession of an American gentleman. Stevens’s new employer advises him to go for a short trip around England since he hasn’t had vacation for a very long time, and, despite his initial hesitation, Stevens warms up to the idea and that’s how the story begins.

Each chapter is narrated from a different town from Stevens’s journey, but more than describing his actual trip and experiences, the butler goes through a trip down memory lane and ends up relating to the reader his story and life with his previous employer and the circumstances surrounding his current position. Prominent figure in his ruminations on the past is his father as well as Miss Kenton who also used to work at Darlington Hall before she got married.

Nostalgia seeps through the narrative in every sentence. Stevens’s language is as formal and rigid as any proper English gentleman’s should be (or used to be) in an effort to hide and cast away his true feelings, but this apathy and indifference while narrating very crucial events in his life is exactly what gives away the extent to which he cared and how deeply he felt about them. This happens to be one of the characteristics of Japanese literature as well, and although Ishiguro is considered part of the British literary production, it appears to me like this part of his heritage permeates his writing, willingly or not. What appears as an inherently British narrative has, in reality, such an affinity to the Japanese culture and way of thinking.

Some of the questions posed and issues raised throughout the novel are those of dignity and which are the qualities that make a butler ‘great’, questions which are ardently connected with Stevens’s past and the choices he had to make as a person and as a butler as well. Ultimately, The Remains of the Day is a novel about the past and how it continually haunts us, shaping our future in ways we could never imagine. It is a novel about regret, regret for the choices that weren’t made and regret for the words left unsaid. It is a novel about duty and loyalty and the lengths an individual can go in order to fulfil them.

Have you read this novel or are you intimidated by it like I used to be?

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Two Reviews: ‘A Lifetime Burning’ and ‘The Room of Lost Things’

A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard ***
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I really enjoyed Gillard’s novel Emotional Geology when I read it a few years ago, and purchased A Lifetime Burning on my Kindle sometime afterwards. I love immersive family sagas, and was pulled in immediately. There is such an intelligence and compassion to Gillard’s prose, and I enjoyed the non-linear structure, which was effective in showing the depth and backgrounds of the characters.

Elements of the storyline, however, let the whole novel down for me. Some were frankly so unlikely that they felt ridiculous, which surprised me. I was very much enjoying the book up until the first bizarre twist came, but felt my interest in it waning somewhat. Despite being so well written, in some ways, A Lifetime Burning was really rather disappointing, and it has made me think twice about reading all of Gillard’s oeuvre, which was my original plan.

 

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy *** 9781844082131

I decided, after quite enjoying The Hidden Room but not getting on at all well with London Lies Beneath, that I would give Stella Duffy one last chance. Thus, I borrowed The Room of Lost Things from the library. I was not pulled in straight away, but did find myself becoming more interested after a few pages, and almost engrossed a couple of chapters in.

The real strength for me here was the way in which London is portrayed; I miss the city dearly, having studied there for an entire year, and now being a whole country away from it. Duffy goes into so much detail about different boroughs; London, wonderfully evoked in all of its grit and glory, essentially becomes a character in itself, arguably the most important one in the novel. I admired the way in which everything revolved around something as dull and suburban as a dry-cleaning shop, too; it worked very ell as the novel’s focal point. The structure is clever yet simple.

I did find my attention waning after a while though; whilst the main thread of story featuring Robert and Akeel is interesting, some of the secondary characters had stories which felt quite repetitive after a while. This is my favourite of Duffy’s books to date, but I still wasn’t blown away by it.

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