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Non-fiction November and German Lit Month Wrap-Up

The beginning of December finds me in a very strange situation personally, a situation which affected most of my November activities as well. As much as I would have liked to read more and participate in all the lovely events organised in the bookish community, I did the best that I could given my circumstances.

That being said, whilst I immensely enjoyed my minimal reading for both Non-fiction November and German Literature Month as well as reading other people’s wonderful posts, I wish I could have done more.

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For Non-fiction November, I managed to read almost all of the books I had set as my TBR. Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare was the first book I completed and I utterly loved it. Since it’s being published on December 5th, my review is scheduled for that date.

italocalvino_classicsItalo Clavino’s Why Read the Classics? was the next one on my list, a collection of essays which I read rather selectively, since most of them referred to books and authors I hadn’t read and I didn’t see the point in reading analyses of literature I’m not familiar with. I read this in my Greek translation copy and I was reminded once again how much I adore Calvino’s writing. His love for literature and for the classics specifically shines through his wonderful prose and he makes you want to pick up the nearest classic and immerse yourself in its glory. methode_times_prod_web_bin_96549d4c-baf1-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9

The last book on my TBR for this event was Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which I haven’t completed yet. I love Shirley Jackson’s writing and as soon as I saw this biography of hers, I knew I wanted to learn more about her. I listened to this on audiobook and this is probably why my progress has been so slow, since I don’t do very well with audiobooks. I’ve listened to 7 chapters so far and I was not as impressed as I expected to be. While some parts are absolutely fascinating, I often feel like the book is too unnecessarily detailed and that makes it somewhat dull in parts, such as when the author listed all the Christmas gifts Shirley and each member of her family received – a detail I could have lived without being made aware of, and without spending 10 minutes listening about. Perhaps it’s the format of the audiobook which makes it dull for me, I’ll try to find a paper copy to continue reading it.

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As for German Literature Month, I also managed to read both books I had set as my TBR. Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear was definitely my favourite book of the entire month (perhaps of the year too) and you can read the full review I posted a few days ago here.

'Letter_from_an_Unknown_Woman'I couldn’t leave Stefan Zweig, one of my absolute favourite authors, out of German Literature Month. His Letter from an Unknown Woman is the second and last book I read for this challenge. Read in my Greek translation copy like the aforementioned Calvino book, it was a short novella which, like most of Zweig’s other works I’ve read, was filled with emotions and beautiful, beautiful prose. I haven’t encountered any other author who can write about and portray people’s feelings and the wide range of their emotions as eloquently as Zweig does. Whether you’ve found yourself in a situation like the one he’s describing (here, that of a woman’s unrequited youthful love) you will definitely feel like you have experienced this situation by the time you finish reading. This is how powerful his writing is.

These were my contributions to those two November challenges. I had a lot of fun participating in both and I hope next time I have much more time to devote.

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Reading the World: ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal ***

9780857053855Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, was first published in France in 2014, and has been translated from its original French by Jessica Moore.  Its critical reception has been incredibly good; M. John Harrison in The Guardian writes that the novel is: ‘Filmically powerful, beautifully translated… [and] glorious’, and Astrid de Larminat in Figaro states: ‘This breathless novel has all the beauty of a Greek tragedy.’  Mend the Living was also longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Mend the Living takes place over the space of a single day, and essentially tells the story of a heart transplant.  At the beginning of the novel, the heart resides in young Simon Limbeau; he is rendered braindead after a severe car accident following a beautifully evoked surfing trip.  The novel’s opening sentence, which is three hundred words long, begins in the following way, and gives one a great taster of de Kerangal’s prose style: ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows…’.

Following Simon’s death, de Kerangal writes: ‘… and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging…’.  De Kerangal’s prose is similarly poetic throughout, but does tend to verge upon the pretentious – with its ‘grandiloquent choreographies’, and ‘alveolar intensity’ – from time to time.  It is so vivid and sensual, however, that it gives the reader the opportunity to be present in every single moment depicted.  Moore’s translation is flawless; it must have taken an awful lot of work to render such long, complex sentences, and the style of prose.  Of a lot of interest is Moore’s translation note; she describes the way in which she ‘grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases’.

De Kerangal captures the uncontrollable grief of Simon’s mother incredibly well: ‘… the past has grown massive all at once, a life-guzzling ogre, and the present is nothing but an ultra-thin threshold, a line beyond which there is nothing recognisable.  The ringing of the phone has cloaked the continuity of time, and before the mirror where her reflection freezes, hands clutching the edges of the sink, Marianne turns to stone beneath the shock.’  The author also makes good use of building tension and creating uncertainty.

Mend the Living is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful novel.  It is not an easy read, per se; one really has to concentrate upon each, almost invariably long sentence.  I am one of the few not to adore it, but Mend the Living is certainly an admirable novel, with so many qualities to it.  The medical elements have clearly been meticulously researched, and the use of each chapter following a different character creates further depth.  Regardless, de Kerangal did not quite capture as much as I would have imagined.

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November Book Haul

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that I haven’t published any book haul posts since August.  This is because I have been very restrained with adding to my TBR, focusing instead on reading books which I already own, as well as many tomes which are still unread on my Kindle.  I have caved a little in November however, and thus have a few different titles recently added to my shelves, both literal and virtual, to talk about.

9781474604796I shall detail those which I have bought for my Kindle first.  I tend not to buy books from Amazon, whose morals are not up to scratch in a lot of ways, but wanted a few things to read both over Christmas, and on future holidays.  Everything which I purchased was rather cheap (under £2 per book), and they are largely tomes which I have found it difficult to get hold of in physical editions.  I thus chose four titles by the wonderful Celia Fremlin, whose work I have recently discovered: Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, The Trouble-Makers, Uncle Paul, and The Jealous One, all of which have been recently reissued by Faber Firsts.  I took advantage of two Kindle daily deals to buy a rather lovely-looking novel, The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer, along with a shortlisted title from this year’s Man Booker Prize, The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.

I have been a big fan of Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, for rather a few years 9781477819456now, and am starting to actively choose and seek out those titles which she has recommended, and which appeal to me (which, to be fair, is most of them).  I saw a copy of Susan Richards Shreve‘s Plum and Jaggers on the Kindle store for just £1, and couldn’t resist purchasing it.  To appease a bout of nostalgia, I also chose to download a copy of Christmas Tales by Enid Blyton, one of my favourite childhood authors.  I’m very much looking forward to snuggling up with it next month!

I saw a wonderful review of Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman, and decided to sneak a secondhand copy into my AbeBooks basket, which I purchased soon afterwards.  It’s a memoir of her experience with breast cancer, and whilst not the most cheerful tome, I’m hoping to read it over the Christmas holidays.  I have also been 9781509813131keen to undertake a year-long reading project for a few years now, and have finally found what I hope is the perfect book with which to do so – Allie Esiri‘s beautiful A Poem for Every Night of the Year.  I am gifting myself a lovely hardback copy for Christmas, and shall be savouring one poem every day (or, rather, night) in 2018.

As some of you may have seen, I am taking part in the Around the World in 80 Books challenge next year, and have been busy preparing lists, and finding tomes on my to-read pile which fit.  There are several countries I wish to read about which were proving difficult to find books from, at least with regard to my existing titles and those which I can find in the library, and I thus bought five from AbeBooks to prepare myself well.  I chose Two Under the 9781870206808Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden, Spanish author Mathias Malzieu‘s The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, Sigrid Rausing‘s memoir of working on an Estonian farm, entitled Everything is Wonderful, Welsh author Eiluned LewisDew on the Grass, and Marguerite Yourcenar‘s Coup de Grace, which is set in Latvia.

Going forward, for ease of admin more than anything else, although with a little sprinkling of hope that I will gain enough willpower not to buy any new books, I will be grouping two or three months into each of these book haul posts.  They will thus be far more infrequent, but rather larger than detailing one or two new books each month.

Which books have you bought this month?  Are there any on my list which pique your interest, or which you would like to see full reviews for?

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‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ by Yoko Tawada ****

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese author who, in her early twenties, moved to Germany in order to study and has been living there since. A rather prolific author, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese and her works are steadily becoming more and more known worldwide. As a Japanese woman living in Europe, the perspective she offers through her writing is truly unique and very fascinating, as it perfectly captures the feelings of expats without becoming overly dramatic.

33126922Memoirs of a Polar Bear is her most recent novel that’s translated from German to English by Susan Bernofsky, and thanks to the wonderful Lizzy I got the chance to read it as part of the German Literature Month, something I’m really grateful for (you can read Lizzy’s review over here). Coincidentally, the novel was awarded the very first Warwick prize for Women in Translation earlier this month, a prize which in my opinion was very well deserved.

Employing the technique of magical realism, the novel is divided into three parts, each one recounting the story of a polar bear, starting with the grandmother (whose name is unknown), moving on with the daughter (Tosca) and finishing up with the grandson (Knut). The first part, “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory”, is narrated in first person by the polar bear herself as she relates her journey from Russia to Germany to Canada and back to Germany. While working at the circus, like all the polar bears of the novel do, she decides to start writing her autobiography, an attempt which renders her quite popular. Language and writing are two major themes which Tawada uses throughout this novel, as the first bear is constantly faced with linguistic barriers, something which might reflect Tawada’s own initial experience abroad. This dialogue of the polar bear with her editor conveys brilliantly this struggle with language:

“The language gets in my way.”

“The language?”

“Well, to be specific: German.”

[….] “I thought we had communicated quite clearly that you are to write in your own language, since we have a fantastic translator.”

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian anymore.”

In the second part, “The Kiss of Death”, we are following Tosca, the daughter’s story. Instead of hearing the bear’s own voice like in the first part, however, here the narrator is Tosca’s human female partner in the circus. Thus, Tosca’s story is initially given through human eyes, but as the relationship between the two deepens further and further, their voices start intermingling and converging and in a way which only magical realism can justify, the woman hears Tosca’s voice in her mind and the words she eventually utters are not her own but the bear’s. Interestingly enough, this intermingling of voices (and identities, to an extent) happens after the woman decides to start writing Tosca’s biography, since, unlike her mother, Tosca is unable to write and communicate with the other humans. I found it particularly intriguing how the woman, who plays such a central role to this part and to Tosca’s life, remains unnamed throughout, just like Tosca’s bear mother in the previous part. IMG_0106

The woman’s obsession with communicating with Tosca ends up becoming a setback to her marriage, as her husband feels like the woman has rather lost touch with reality. This reminds me of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, where the protagonist’s obsession with not consuming meat or anything related to it also becomes detrimental to her marriage. Much like in the first part, language and communication become major issues, along with those of identity, femininity and maternality.

“Memories of the North Pole”, the third part, introduces us to Knut, Tosca’s son. Once again, Tawada beautifully plays with the narrative voices, as the narration here focuses on Knut and his perspective but is in third person. Later on it is revealed that it was Knut narrating his story all along, but he preferred using the third person even when referring to himself.

Like his mother and grandmother before him, Knut is working at the circus. Having never met his mother, he is being raised and taken care of by Matthias and Christian, who also work at the circus. Again, the issue of language ad communication is raised but I felt like the most prevailing theme here was that of family, relationships and familial bonds. Homosexuality is also brought up, since Matthias and Christian become Knut’s “parents” and the parallels to a homosexual couple bringing up a child are easily drawn.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a short but very rich book. Throughout the novel, there are many hints/metaphors for race (the whiteness of a polar bear’s fur contrasted with the brownness of a normal bear’s fur, which is much more commonly seen), immigration and different cultural backgrounds (the bears live among humans and they are of different species, so perhaps that insinuates different ethnicities?) and all those themes and issues raised could not be more relevant to today’s society.

I absolutely adored Tawada’s writing. It was beautiful and I wanted to savour each and every word. Despite its short length, this isn’t a novel to be devoured in a few hours, not only because of all the different themes it’s packed with but also because all the nuances of Tawada’s prose will be unfortunately missed. I definitely feel like I can never praise this book highly enough and my own words fail in conveying the magnificence of this novel. I will end this review with one of my favourite quotes:

“And there, in darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, then froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice.”

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Christmas, the Carol Ann Duffy Way

Last Christmas, I read the majority of Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poems, all of which I very much enjoyed.  To get us in the mood for the current festive season, I thought that I would amalgamate my short reviews of them all into one post.

Another Night Before Christmas (2010) 9780330523936
This extended poem, about a young girl’s longing to find out whether Santa is real, is just as lovely as ever.  The artwork here is gorgeous; minimalist and lovely.  A delightful volume.

The Christmas Truce (2011)
9781447206408This was the first of Duffy’s Christmas poems which I read after finding a lovely little copy for fifty pence in a Notting Hill bookshop, and it evokes one of my favourite historic Christmas stories, that of the 1914 truce between German and English soldiers in the trenches, when they played the famous football match and sang carols.  There is such humanity and sensitivity packed into these pages, and it is a true delight to settle down with each winter.

Wenceslas (2012) 9781447212027
A beautifully illustrated and rather sumptuous poem; perfect for making one think of Christmas past, and the true message of the season – good will to all men.

Bethlehem (2013)
9781447226123Alice Stevenson’s art is lovely and fitting, particularly with regard to scenery and still lives, and Duffy is on form with the originality of her wordplay throughout.  I particularly enjoyed the use of sibilants, and think that this would be a great volume to read aloud: ‘The moon rose; the shepherd’s sprawled, / shawled, / a rough ring on sparse grass, passing / a leather flask’, for instance.  On the whole, it is a really sweet poem which promotes a nice message, but I think it would have been better had it been extended slightly.  Still, it is a lovely contemplative Christmas read.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday (2014)
9781447271505I put off reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday when it was first released as Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poem, but couldn’t resist ordering a secondhand copy to read over Christmas 2016.  It’s not that festive, but it is a lovely little volume.  The art style is gorgeous, and I loved the use of just a few colours, an effective and evocative choice on the part of the illustrator.  The poem itself was sweet; not my favourite Duffy, but a simple and vivid story nonetheless.  It is not as playful as a lot of her other work; the vocabulary used is not unusual, and was even a little simplistic in places.  Still, I feel that I will probably indefinitely reread this once a year as the festive season rolls around.

The King of Christmas (2016)
9781509834570I love the fact that The King of Christmas is based upon tradition from the Middle Ages, in which a Lord of Misrule could be appointed to take charge if the original ruler was in need of a break, or some light relief.  The art here is very appealing, and Duffy’s rhyme scheme and wordplay worked perfectly.  Thoughtful and mischievous, The King of Christmas evokes winters past in rather a magical way.  It is a perfect addition to the set.

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‘The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State’ by “Samer” ****

Every once in a while, an important book is published, which reflects upon parts of society that are often hidden from the Western world.  Yes, I am sure that we are all familiar with the conflict in Syria, which has been ongoing for years, but we rarely get to see what the situation is like for the civilians who call the country home.  The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from “Islamic State” does just this; it gives an insight, through the eyes of a Syrian man in his early twenties, of exactly what living under so-called Islamic State (also referred to as both Daesh and IS in this review) is like, and the hatred which they spread into all corners of society.

John Humphrys writes that The Raqqa Diaries ‘should be compulsory reading for all who care about the horror of Syria’, and Hilary Benn states that it is: ‘Remarkable…  We owe it to the author – and to all those who have died – to read his account of the evil cruelty of Daesh and the horrors of the Syrian civil war’. 9781786330536

Since so-called Islamic State occupied the Syrian city of Raqqa, journalists were forbidden, and the penalty ‘for speaking to the Western media is death by beheading’.  The BBC, after much effort, finally managed to make contact with a small activist group named Al-Sharqiya 24, of which the anonymous author “Samer” is a member.  Samer is ‘fighting back the only way he can; by telling the world what is happening to his beloved city.’  BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent Mike Thomson’s introduction to the volume reflects thus: ‘What followed [making contact with Samer] is an extraordinary and chilling insight into how the brutality and injustices perpetrated by IS permeates almost every level of life in its now infamous capital.’  Once recorded by Samer, the diary was encrypted and sent to an intermediary country, ‘before being passed on to the BBC’.  The communications network in Raqqa has largely been cut off, and there is little access for its civilians to the outside world: ‘Their entire presence would provide journalists with an alternative narrative, dilute the effectiveness of Daesh propaganda and expose its lies.’  They cannot even keep up with the news in their own country, as much about the war is blocked, and not reported upon.

Samer’s narrative begins in March 2013, at a pivotal moment at which the rebels have taken over Raqqa.  At first, this seems relatively hopeful to Samer, as he wants to be freed from Assad’s regime.  However, he soon begins to worry about the presence of Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front in proceedings.  Daesh soon defeats the Free Syrian Army in the region, and takes over the city of Raqqa itself: ‘Daesh members came in two basic types.  Those who actually believe they have come to save us were amongst the first to enter the city; the second type are much more violent.’

The Raqqa Diaries is an important and insightful account of extremist views, and what it is like for ordinary citizens to have to live under often bizarre rules, which they can be punished severely for breaking.  A rule is imposed, for instance, which states that all men have to wear their trousers above ankle length.  The punishment for this is to undergo ‘a week-long Sharia course’.  Samer views such rulings as ‘committing crimes against our beloved religion’, and goes on to say: ‘That is a terrible offence, because Islam is the most precious thing we have, a glimpse of light in these very dark times.’

The Raqqa Diaries is told in short bursts; all are shocking, and many heartbreaking, and demonstrate both the brutality of so-called Islamic state, and Samer’s bravery.  He thoughtfully shows that Western intervention is not always welcome within Syria; when the Russians stage an air strike ‘supposedly targeting terrorists’, he writes of the huge human cost: ‘Isn’t the terrorism on the ground enough?  Now you bring it from the skies as well.’  The Raqqa Diaries is incredibly human in this, and many other ways; it is both poignant and relatable.  Samer speaks about studying, falling in love, and his dreams of living abroad.  Of course, we live in relative safety in the West, and have freedom, but we have so much in common with Samer – our hopes, our dreams, and our compassion are based upon the same foundations, and our love for our people and our country is really no different to his.  Of his patriotism in the face of warfare, Samer writes: ‘I felt a calling to serve the land that I had been raised to love and cherish.  The needs of our country felt more important than our own individual welfare.’  Thus, he echoes a lot of those soldiers from Western shores who fought in the First and Second World Wars, amongst others, doing so for the greater good.

Samer constantly balances his own experiences with those of others, writing: ‘I try not to question the many terrible things that have happened to me, or think too much about them.  I look at others around me.  Some have been even less fortunate, their positions much worse than mine.’

Chilling and harrowing, The Raqqa Diaries are a reflection upon the awful brutality which exists in the world which we all call home, and deserves to be read by everyone.  It gives such insight into what it is like to be repressed.  Samer demonstrates how Daesh became more powerful over time, and how their rule became even worse, staging public executions, where they behead all of those who fought for Assad.  ‘The aim,’ Samer tells us, ‘is to instill so much fear into the hearts of onlookers that nobody will dare to challenge their reign of terror.’  The book is hard-hitting, and not for the fainthearted, but one cannot stress the important enough of being aware of such atrocities, and doing all we can to help those affected.

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‘Rooms’ by Lauren Oliver ****

‘Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family – bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna – have arrived for their inheritance.But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself – in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide – with cataclysmic results.’

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I adore books about old houses and secrets, as well as good ghost stories, and Lauren Oliver’s Rooms was therefore quite an obvious choice for me to pick up. I’m so pleased that Oliver has made the transition, if a temporary one, to adult literature; the only other book of hers which I have read to date is Before I Fall, which I enjoyed, despite young adult literature not really being my thing.

I very much liked the structure within Rooms, revolving as it did around a series of different rooms in a grand old American house. Each character was followed in turn, and the way in which only the ‘ghosts’ of the house used first person perspectives gave a really interesting overview, which had quite a lot of depth to it. I would not personally term this a fantasy or paranormal novel; it is really rather human, and makes one think about the strength of history and family. Yes, there are ghosts, but there is an overriding sense of realism to the whole. The prose is both effective and poetic, and everything about it works.

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‘Live Lagom: Balanced Living, the Swedish Way’ by Anna Brones **

I am such a fan of the Danish concept of hygge, which was very popular during 2016, that I was immediately interested in reading about the Swedish lagom. Rather than revolve around comfort and cosiness as hygge does, lagom addresses a lifestyle balance.  Its blurb states:

Live Lagom is a guide to life based on the Swedish philosophy of lagom, meaning `not too little, not too much, just right’. Celebrated author of Fika and Nordic happiness expert Anna Brones explains the practice of Lagom in traditional and practical terms, and includes advice and tips on how to find your happy medium. Lagom helps you to achieve balance in everyday life and in all areas including home, work and health. Learn how to save money, feel less stressed, reduce your environmental impact, and create your ideal home and career through the way of life practised in one of the happiest and most satisfied countries in the world. Discover for yourself the trend that Elle described as `the more sustainable and enjoyable lifestyle we’ll all be wanting in 2017.’ Lagom allows you to enjoy the moment, and not only accept what you already have but also to make the most of it.’

9781785037283I knew little about its details before I began to read Live Lagom: Balanced Living, the Swedish Way, and honestly do not feel much clearer after finishing Brones’ book. There is an awful lot of waffle here, and I found the writing very awkward in places; indeed, I thought it had been poorly translated at first, before realising that the author had been brought up in the United States.

Whilst the photography in Live Lagom was lovely, and I appreciated the inclusion of recipes, the text became quite repetitive, and a lot of what Brones tried to put across seemed highly obvious. The concept is interesting, but this book did not work for me at all.

Considering the heart of the concept, Live Lagom strangely lacks any balance, and a lot of the chapters felt quite superfluous. What did interest me was the section on nature and the environment, which was undoubtedly the strength of the book for me. I can only hope that other tomes which explore lagom are more… well, balanced.

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Reading the World: ‘Therese Desqueyroux’ by Francois Mauriac ****

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.

9780141394053The 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.

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