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One From the Archive: ‘Nana’ by Emile Zola ****

The 35th book on my Classics Club list is the rather beguiling Nana by Emile Zola.  Nana, which was first published in 1880, is the ninth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, which I am reading in no particular order.

nanaThe novel begins in 1867 at the Theatre des Varieties in Paris, where eighteen-year-old Nana is the newest star: ‘Nobody knew Nana.  Whence had Nana fallen?  And stories and jokes, whispered from ear to ear, were the round of the crowd.  The name was a caress in itself; it was a pet name, the very familiarity of which suited every lip.  Merely through enunciating it thus, the throng worked itself into a state of gaiety and became highly good natured.  A fever of curiosity urged it forward, that kind of Parisian curiosity which is as violent as an access of positive unreason.  Everbody wanted to see Nana.’

From the very start, Zola sets the scene of the Theatre des Varieties marvellously: ‘A few individuals, it is true, were sitting quietly waiting in the balcony and stalls, but these were lost, as it were, among the ranges of seats whose coverings of cardinal velvet loomed in the subdued light of the dimly burning lustre.  A shadow enveloped the great red splash of the curtain and not a sound came from the stage, the unlit footlights, the scattered desks of the orchestra.  It was only high overhead in the third gallery, round the domed ceiling where nude females and children flew in heavens which had turned green in the gaslight, that calls and laughter were audible over a continuous hubbub of voices…’.

The intrinsic position of Nana within the theatre is also strongly built: ‘Nana, in the meantime, seeing the house laughing, began to laugh herself.  The gaiety of all redoubled itself.  She was an amusing creature, all the same, was that fine girl!  Her laughter made a love of a little dimple appear in her chin.  She stood there waiting, not bored in the least, familiar with her audience, falling into step with them at once, as though she herself were admitting with a wink that she had not two farthings’ worth of talent but that it did not matter at all, that, in fact, she had other good points…  Exceedingly tall, exceedingly strong, for her eighteen years, Nana, in her goddess’s white tunic and with her light hair simply flowing unfastened over her shoulders, came down to the footlights with a quiet certainty of movement and a laugh of greeting for the public and struck up her grand ditty…’.

Just a few deft strokes of the pen is enough for Zola to create scenes which live vividly within the mind’s eye for subsequent pages: ‘The air there was heavy with the somnolence of a party prolonged into the early hours; and a dull light came from the lamps, whose charred wicks glowed red inside their globes. The ladies had reached that vaguely melancholy hour when they felt it necessary to tell each other the story of their lives.’

As a character, Nana is rather a complex construction.  On one hand, she is quite sensual and has a way of successfully wrapping men around her little finger and bending them to her will.  She is also quite naive, however, and in one particularly memorable scene she almost bursts with excitement at the prospect of going out into the city to drink milk.  She is on the borderline between child and adulthood, and that very juxtaposition and all its awkwardness makes her endlessly fascinating.  The entirety of the plot revolves around her; we learn of her loves and heartbreaks, and of her small son Louis, who is living in the countryside, and whom she does not get to see.

Whilst Nana is not quite as compelling as the fabulous The Ladies’ Paradise, it is an incredibly enjoyable novel, which brings to life the Paris of old.  The entirety is so well written, and I am itching to carry on with the rest of Zola’s works already.

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One From the Archive: ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’. 9780099553939

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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Reading the World: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia.  Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of.  Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876.  Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.lavinia-front-cover_1_orig

After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart.  She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed.  Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees.  They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.

Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole.  When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!…  I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic.  At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘.  Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘.  Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.

Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it.  The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’.  Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with.  There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality.  There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length.  Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.

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Reading the World: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ by Jean Cocteau ****

I purchased Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles for two reasons; firstly, it looked fantastic, and secondly, I thought that it would be an interesting inclusion for my Reading the World Project.  The novel in its Vintage edition has been faultlessly and lovingly translated by Rosamond Lehmann, a Virago author whom I very much enjoy in her own right.

Cocteau the man was a fascinating figure by all accounts, and is recognised as important in many fields; he was a poet, a novelist, an artist, a musician, a choreographer, an actor, and a filmmaker.  The book’s blurb hails him ‘one of the most talented Frenchmen of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement’.  His foray into novel writing, Les Enfants Terribles, was first published in France in 1928, and in this translation in 1955. 9780099561378

Siblings Paul and Elisabeth share a ‘private world… from which parents are tacitly excluded’.  Although both in their middling teenage years, they play what they term ‘The Game’, ‘their own bizarre version of life’: ‘the word “Game” was by no means accurate, but it was the term which Paul had selected to denote that state of semi-consciousness in which children float immersed’.  The rules are rather complex, and the overwhelming message of The Game is that one of the pairing must die.  Their home life is not a happy one; their mother has been recently struck by paralysis, and Elisabeth has to care for her:

‘She had been bewitched, spoiled, and finally deserted by her husband.  For three years he had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which, – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred.  His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better.  He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated’.

Les Enfants Terribles opens with Paul being knocked unconscious by a snowball, which appears to have been thrown by a boy whom he is infatuated with.  He is badly hurt, and his friend Gerard sees him home.  Cocteau has tenderly described this journey: ‘Paul heard: but he was sunk in such leaden lassitude that he could not move his tongue.  He slid a hand out of his rugs and wrappings and put it over Gerard’s’.  Their friendship is loving and multilayered.

From the outset, I found the novel – or novella, I suppose, as it runs to just 135 pages – beguiling and intriguing.  There is such a sense of place throughout, and Paris is beautifully evoked.  Cocteau’s writing is intelligent, and there is a marvellously fluid feel to its English translation.  Elisabeth and Paul are endlessly fascinating.  Their sheer unpredictably renders both incredibly realistic.

I am a huge fan of French literature, and this contains almost all of the most prevalent elements which I enjoy within translated French tomes – child characters, interesting and original plot twists, the weird, and the quirky.  There is a tenseness and violence to it which builds as the novel progresses.  Les Enfants Terribles also includes a series of illustrations by Cocteau himself; these are vivid and striking.

Les Enfants Terribles is a transportative work.  In accordance with the blurb, I believed that the Game itself would be more a focus than it turned out to be.  However, the sheer strength and breadth of the coping strategies which the children adopt in response to the traumatic experiences which they undergo is strong enough to make the Game itself almost fade into the background.  Les Enfants Terribles is fantastic, both gritty and dark; it is a strange and clever book which promises to stick with the reader for weeks after it has been read.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Misunderstanding’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in September 2012.

Irène Némirovsky’s first novel, The Misunderstanding, was written when she was twenty one years old and published in a literary journal two years later in 1926. The book presents a ‘tragic satire of French society after the Great War’. The Misunderstanding has been newly published in English this year.

Denise Jessaint and Yves Harteloup are the protagonists in this novel, which is set in a small village named Hendaye in an ‘enchanting corner’ of the Basque region, as well as Paris, in 1924. Yves holidayed in the resort as a child, where he had savoured long, golden days, as delicious as ripe fruit’, and has returned in order to gain some respite from his stuffy office job in the city. He is in his thirties, ‘so weary, so lacklustre’ in appearance, ‘with that slight bitter grimace at the corner of his mouth’. He fought in the First World War and bears a scare from ‘his last wound – a shell that had exploded and almost killed him in Belgium’. Born to rich parents and raised on old money, he ‘grew up learning to love beautiful things and how to spend money, how to dress… how to regard women as the only worthwhile worldly possession’. Yves is disenchanted with his new working life, wishing to be carefree once again: ‘This young man, who for four years had been a kind of hero, was cowardly when faced with the daily grind, the need to work, the petty tyranny of existence’.

Quite by chance, he meets Denise on a beach, where she is playing with her young daughter, Francette. Denise is ‘beautiful, frank, direct’, with ‘the worrying nature and anxious imagination of a true mother’. Bored with her marriage to Jacques, who met Yves at a hospital in Belgium when both were wounded in the war, Denise is enthralled with Yves’ company, and they soon begin a relationship with one another.

The novel is rather a compact one, taking place in around a year, but this small timeframe only adds to the story. It is clear that Némirovsky’s has considered the impacts of such a relationship on both involved parties, and the way in which she writes about how their affair grows and then begins to dissipate is masterful. The turns of events which she has fashioned throughout are believable, and we learn about their affair and all that goes with it – secrecy, lies, misunderstandings, clandestine meetings, happiness and unhappiness.

‘As in many of her works,’ notes Sandra Smith, the translator of all of Irène Némirovsky’s novels into English, ‘Némirovsky closely examines an extra-marital affair… Even in this early novel, however, she is able to see both sides of the question and alternates between writing from the perspective of the man and the woman’. This is not an entirely true statement. Whilst Némirovsky does follow both Yves and Denise separately and then together, the third person omniscient perspective has been used throughout. Whilst we get to know the characters and the inclusion of their thoughts and feelings does allow us to perceive them as realistic, we never truly get inside their heads.

Sections of the dialogue throughout does feel a little disjointed at the beginning of the novel, and it consequently does not always read as a true-to-life conversation would. This does improve as the story progresses, however. The only real qualm in the story is the author’s portrayal of two-year-old Francette Jessaint. In some chapters, she acts as one of her age would be expected to – making pies out of sand and amusing herself through play – but in others she seems far too grown up. Some of the words and phrases which she utters are too advanced for her age group, and it seems that there is no real consistency with her character or dialogue.

Némirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful, as are her turns of phrase. Her prose style is wonderfully executed. She is incredibly perceptive of the world around her and builds up the relationship between Yves and Denise realistically. The Misunderstanding is a rich, multi-layered novel, which shows just how the past affects the present.

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Reading the World: ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami ***

Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017.  Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book.  This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.

9780099448570Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan.  As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’.  When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch.  When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar.  It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.

The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane.  Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’.  We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know.  Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency.  I had to buy it for her before things disappeared.  Before the world fell to pieces’.  Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee.  I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt.  There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.

Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic.  There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light.  This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging.  It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists.  There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together.  Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.

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Reading the World: ‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift ****

I am at that stage in my reading life where I purchase Peirene books without even reading their blurbs, almost certain as I am that I will enjoy them, and find them striking and thought-provoking.  I have only been disappointed with one of their titles to date, and they firmly remain one of my favourite publishing houses.  When I spotted a deal on the Kindle store for Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake then, I jumped at the chance of buying it, and read it the very next day.  Given its title too, it seems fitting that I am scheduling this post on my birthday!

The Empress and the Cake has been translated from its original German by Jamie Bulloch, and is set in Vienna.  Its Austrian author has won many awards for her writing.  The novella is part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  Of it, Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes: ‘On the surface this is a clever thriller-cum-horror story of three women and their descent into addiction, crime and madness.  And at times it’s very funny.  But don’t be fooled.  The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us.’ 9781908670304

The Empress and the Cake is split into two distinct parts, and opens with our narrator standing in a cake shop, where she sees a woman acting rather strangely: ‘She had no intention, so it appeared, of buying anything; she simply seemed to enjoy gazing at the layers of light and dark chocolate, the white cream toppings and the colourful sugar decorations’.  This woman, who later introduces herself as Frau Hohenembs, asks the narrator to share a splendidly named Gugelhupf with her.  Without explanation, the narrator then follows Frau Hohenembs to her apartment, under the pretence of eating cake and drinking coffee: ‘And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with half a Gugelhupf after stuffing myself with cake at this woman’s place.  Even contemplating what might happen with my share was giving me a headache.’

A distinct contrast to Frau Hohenembs is her housekeeper, Ida: Frau Hohenembs ‘definitely fell into the category of thin, if not emaciated.  [Overweight] Ida rapidly ate four pieces of cake, one after the other…’.  We find, rather soon, that our narrator suffered with bulimia when she was younger, and the gluttony of eating of the cake – something which she would ordinarily avoid – brings on a relapse: ‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced.  It was the first time in fifteen years.  I had always known that there was no safety net.  But I hadn’t suspected that it would arrive so unspectacularly, that it would not be preceded by a disaster such as heartbreak or dismissal or a death.’

The present-day story is interspersed with extracts from a fairytale-like text, which allows the reader to muse somewhat upon whose story it is, and who is doing the telling of it.  These sections render the whole peculiar, yet beguiling; there is almost a compulsion to keep reading.  Stift has cleverly, in such a restricted space as a novella, presented an almost impossible plot to correctly guess at.  The Empress and the Cake is rather unsettling, particularly toward the end, but if you like quirky and unusual books, it is one which is well worth picking up.

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