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Three Fantastic Novels

Whilst I have not written comprehensive reviews for the following books, I felt that they were all deserving of attention here on the blog.  I read all three at different times, but each has had an impact upon my reading life, and I find their stories incredibly memorable.

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster 9780141199825*****
‘Lucy has her rigid, middle-class life mapped out for her until she visits Florence with her uptight cousin Charlotte, and finds her neatly ordered existence thrown off balance. Her eyes are opened by the unconventional characters she meets at the Pension Bertolini: flamboyant romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the Cockney Signora, curious Mr Emerson and, most of all, his passionate son George. Lucy finds herself torn between the intensity of life in Italy and the repressed morals of Edwardian England, personified in her terminally dull fiance Cecil Vyse. Will she ever learn to follow her own heart?’

A Room with a View was one of just two outstanding Forster books which I hadn’t yet read. I had been meaning to read it for years before finally picking it up, and am kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. The entirety is beautifully written, and the characters almost achingly realistic. There are some rather comic episodes and asides, which balanced the more serious elements of the novel nicely. A Room with a View is transportive; Florence is beautifully evoked from the beginning. Whilst I found the ending a touch predictable, it was so deftly handled that it didn’t matter so much. A Room with a View is still a fantastic novel, which I absolutely loved.

 

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte *****
9781784872397‘When Agnes’s father loses the family savings, young Agnes determines to make her own living – as a governess. Working for the Bloomfields, her enthusiasm is soon dampened by isolation and the cruelty of the children in her charge. Agnes hopes for better in her second job, but when the scheming elder daughter Rosalie makes designs on Agnes’s new friend, the kind curate Mr Weston, she feels herself silenced and sidelined. Becoming a governess is one thing, becoming invisible is quite another.’

I was prompted to reread Anne Bronte’s wonderful Agnes Grey after watching the BBC adaptation of the Brontes’ lives, To Walk Invisible. Agnes Grey is beautifully written throughout, and Anne was undoubtedly a very gifted writer. This is a wonderful tome to be reunited with, with its memorable storyline and cast of characters. Bronte’s turns of phrase are just lovely, and Agnes’ first person perspective is so engaging. A refreshing, thoughtful, and intelligent read in many respects, and a fantastic novel to boot.

 

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky ***** 9780099488781
‘In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the existing two sections of her planned novel sequence, Suite Francaise, would be rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Francaise falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Francaise is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.’

I reread Suite Francaise, one of my absolute favourite books, whilst in France over Easter. It is even more beautiful than I remember it being. All of Nemirovsky’s novels are sweeping masterpieces, but she perhaps reached the pinnacle here. I can think of very few novels which even touch this one in their brilliance and evocation. Nemirovsky’s descriptions are, of course, sublime, and the novel is – like all of her work – peopled with a complex cast of realistic characters. An incredibly insightful and important work about the Second World War by one of my favourite authors.

 

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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: ‘Fire in the Blood’ by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Fire in the Blood by the inimitable Irene Nemirovsky is my first reread of my Reading the World project.  I adore what I have read of her work to date; it is both measured and incredibly beautiful.  Translated by Sandra Smith, as much of her work seems to be, Fire in the Blood is set in a rural village in the historical region of Burgundy, France – also the setting of the work which she is best known for, Suite Francaise.

Published posthumously in France in 2007, and in Britain a year later, Fire in the Blood was the second Nemirovsky which I read, whilst fittingly on holiday in the Dordogne.  The volume opens with a foreword by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt, who both wrote an insightful biography of the author, as well as discovering the full-length manuscript of Fire in the Blood amongst her effects.

9780099516095The novella – for a novella it is, really, running to just 158 pages in the pictured edition – tells of Sylvestre, known throughout as Silvio, ‘his cousin Helene, her second husband, Francoise [sic], and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal’.  As far as themes go within literature, this certainly covers a lot of bases!

From the outset, everything within the novella is so well evoked.  Nemirovsky opens up a vivid world gone by in the first few exquisitely measured sentences: ‘We were drinking a light punch, the kind we had when I was young, and all sitting around the fire, my Erard cousins, their children and I.  It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth.  The fiery sunset promised a strong wind the next day; the crows were cawing.  This large, icy house is full of draughts’.  Silvio then gives us crumbs of detail about himself; on the first page, he writes: ‘I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer’s hovel in the middle of the woods’.

Unsurprisingly to anyone at all familiar with Nemirovsky’s work, the character descriptions within Fire In the Blood are excellently wrought.  Colette tells her Uncle Silvio: ‘But you look like a faun… with your wide forehead, turned-up nose, pointed ears and laughing eyes.  Sylvestre, creature of the woods.  That suits you very well…’.  Silvio’s further descriptions of his own person, too, are memorable and unflinchingly candid: ‘For I sometimes feel I’ve been rejected by life, as if washed ashore by the tide.  I’ve ended up on a lovely beach, an old boat, still solid and seaworthy, but whose paint has faded in the water, eaten away by salt’.

Nemirovsky’s use of the male perspective is realistic, and often quite profound.    Through Silvio, the reader is brought into the heart of a small and rural community as though a member him or herself: ‘… the people around here have a kind of genius for living in the most difficult way possible.  No matter how rich they are, they refuse pleasure, even happiness, with implacable determination, wary perhaps of its deceptive promise’.

Smith’s translation is faultless; there is a wonderful poetic fluidity to the piece from beginning to end.  Fire in the Blood is an incredibly human work, which has been exquisitely written.  Her descriptions are reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield’s in their vivid snapshots of beauty and clarity.  Like Mansfield’s, her work is almost entirely sensually appealing.  There is so much depth within this short, and perfectly crafted, novel.  For those unfamiliar with Nemirovsky’s work, Fire in the Blood is a great taster of her wonderful stylistic choices, and engrossing storylines.

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Reading the World: Europe (Two)

The second part of miscellaneous book recommendations around Europe!

1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine) 9780141008257
‘A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a “blind” old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down…’

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Ukraine, England)
‘For years, Nadezhda and Vera, two Ukrainian sisters, raised in England by their refugee parents, have had as little as possible to do with each other – and they have their reasons. But now they find they’d better learn how to get along, because since their mother’s death their aging father has been sliding into his second childhood, and an alarming new woman has just entered his life. Valentina, a bosomy young synthetic blonde from the Ukraine, seems to think their father is much richer than he is, and she is keen that he leave this world with as little money to his name as possible.If Nadazhda and Vera don’t stop her, no one will. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat – Valentina is a ruthless pro and the two sisters swiftly realize that they are mere amateurs when it comes to ruthlessness. As Hurricane Valentina turns the family house upside down, old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the War, the one that explains much about why Nadazhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage, a grand history of the tractor.’

97800995077893. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine, Paris)
‘Ada grows up motherless in the Jewish pogroms of a Ukrainian city in the early years of the twentieth century. In the same city, Harry Sinner, the cosseted son of a city financier, belongs to a very different world. Eventually, in search of a brighter future, Ada moves to Paris and makes a living painting scenes from the world she has left behind. Harry Sinner also comes to Paris to mingle in exclusive circles, until one day he buys two paintings which remind him of his past and the course of Ada’s life changes once more…’

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
‘The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive…Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ‘La Sombra del Viento’ by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.’

5. Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) 9780140374636
‘Zlata Filipovic was given a diary shortly before her tenth birthday and began to write in it regularly. She was an ordinary, if unusually intelligent and articulate little girl, and her preoccupations include whether or not to join the Madonna fan club, her piano lessons, her friends andher new skis. But the distant murmur of war draws closer to her Sarajevo home. Her father starts to wear military uniform and her friends begin to leave the city. One day, school is closed and the next day bombardments begin. The pathos and power of Zlata’s diary comes from watching the destruction of a childhood. Her circle of friends is increasingly replaced by international journalists who come to hear of this little girl’s courage and resilience. But the reality is that, as they fly off with the latest story of Zlata, she remains behind, writing her deepest feelings to ‘Mimmy’, her diary, and her last remaining friend.’

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

‘The Courilof Affair’ by Irene Nemirovksy (Vintage)

I absolutely love Nemirovsky’s work, and will happily read any of her novels or novellas.  In fact, I will happily read anything which she turned her talented hand to.  Throughout The Courilof Affair, her writing is beautiful and its flow is marvellous, even in translation.  Sandra Smith, who was responsible for rendering the novel into English, has done a wonderful job.

The premise of The Courilof Affair would have attracted me even if I had not read any of Nemirovsky’s other work.  It begins in 1903, and deals with the son of Russian revolutionaries, who is given the responsibility of ‘liquidating Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the notoriously brutal and cold-blooded Russian Minister of Education…  Insinuating himself into Courilof’s household by becoming his physician, Leon M takes up residence at Courilof’s summer house in the Iles and awaits instructions.  But over the course of his story he is made privy to the inner world of the man he must kill – his failing health, his troubled domestic situation and, most importantly, the tyrannical grip that the Czar himself holds over all his ministers, forcing them to obey him or suffer the most deadly punishments’.

The Courilof Affair is protagonist Leon M’s autobiography of sorts, and it is told in retrospect from his own perspective.  His narrative voice flows well, and feels ultimately believable.  Nemirovsky gets across the fact that he is an anguished soul from the very beginning.  One of Nemirovsky’s strongest skills, as far as I am concerned, is the way in which she captures scenes and characters.  With one sweep of her pen, she creates the most vivid of images, and builds up beautiful and striking views before the very eyes.

The Courilof Affair is a novel about terrorism and its effects.  It has been based upon real-life events which have been fictionalised.  It is certainly well imagined in this respect, and has a definite ghostly echo of the awful, repressive situations which occurred in Russia both at the time in which the novel was written, and earlier.  As Nemirovsky does so marvellously in all of her books, she challenges perceptions throughout.  Her use of dual identity works well, and the book is rendered in an eminently human manner.  The story is a wise one, and it is entirely relevant to the world in which we live.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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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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