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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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New Release Wishlist

Since I’ve stopped reviewing books for other websites and publications, I’ve found myself rather out of the loop when it comes to knowing about new releases.  Yes, I can find not-yet-released books on Netgalley easily enough, but it’s not quite the same as browsing book websites and blogs and building that delicious anticipation.  Thus, I have scoured the Internet to bring you a list of ten new releases which I am coveting.

1. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy 51chitfapol-_sx336_bo1204203200_
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness transports us across a sub-continent on a journey of many years. It takes us deep into the lives of its gloriously rendered characters, each of them in search of a place of safety— in search of meaning, and of love.  ​In a graveyard outside the walls of Old Delhi, a resident unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet. On a concrete sidewalk, a baby suddenly appears, just after midnight. In a snowy valley, a bereaved father writes a letter to his five-year-old daughter about the people who came to her funeral. In a second-floor apartment, a lone woman chain-smokes as she reads through her old notebooks. At the Jannat Guest House, two people who have known each other all their lives sleep with their arms wrapped around one another, as though they have just met.  A braided narrative of astonishing force and originality, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once a love story and a provocation—a novel as inventive as it is emotionally engaging. It is told with a whisper, in a shout, through joyous tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Its heroes, both present and departed, have been broken by the world we live in—and then mended by love. For this reason, they will never surrender.’

 

2. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss 514dlw-rjgl-_sx323_bo1204203200_
‘Jules Epstein has vanished from the world. He leaves no trace but a rundown flat patrolled by a solitary cockroach, and a monogrammed briefcase abandoned in the desert.  To Epstein’s mystified family, the disappearance of a man whose drive and avidity have been a force to be reckoned with for sixty-eight years marks the conclusion of a gradual fading. This transformation began in the wake of Epstein’s parents’ deaths, and continued with his divorce after more than thirty-five years of marriage, his retirement from a New York legal firm, and the rapid shedding of possessions he’d spent a lifetime accumulating. With the last of his wealth and a nebulous plan, he departs for the Tel Aviv Hilton.  Meanwhile, a novelist leaves her husband and children behind in Brooklyn and checks into the same hotel, hoping that the view of the pool she used to swim in on childhood holidays will unlock her writer’s block. But when a man claiming to be a retired professor of literature recruits her for a project involving Kafka, she is drawn into a mystery that will take her on a metaphysical journey and change her in ways she could never have imagined.  Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite.’

 

97817864847343. Five Get Beach Body Ready by Bruno Vincent
‘Enid Blyton’s books are beloved the world over and The Famous Five have been the perennial favourite of her fans. Now, in this new series of Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups, George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy are keen to hone their physiques ready for the summer holidays. All it will take is a bit of effort and willpower …and pulling together as a team. What could possibly stand in their way? True to form, the path to the body beautiful is less straightforward than they hope! ‘

 

4. St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire by Jonathan Miles 9780091959463
‘From Peter the Great to Putin, this is the unforgettable story of St Petersburg – one of the most magical, menacing and influential cities in the world. St Petersburg has always felt like an impossible metropolis, risen from the freezing mists and flooded marshland of the River Neva on the western edge of Russia. It was a new capital in an old country. Established in 1703 by the sheer will of its charismatic founder, the homicidal megalomaniac Peter-the-Great, its dazzling yet unhinged reputation was quickly fashioned by the sadistic dominion of its early rulers. This city, in its successive incarnations – St Petersburg; Petrograd; Leningrad and, once again, St Petersburg – has always been a place of perpetual contradiction. It was a window on to Europe and the Enlightenment, but so much of the glory of Russia was created here: its literature, music, dance and, for a time, its political vision. It gave birth to the artistic genius of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Pavlova and Nureyev. Yet, for all its glittering palaces, fairytale balls and enchanting gardens, the blood of thousands has been spilt on its snow-filled streets. It has been a hotbed of war and revolution, a place of siege and starvation, and the crucible for Lenin and Stalin’s power-hungry brutality. In St Petersburg, Jonathan Miles recreates the drama of three hundred years in this absurd and brilliant city, bringing us up to the present day, when – once more – its fate hangs in the balance. This is an epic tale of murder, massacre and madness played out against squalor and splendour. It is an unforgettable portrait of a city and its people. ‘

 

97807553909535. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
‘The unforgettable and achingly tender new novel from Sarah Winman, author of the international bestseller WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT and the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller A YEAR OF MARVELLOUS WAYS. ‘Exquisite’ Joanna Cannon It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things. And then there are two boys, Ellis and Michael, who are inseparable. And the boys become men, and then Annie walks into their lives, and it changes nothing and everything. Tin Man sees Sarah Winman follow the acclaimed success of When God Was A Rabbit and A Year Of Marvellous Ways with a love letter to human kindness and friendship, loss and living.’

 

6. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong 512bsgqt67tl-_sx331_bo1204203200_
‘Freshly disengaged from her fiance and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town and arrives at her parents’ home to find that situation more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory and is only erratically lucid. Ruth’s mother, meanwhile, is lucidly erratic. But as Ruth’s father’s condition intensifies, the comedy in her situation takes hold, gently transforming her all her grief.   Told in captivating glimpses and drawn from a deep well of insight, humor, and unexpected tenderness, Goodbye, Vitamin pilots through the loss, love, and absurdity of finding one’s footing in this life.’

 

510v2bugqkyl-_sx333_bo1204203200_7. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
‘The text message arrives in the small hours of the night. It’s just three words: I need you.
Isa drops everything, takes her baby daughter and heads straight to Salten. She spent the most significant days of her life at boarding school on the marshes there, days which still cast their shadow over her.  At school Isa and her three best friends used to play the Lying Game. They competed to convince people of the most outrageous stories. Now, after seventeen years of secrets, something terrible has been found on the beach. Something which will force Isa to confront her past, together with the three women she hasn’t seen for years, but has never forgotten.   Theirs is no cosy reunion: Salten isn’t a safe place for them, not after what they did. It’s time for the women to get their story straight…’

 

8. The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne 51-bhijiful-_sx306_bo1204203200_
‘Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.’

 

51e4ckmnrbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_9. The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson
‘From the publisher of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, the first in a new series of distinctive, standalone crime stories, each with a literary bent. In 1950s London, a literary agent finds fame when he secretly steals a young woman’s brilliant novel manuscript and publishes it under his own name, Lewis Carson. Two days after their meeting, the woman is found strangled on Peckham Rye Common: did Lewis purloin the manuscript as an act of callous opportunism, or as the spoils of a calculated murder?’

 

10. Two Stories by Virginia Woolf and Mark Haddon 51skmqr3jdl-_sx351_bo1204203200_
‘Virginia Woolf was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. With her husband, Leonard Woolf, she started the Hogarth Press in 1917: the list ranged widely in fiction, poetry, politics and psychoanalysis, and published all Virginia Woolf’s own work.   Its first publication appeared in 2017: Two Stories, bound in bright Japanese paper, contained a short story from both Virginia and Leonard. Typeset and bound by Virginia, with illustrations by Dora Carrington, 134 copies were printed by Leonard using a small handpress installed in the dining room at Hogarth House, Richmond.  To celebrate the 100th anniversary of ‘Publication No. 1’ this new edition of Two Stories takes the original text of Virginia’s story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (with illustrations by Dora Carrington), and pairs it with a new story, ‘St Brides Bay’, by Mark Haddon, a lifelong reader of Virginia Woolf.  TWO STORIES also includes a portrait of Virginia Woolf by Mark Haddon, and a short introduction from the publisher about the founding of the Press.’

 

Which new releases are you most excited about?  Will you be reading any of these?

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One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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