The 1920 Club: ‘Miss Lulu Bett’ by Zona Gale ***

I always have the best of intentions in joining in with Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, and Simon at Stuck in a Book‘s yearly clubs, which encourage readers to choose a book or two from a particular year.  However, in the past, I have only taken part in one or two of these, as something else inevitably gets in the way.  I am determined to make more of an effort going forward, and was excited to learn about the year of choice for the current project – 1920.  It felt rather special to select a book published exactly a century ago, and I was eager to join in.

I have read a lot of books published in 1920 which I have very much enjoyed – The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chéri by Colette – but was keen to select something a little less popular.  I considered a D.H. Lawrence novel, and also some F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories, but eventually plumped to read a new-to-me author in the form of American novelist, short story writer, and playwright, Zona Gale.  In 1920, she published a novella entitled Miss Lulu Bett, which appealed to me.  I downloaded it, copyright-free, on my Kindle, and settled down on a dreary afternoon to read it.

34276Upon its publication, Miss Lulu Bett was highly acclaimed.  The Atlantic Monthly wrote ‘Miss Lulu Bett is without flaw’, and The New Republic deemed Gale’s novella ‘a signal accomplishment in American letters.’  It was later adapted into a play by Gale, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921.

Lulu Bett lives with her sister, Ina, Ina’s dentist husband Dwight Deacon, their daughters Diana and Monona, and her mother, the bad-tempered Mrs Bett.  They reside in a house in the small town of Warbleton, in an unnamed part of the midwest.  Dwight ‘rules his house with self-righteous smugness’, and everyone around him is forced to conform.  He constantly makes himself the centre of attention, and makes out that he knows best, to the detriment of everyone else.  He sees himself, writes Gale, ‘as the light of his home, bringer of brightness, lightener of dull hours.  It was a pretty rôle.  He insisted upon it.’  Dwight is anything but a positive element in the family; indeed, he positively glories in the misfortune of others, whilst still trying to appear a selfless martyr.

A way out for Lulu – ‘an olive woman, once handsome, now with flat, bluish shadows under her wistful eyes’ – appears when Dwight’s mysterious brother, Ninian, comes to visit, after two decades of living in South America.  He proposes to her in something of an unusual manner, and the two embark on a journey out of Warbleton.  This, in true dramatic style, does not quite go to plan.

The novella spans the period between April and September, in which rather a lot happens to Lulu.  Regardless, there is not a great deal of plot written here; rather, the reactions and interactions between characters are given the most focus. Gale is concerned with familial relationships, and those continual, growing frictions which reside just beneath the surface.  Sadly, because of this, Lulu is not given as much focus as I would have expected, given that she is a titular character.  Whilst in the stifling crowd of her family, she is allowed barely any room to breathe; rather than shine through as the ‘headstrong’ protagonist which Gale was so keen to create here, Lulu pales somewhat in comparison.  A lot of what she does and says is not overly memorable, until she gains a sense of what freedom could feel like for her.  In this way, I suppose it could be said that Miss Lulu Bett is a coming-of-age story, although its protagonist is in her mid-thirties when the novella begins.

When we are first introduced to the heroine of the piece, Gale writes: ‘There emerged from the fringe of things, where she perpetually hovered, Mrs. Deacon’s older sister, Lulu Bett, who was “making her home with us”.  And that was precisely the case.  They were not making her a home, goodness knows.  Lulu was the family beast of burden.’  She is seen as something to be disliked within the family, and as too dependent upon them.  This notion is fostered by Dwight throughout, and remarked upon as often as he can manage it (which is certainly often…).

Gale sadly seems to be rather an overlooked author.  Whilst I would be interested in watching this story in its play form – mainly to see how loathsome Dwight is made by the director – the writing displayed in Miss Lulu Bett has not made me overly keen to reach for any of her other work.  This novella is structurally fine, but I do not feel as though it is really long enough for me to gauge whether I enjoy Gale as a writer.  The prose style is quite ordinary for the mostpart, and not much stood out to me as a first-time reader of her work.  Whilst I enjoyed the flashes of satire, there were not enough of them to make this story really stand out.  I would have appreciated a longer character study of Lulu, and I feel as though her character may have unfolded rather more realistically had Gale devoted an entire novel to her.


‘The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows’ by Edogawa Rampo

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) is a much revered and even more referenced era for all lovers of detective and mystery fiction. Although the writers whose seminal works we identify with the Golden Age are predominantly Anglophone or European (Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon etc), this flourishing of detective fiction took place even outside these continents, reaching as far as East Asia.

Edogawa Rampo was one of the most influential writers in early 20th century Japan, as his works helped establish the detective and mystery genre in modern Japanese literature. With a pseudonym that is basically inspired by the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, Rampo developed what is frequently referenced as the “Japanese gothic mystery”, managing to introduce the Western elements of mystery fiction to the Japanese audience, while adding an inherently Japanese flavour.196151

Published in 2006 by Kurodahan Press and translated by Ian Hughes, the tome I am writing about today features two of Rampo’s novellas, “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows”, as well as a very enlightening introduction by Mark Schreiber that helps even those readers who are unfamiliar become acquainted with this era of Japanese mystery fiction.

“The Black Lizard” is the longest of the two novellas (174 pages), and it uses many familiar tropes of the genre. The Black Lizard of the title is none other than our female criminal (it is revealed in the very first chapter, so this is hardly a spoiler), a femme fatale who stirs a lot of trouble for our seemingly clueless male detective. While the story starts off with the talk of abduction of a young heiress, characters disguising themselves oh so successfully and fooling everyone around them, as well as many other familiar plot devices and tropes, it’s not long before it takes a rather gruesome turn. I will not go into more details here, but I’m sure readers who are expecting an Agatha Christie type of story will be wildly surprised by the grim and macabre turn of events.

As a novella, “The Black Lizard” comprises 29 short chapters (most are less than 10 pages), while there are some pages interspersed with drawings of certain scenes and characters. Rampo’s writing style in this novella might seem a bit peculiar and outdated to most readers, since he tends to address the reader quite often and provide explanations as to what has taken place in the story. This reminded me a little of the mystery novels I used to read as a child (Enid Blyton etc.), although Rampo’s content is far from appropriate for children.

The second novella, “Beast in the Shadows” was my personal favourite out of the two. Consisting of merely 12 chapters and 102 pages, our protagonist turns into a detective as he tries to solve the mystery of a stalker that harasses his recently widowed love interest. Rampo isn’t afraid to delve deep into the psychology of his characters and bring even their darkest side into light, and that is what makes “Beast in the Shadows” so engrossing, in my opinion.

As an avid fan of mystery/detective/crime fiction, I was delighted that I finally got the chance to read more of Japan’s leading writer of this genre. It’s always very fascinating to me to see how certain genres, themes or tropes that are familiar to us in a certain way are employed and even subverted by other cultures. Even if you end up not finding yourself mesmerised by Rampo’s writing style, I believe both “The Black Lizard” and “Beast in the Shadows” are very worth your time, even if just to become acquainted with the origins if I may say of the Japanese mystery genre.

Have you read these novellas or any other work by Edogawa Rampo? Who is your favourite Golden Age of Detective Fiction writer? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

Many, many thanks to Kurodahan Press for providing me with a copy of this book.


2018 Travel: Books Set in France

My final stop so far in 2018 is France, where I am currently enjoying the Easter holidays (thank goodness for scheduling posts ahead of time!).  Here are seven books set in France which I have loved, and which, I feel, round off the week nicely.
5894091. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.  When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.
2. The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart (2007)
Barber Guillaume Ladoucette has always enjoyed great success in his tiny village in southwestern France, catering to the tonsorial needs of Amour-sur-Belle’s thirty-three inhabitants. But times have changed. His customers have grown older—and balder. Suddenly there is no longer a call for Guillaume’s particular services, and he is forced to make a drastic career change. Since love and companionship are necessary commodities at any age, he becomes Amour-sur-Belle’s official matchmaker and intends to unite hearts as ably as he once cut hair. But alas, Guillaume is not nearly as accomplished an agent of amour, as the disastrous results of his initial attempts amply prove, especially when it comes to arranging his own romantic future.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2006) 6238269
A moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.  We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.   Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.  Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.
4. A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse (2009)
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence.

158618055. My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
In her own words, here is the story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.” Filled with the black-and-white photographs that her husband Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so whole-heartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

6. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007; review here)
Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.
7. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) 1183167
Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950’s France with its portrayal of teenager Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and family to choose her own sexual freedom.  Cécile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.


Which of these have you read, and which have taken your fancy?

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‘The Lime Tree’ by César Aira *** (Asymptote Book Club #1)

Asymptote Journal is very well-known in the literary world for being devoted to and promoting world literature in English, an endeavour that had me mesmerised from the very first time I stumbled upon their website. Very recently, they launched an incredibly interesting book club to which I could honestly not resist subscribing to (it is currently open for US and UK only as far as I’m concerned, but they will probably expand to other countries in the future) – every month you receive a newly released translated literature book from independent publishers, something which sounds right up my alley.the-lime-tree

César Aira’s The Lime Tree is the first (December’s) book club pick and a book I had heard absolutely nothing about before receiving it. Aira is an incredibly prolific Argentinian author, having published around 80 books and being one of the most lauded Latin American authors – facts which made me ashamed for not having heard of him before but very happy to have finally come into contact with his writing. According to the book’s jacket, Aira’s writing ‘is marked by extreme eccentricity and innovation, as well as an aesthetic restlessness and a playful spirit’.

The Lime Tree is a very short novella (or novelita as it is called at the back of the book – such an adorable term!) of 106 pages and yet it is so hard to describe it accurately. While not mentioned anywhere as an autobiographical work, it is evident that many elements of the author’s life have been transplanted in his narration, the place (Pringles, Argentina), age and first-person narration being some indicative features.

One of the reasons why this book is so hard to describe is probably because there is no specific plot to it. Instead, the novelita consists of the author/narrator’s thoughts, memories and reminiscences, the point of departure of which is the plethora of lime trees the narrator sees at the Plaza in his hometown, Pringles, which remind him of his father and how he used to gather the lime tree’s leaves or flowers in order to make tea which helped with his insomnia. From that point on, the narrator tells us about his family – his dark-skinned father with his supposed ‘other family’, his deformed but imposing mother and his childhood years which were shaped by the Peronist political movement.

Babies, by their very nature, are in a sense little monsters; I might have turned out to be a dwarf or to have needed spectacles […] I was human plasma, unpredictable and protean, like Peronism.

I truly enjoyed how the author managed to give so much cultural, social and political information about the time his story took place without resorting to actual history recitations or mere recounting of historical facts. Aira very skillfully intertwines his story with Argentina’s history and context (perhaps because the country’s history is so deeply embedded in the author’s personal story) that even people like me who knew nothing about Peronism prior to this book, leave enriched and satisfied.

Aira’s writing style is very pleasant to read. Perhaps due to the nature of this particular novelita the prose was a bit dense at parts and the narrator’s frequent stream-of-consciousness method might not entice all readers, but I’m sure the short length of this book will make up for its shortcomings. Although there were fragments of magical realism here, I would love to explore other works by this author where magical realism is even more prominent. Certainly, one out of 80 books of Aira’s oeuvre is nothing sort of representative, and I am more than excited to read more of his books in the near future.

How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself, which the Plaza’s spatial stories made as unattainable as the sky. I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take a hold of it, like a ripe fruit… so I set out to recover that old self.

You can also read Ali‘s and Marina Sofia‘s reviews of The Lime Tree and I hope you do give this author (and book club!) a chance if you haven’t already done so.

I’m very looking forward to January’s book club pick! 🙂


Reading the World: ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov **** (One From the Archive)

Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is the first in the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.  It was first published in Russia in 2011, and as with all of the Peirene titles, this is its first translation into English.  Andrew Bromfield has done a marvellous job in this respect, and it goes without saying that the book itself is beautiful.

The author’s own life is worth mentioning in this review.  Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, and moved to Uzbekistan when he was a young man.  In 1994, he was forced to move to the United Kingdom due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.  Whilst his work has been translated into many European languages – Spanish, French and German among them – it is still banned in Uzbekistan to this day.

The Dead Lake, says its blurb, is ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’.  The novella has received high praise indeed; the Literary Review says that the author ‘has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground’.  Meike Ziervogel, the owner of Peirene Press, likens the novella to a Grimm’s fairytale due to the way in which the story ‘transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality’.

‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov (Peirene Press)

Its premise is absolutely stunning, and is at once both clever and creative: “Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons are tested.  As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake.  The radioactive water changes Yerzhan.  He will never grow into a man.”

The Dead Lake begins with a note from the narrator, which denotes the moment at which he met our protagonist, Yerzhan, upon a train.  He tells his tale to the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, and who punctuates it with his own feedback, recollections and imagined ending: ‘The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking’.

The story then centres upon Yerzhan himself, beginning with his uncertain birth: ‘Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway…  The column for “Father” in his birth certificate had remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen’.  His mother attests that his conception came as a surprise after she, ‘more dead than alive’, made her way into the deserted steppe to follow her silk scarf after it had blown away.  Here, she states that she came face to face with ‘a creature who looked like an alien from another planet, wearing a spacesuit’.  Since a cruel beating from her own father which was sustained after her pregnancy began to show, she has not spoken a single word.

Only two families live in the small way station named Kara-Shagan, and the sense of place and the desolation which Ismailov creates from the outset is strong.  The use of local words, folktales and songs adds to this too, and all of the aforementioned elements help to shape both the culture of the characters and their situation in an underpopulated part of their country.  The setting is presented as a character in itself at times, and this is a wonderful tool with which to demonstrate its vital importance to those who live within it.

As with all of Peirene’s titles, The Dead Lake is filled to the brim with intrigue from the very beginning.  Yerzhan has been well crafted, and his childish delight in particular has been well translated to the page.  When hearing his violin being played by a Bulgarian maestro of sorts, Ismailov describes the way in which: ‘the sound was so pure… even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow white clouds, the joyful birds’.

On a far darker note, the overriding fear of atomic bombs and the looming of a third world war gives the story an almost apocalyptic feel: ‘We are travellers, and the sky above us is full of enemy planes’.  The Dead Lake is quite unlike anything which I have read to date.  Ismailov presents a most interesting glimpse into a culture which is entirely different to ours.  The novella is absorbing, and the entirety is so powerful, particularly with regard to its ending.

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Reading the World: ‘Reader for Hire’ by Raymond Jean **** (One From the Archive)

The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series.  Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter.  The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny.  A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.

Marie-Constance is our protagonist.  The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’.  After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself.  And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.

The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.  I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday.  It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”.  I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember.  It struck me that my voice was really rather nice.  But can we truly hear ourselves?’  The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’.  The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts.  A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’.  The subsequent cast of characters is varied.  As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature.  The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse.  The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.

Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained.  The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language.  The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before.  On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.

Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services.  A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life.  We are shown the power that words are able to hold.  Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature.  In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.

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One From the Archive: ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen ***

Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is the first book in Peirene Press’ Chance Encounter series, and the 16th publication on their list.  It has been hailed an ‘extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’.  The novella is also the recipient of several prizes, including the Best Finnish Debut Novel of 2012.

As ever with a Peirene publication, one knows that the story which awaits will be intelligent, thought-provoking and difficult to put down.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, compares White Hunger to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive’.

Set in 1867, White Hunger deals with a devastating famine which swept across Finland, affecting everyone in its wake.  The novella’s main protagonist is Marja, a mother and farmer’s wife from the north of the country.  She and her family are slowly starving, and as she has heard that there is bread in St Petersburg, she decides to travel there with her children, Mataleena and Juho.  Her husband Juhani’s impending death is the crux which leads her to leave her home.  Ollikainen uses colour marvellously to describe his final moments: ‘The colour is being drained from Juhani’s face.  The first to go was red, the colour of blood.  Red changed into yellow, then yellow, too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now fading gradually into white’.

Alongside Marja’s story, we learn about others whom she comes across on her journey.  A subplot deals with that of assistant accountant to Finland’s senator, a man named Lars, who is trying desperately to hold everything together: ‘Lars was a mere messenger, but the senator directed his anger at him…  Finally, he [Lars] cursed the stupid farmers in the country’s interior – fat, lazy landowners who threw out their workers so they would have more for themselves, even though by rights they should have fed their poor’.  Ollikainen also speaks about Lars’ brother Teo, a local doctor, whose methods of practice add more historical perspective to the whole.

The descriptions throughout White Hunger show the desolation and starkness of the surroundings, and the power which nature has upon the people: ‘The wind tugs waves out of the water.  The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed’.  The rural and bleak situation of the unnamed Finnish town are well built too: ‘Your hometown’s a miserable village on a wretched little island’, Teo is told.  The author’s building of scenes in this manner adds an almost claustrophobic feel to the whole.  The presence of snow, which is described as a ‘suffocating blanket of white’, is sinister in itself: ‘The door is the worst.  Snow pushes in through the chinks and forms a frame, like a cadaver bent on settling in the cottage…  They need to get as far away as possible from their miserable patch of land.  All that is left here is death’.

Ollikainen’s occasional use of present tense adds an immediacy to the whole, and makes it feel almost contemporary at times, despite its historical setting.  The comparisons which he makes between humans and animals is so perceptive; images such as one character ‘grinning wolf-like’, and another ‘hunching his narrow shoulders in the manner of a dog caught by his master up to no good’ are prevalent.

White Hunger has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  Both translators are fabulously thoughtful at what they do, and the whole has a marvellous flow to it.  The novella is quite tender in places, and this contrasts well with the more frightening elements.  As one might expect with a plot such as this, darker aspects of life have been woven throughout – prostitution, murder, and the objectification of women, for example.  The bleak and powerful plot and almost compulsive readability make White Hunger a good fit upon the Peirene Press list.

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‘Plain Girl’ by Arthur Miller ****

Whilst I am rather a big fan of Arthur Miller’s plays, Plain Girl, which I purchased from Books for Amnesty in Cambridge back in April, was the first of his prose works which I had read.  It seemed a fitting tome to read in the current climate; its blurb states that the novella (or, arguably, the extended short story) ‘is a beautifully crafted account of a quest for personal fulfilment against a backdrop of world crisis’.  Rather than the threat of Trump and the havoc which he is already wreaking, the threat in Plain Girl is Hitler; even in New York, ‘the Germans were rallying on the street corners to bait Jews and praise Hitler on summertime Saturday nights’.

Published in the United States in 1992, and in the United Kingdom in 1995, Plain Girl has been very highly praised; the Evening Standard calls it a ‘superb fiction’ which ‘deserves praising to the top of the highest skyscraper for its humanity, wit and depth’, and The Sunday Times deems it ‘a tiny jewel of a book.

Janice Sessions, the protagonist of the piece, is seen by all as a plain girl, despite being the daughter of a ‘stylish old-fashioned New York Jew’.  We first meet her as she lays beside her dead husband in bed; much of the novel then goes back to look at her past relationships.  When her beau, a ‘passionate communist’ named Sam, leaves for war, she begins to discover her own identity, falling in love once more, and feeling valued.  9780413694805

To anyone at all familiar with his plays, it will come as no surprise that Plain Girl is marvellously written.  The sense of both time and place is strong, and Miller demonstrates a wonderful insight.  From the first page, Janice has rather a startling psychological depth to her, and is not at all a stereotypical woman of her class and period.  She is rather a complex character: ‘She was and wanted to be a snob…  She wondered if she’d been drawn out of the womb and lengthened, or her mother startled by a giraffe…  She had a tonic charm and it was almost – although not quite, of course – enough, not since childhood…’.  So many of the themes which are explored here are of great importance now, from politics and grief, to family, war, sexual relations, and literature.

Plain Girl is a poignant and resonant novella.  At just 76 pages of rather large type, it is incredibly brief, a mere breath of a story.  Regardless, Miller packs in such depth.  The whole has been well ordered, and intelligently crafted.  Miller provides a quick but thought-provoking foray into the mind of a woman, and her struggle to find her own place in an unstable world.  Whilst Plain Girl did not take my breath away in quite the way that his plays have done, and did not feel quite as clever, it is certainly worth seeking out.

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‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon ***

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was has been translated from its original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.  The novella was first published in its native Iceland in 2013, by one of the country’s most revered authors and songwriters, Sjon.  I visited the biggest bookshop in Reykjavik when I visited in February, and many of his books were on display, both in Icelandic and their English translations.  To date, I have read a couple of his books, including the relatively well-known The Blue Fox, which I would go as far as to say is his most prominent work in the English-speaking world.

Characteristically, Sjon’s style does tend toward the sparse, and is almost simplistic on the face of it.  Moonstone begins in 1918, with this sentence: ‘The October evening is windless and cool.  There is a distant throb of a motorcycle.  The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound’.  What comes next is rather a graphic scene, in which a young man – our main character – sexually gratifies an older man: ‘Mumbled words escape from between his clenched teeth; snatches at the land scenes he is staging in his mind’.

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old orphan Mani Stein Karlssson (possibly a spelling error in the book) is from 15,000-citizen strong Reykjavik, in which ‘those of the same age cannot help but be aware of one another’, and has lived with his great-grandmother’s sister since his mother’s death.  His real passion in life is going to the cinema, watching, as he does, ‘all the movies that are imported to Iceland’.  Mani is illiterate, and works as a gigolo to earn his money; it is not a job which he dislikes, and he never says anything to make the reader think that he is being exploited, or is performing acts solely for the monetary reward.  In fact, more could have been made of this element of the plot.

Images and imagery are both of importance here; the result is gory and strange, but incredibly memorable.  Throughout, Sjon’s use of imagery is both interesting and thought-provoking: ‘With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock’.  Some of his descriptions – and, indeed, Cribb’s interpretation of them – are striking: ‘She appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volcanic fires of Katla…’.  Indeed, the geographical prominence of the landscape features wonderfully:

‘Although it’s past midnight there’s still a small crowd gathered on the hill to watch the Katla eruption: drunkards, policemen, labourers… and waifs and strays like himself…  When not conversing in low voices they gaze intently at the light show in the ease where the volcano is painting the night sky every shade of red, from scarlet through violet to crimson, before exploding the canvas with flares of bonfire yellow and gaseous blue.’

For the first quarter or so of the novella, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of dates, it would be difficult to pinpoint the period in which Mani’s story takes place.  There is very little else, at first, to give the era away, and its writing style – or perhaps its translation – feels relatively contemporary.  There are those things going on in Icelandic society which we recognise from the modern-day media – eruptions from various volcanoes, such as the aforementioned Katla, steamers coming across from Denmark, and a referendum about the country’s independence.

Later comes the first reference to Spanish influenza, which the remainder of the plot revolves around, and which builds a sense of history in a far more effective manner.  As Sjon writes, this epidemic acts almost as a uniting force: ‘An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavik at the same time as it is happening in the outside world’.  The influenza is consequently personified, given human attributes and actions: ‘By the time Miss Inga Maria Waagfjord, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of ‘The Golden Reel’ at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavik capable of picking out a tune’.

At first, whilst Moonstone provides some character portraits which warrant exploration on behalf of the reader, there is a definite sense of detachment to the whole.  The novella takes a while to find its feet, but it can certainly be said that it builds in intensity after the first few chapters, and becomes almost compelling in consequence.  The detachment disappears after a while, and the third person perspective cleverly becomes a necessary, rather than a distancing, tool.  Sjon has demonstrated, however, how quickly the city changed in the face of the epidemic, and how its atmosphere and bustle all but disappeared.  An important time in history, which does not appear to have been very well documented in Western history (at least in the English-speaking world) has been demonstrated in Moonstone, which alone makes the novella well worth reading.

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‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Angels Anglada ***

The history nerd within me is absolutely fascinated by books which take World War Two as their focus, particularly so in instances where fact and fiction have been woven together.  Such is the case in Maria Angels Anglada’s novella, The Auschwitz Violin.  Translated into English by Martha Tennent, it was originally published in Catalan.  Anglada, who died in 1999, was one of the most important figures in Catalonia, as well as one of the region’s most prestigious authors.

The Auschwitz Violin has been on my radar for a number of years, but I was only recently able to find a copy via my local library system.  Standing at just 109 pages, this book is a slim one, but even before beginning, I expected it to pack quite a punch.

Each chapter opens with an authentic document of World War Two; the first of these details the fatal shooting of a Jewish woman along the ghetto border, who is trying to steal turnips from a cart.  The novel proper begins in Krakow in 2001, with a concert musician named Climent, who becomes fascinated by the violin of a fellow player, and wishes to know its origins: ‘When the lesson finished, Regina placed her violin in my hands.  I tried it, and the strings responded to my every appeal. like pliant clay being molded in my hands’.  Her uncle, Daniel, made it, she tells him, to ‘the same measurements as the Stradivarius’.  Regina decides to give Climent photocopies of all of the material which she has collected about the Holocaust, in which the majority of her family were murdered.9781849019811

Throughout, the third person narrative voice has been used to detail Daniel’s story.  He has been imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, tasked with building a wooden greenhouse, in which ‘Commander Sauckel, a refined but sadistic giant of a man, was determined to cultivate gladioli and camellias’.  Whilst giving his profession as a cabinetmaker, Daniel is actually a luthier, a violin maker.  When we first meet him, he is being harshly whipped for the crime of oversleeping.  Anglada quickly build a picture of the horrific conditions which surround her protagonist, and continually reasserts his place within the camp: ‘No nightmare, he thought, could possibly be worse than the cruelty that surrounded them, pervaded them, as inescapable as the air they breathed’.

As soon as the camp command finds out about Daniel’s true profession, he is told that he has just one day to repair a violin, otherwise he will face grave consequences.  This process of mending also helps to mend him, giving back the humanity which he had been stripped of upon arrival: ‘He was himself once again, not a number, not an object of taunting ridicule.  He was Daniel, a luthier by profession.  At that moment he thought of nothing other than the job at hand and the pride he took in it’.  As one would expect, there is information here which deals with the making of violins, but it does often feel as though it has been rather overdone, and it overshadows other details of the plot.  Some of the scenes which detail Daniel’s craft also tend to be a little long, or rather repetitive.

Anglada details how Daniel comes to rely on those around him in some ways: ‘His fellow inmates – lice-infested, like him, to a greater or lesser degree – provided a warm, familiar reassurance’.  The details which have been written about so simply carry with them a haunting quality: ‘From the ceiling hung corpses and violins’.  There is a flatness to the whole, though, and it is rather too distanced – the fault of the third person perspective, perhaps.

Catalan authors seem to do novellas well, but I must admit that I have a preference for Maria Barbal’s Peirene-published Stone in a Landslide, which I read a couple of months before The Auschwitz Violin.  Whilst it deals with entirely different subject matter, the aforementioned seems to have had a tighter handle both over characters and scenes, and is not so abrupt in some places as The Auschwitz Violin tends to be.  There may be a problem with the translation which takes some of the human element away, and there is a definite lack of emotion here; but nevertheless, the strong story in Anglada’s novella deserves to be read.

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