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‘Tomorrow’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor ****

I very much enjoyed Elisabeth Russell Taylor’s short story collection, Belated (review here), when I received a review copy upon its publication, and have been trying to seek out her work ever since.  It has unfortunately proved difficult to find any of her titles, but thankfully, Daunt Books have recently reissued her 1991 novella, Tomorrow.

9781911547129Shena Mackay writes that Tomorrow is ‘a memorable and poignant novel made all the more heartbreaking by the quiet dignity of its central character and the restraint of its telling.’  Elaine Feinstein points out that Russell Taylor ‘writes brilliantly of emptiness, and the need for love’, and Publishers Weekly highlights, rather fantastically, that ‘Russell Taylor mingles the elegant with the grotesque, as if seating Flaubert next to William S. Burroughs at dinner.’

Tomorrow takes place in 1960, on the Danish island of Mon, where ‘a number of ill-assorted guests have gathered’ to spend their summer holidays.  The protagonist is Elisabeth Danzinger, ‘plain, middle-aged… a woman so utterly predictable in her habits that she has come to the island every summer for the last fifteen years.’  Elisabeth grew up holidaying on Mon, where her parents owned a holiday home.  The pilgrimage which she makes for seven days each summer gives her the opportunity to remember her tumultuous past.  Her itinerary never changes, and she expects that every holiday will be exactly the same as the one before; she revels in, and takes comfort from, this certainty.

At the outset of the novella, which runs to just 136 pages, the current employer of Elisabeth in England writes in a letter: ‘Despite living under the same roof as Miss Danzinger for fifteen years, I can tell you little about her.  You must have noticed for yourself: she was hardly prepossessing.  As for her character, I would describe it as secretive, verging on the smug.  I do not know anything about her background, she never mentioned it, but I did observe she spent her afternoons off differently from my English servants.  She was a great aficionado of the museums and once a month, I believe, she attended a theatre.’  This is the first description which we as readers receive of Elisabeth, who proves to be rather a complex character.

Russell Taylor continues with this level of depth and attention to detail throughout.  When Elisabeth arrives at the hotel, Russell Taylor describes the way in which ‘She could hear the sea breathing through the twittering of the sparrows that nested in the wisteria.  She consulted her watch; she rose, put a cotton kimono over her petticoat, threw a salt-white bath towel over her arm, picked up her sponge bag, opened the bedroom door quietly, looked right and left along the corridor and, satisfied that no one was about, crossed quickly to the bathroom.’  Mon has been made a presence in itself, with Russell Taylor’s vivid descriptions and sketches of island life building to make it feel as though one is there, alongside Elisabeth at all times.  A wonderful focus has been given to sight and colour; for instance, when ‘Far our at sea, when ultramarine turned to Prussian, three fishing boats floated motionless’, and later, ‘Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue.’

The loneliness which Elaine Feinstein picks out in her review has been given such attention, and is written about with emotion and understanding: ‘She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wandered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself refused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world.  Life conducted itself independently of her.  The scents from the sodden earth filled her with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past.’

Tomorrow is a beautifully written novella, filled with depth.  Mon comes to life beneath Russell Taylor’s pen, as do the characters she constructs.  From time to time, the secondary characters do not feel entirely realistic or plausible, but the very depth of Elisabeth’s character more than makes up for this.  Tomorrow is so well informed, and feels timeless; the issues which it tackles – in part, grief, solitude, and the legacy of the Holocaust – are written about with such gravity and compassion that one cannot help but be moved as the work reaches its conclusion.

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‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra ****

Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Ways of Going Home, which was first published in 2011, was chosen for the stop in Chile on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I had originally decided that the novella would be the last stop on my reading journey, but I was so intrigued that I just had to pick it up earlier.  This particular winner of the English Pen Award is set in Pinochet’s Chile, circling around districts of the capital city, Santiago.  This particular edition has been translated from its original Spanish by Megan McDowell.

9781847086273Every single review which I had seen of Ways of Going Home prior to reading it myself was highly positive.  Nicole Krauss notes that ‘Zambra’s novels are like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, and afterward, I missed the charming and funny voice on the other end, with its strange and beautiful stories.’  Edwige Danticat proclaims: ‘I envy Alejandro the obvious sophistication and exquisite beauty of the pages you are about to read, a work which is filled with the heartfelt vulnerability of testimony.’  The Observer calls it ‘Complex yet sophisticated…  Zambra [weaves] some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.’

The blurb on the Granta edition is beguiling in its sparsity: ‘A young boy plays hide-and-seek in the suburbs of Santiago, unaware that his neighbours are becoming entangled in the brutality of Pinochet’s regime.  Then, one night a mysterious girl appears in his neighbourhood and makes a life-changing request.’  Claudia, this ‘mysterious girl’, meets the narrator on the 3rd of March 1985, the night of an earthquake in Santiago.  Of their ensuing relationship, which is more of an infatuation than a friendship, the narrator tells us: ‘She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible.  But we were friends, or something like it.  We talked a lot.  Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.’

Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes.  These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood.  This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece.  Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost.  I was six or seven.  I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore.  I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did.  They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost.  That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

The undercurrents of politics are interpreted by the child narrator in very thoughtful ways. The angle from which the perspective has been shaped is fascinating, and adds so much depth to the whole.  Zambra shows rather than tells, demonstrating that though young, his child narrator knows that horrendous things are happening to people he knows due to the regime.  He cannot quite fathom why, however and, quite like Scout in Harper Lee’s wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, he devotes a lot of thought to the hatred present around him, and whether any justified reasoning can possibly explain its existence.  Of his young life in Santiago, for instance, the present-day narrator writes: ‘Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed.  We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.’  He goes on to say, rather poignantly, ‘While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner.  While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes.’

Zambra has been selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists for a reason.  Ways of Going Home drips with beauty, and vocalises the impact of violence in such a harrowing and memorable manner.  It is beautiful; it is striking; it is profound.  It is my first taste of Zambra’s work, but I am certain that it will not be the last.

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‘The Finishing School’ by Muriel Spark ***

My University held a two-day conference to mark Muriel Spark’s centenary in early February, and it seemed rude not to buy a book whilst I was volunteering.  I have read quite a few of Spark’s books to date, but The Finishing School is one of those outstanding which I have had my eye on for quite a while.  I was intrigued enough, in fact, to begin reading it right away.

According to a few of the lecturers and general Spark fans whom I spoke to at the conference, The Finishing School is her weakest book.  Ali Smith, however, deems it ‘one of her funniest novels…  Spark at her sharpest, her purest and her most merciful’.  The Smith quote held weight for me, as she is one of my favourite authors (this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows my reviews, I’m sure!). 9781782117575

The Finishing School, first published in 2004, comes in at just over 120 pages in its newest Canongate edition, and is easy enough to read in a single afternoon or evening.  It is Spark’s final novel, published 45 years after Memento Mori, and 43 after her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  It certainly marks a departure; whilst there are definitely similarities to be found between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, particularly with regard to its school setting and imparting of an education of sorts from rather a tyrannical teacher, it is neither as searching, nor as acerbic as the former.  The story here is not quite as tense psychologically as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie either.

The Finishing School, named College Sunrise, is located in Ouchy, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  Here, a ‘would-be’ novelist, Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a finishing school ‘of questionable reputation to keep the funds flowing’.  After having failed to make a profit in Brussels, where the school was opened several years beforehand, Rowland ‘moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.’

One student named Chris, just seventeen years of age, shows remarkable promise in the field of literature, and is working on his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, with interest from a host of publishers.  In the school, in consequence, ‘jealousy and tensions run high’.  No one person’s relationship with Chris is as fraught as that between himself and Rowland, whose criticism Chris relies on, but who is markedly jealous that he is getting somewhere with his writing.  Nina, whose opinion is given at points later in the novella, believes that Rowland’s jealousy of Chris is what is prohibiting him from producing a coherent novel of his own.

Spark gives an insight into the workings of Rowland’s mind and frustration within his own writing.  This manifests itself into a seething hatred of Chris’ work, which he can see is very good: ‘Rowland was frightened; he felt again that stab of jealous envy, envious jealousy that he had already experienced, on touching and reading Chris’s typescript.’  Of his writing process, Spark goes on to say: ‘All the students of Sunrise knew that he struggled with a novel.  They often volunteered to give him ideas for it, which he accepted politely enough.  They begged him to read it aloud to them, but the truth was, the book was not yet in any readable condition.  It consisted of paragraphs here and there on his computer, changing from day to day.  He was in a muddle, which was not to say that he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he as to do by writing a different sort of book.’

The Finishing School uses a structure of rather short chapters, which works well.  Much is included about the craft of writing, the price of education, and relationships between particular characters; there are extramarital affairs, crises of self, and friendships which will not be shaken by anything.  The style here, as ever with Spark’s work, is amusing in places – in fact, the humour here is noticeably biting in places – and peopled with interesting character constructs.  I did find it engaging, and whilst it is not my favourite Spark book, it is fascinating to see how her writing style has evolved since the beginning of her career.  My only qualm with The Finishing School, which made me give it a three- rather than a four-star rating, is that the ending is quite peculiar; I do not feel as though it was quite satisfactory, as it feels rather hasty and cobbled together.  Regardless, this is certainly a novella worth seeking out.

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Two Novellas About War: ‘The Sojourn’ and ‘Kaddish for an Unborn Child’

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak **
9781934137345I read Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn for the Slovakian component of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It is a slim novel, set during the First World War, and following the story of a young man named Jozef, who decides to sign up and fight. I did find Krivak’s prose a little difficult to get into, as many of his sentences were unnecessarily long, and seemed to lose the initial thread on several occasions. The Sojourn is certainly a literary novel in terms of its prose, but at times it felt highly, and unnecessarily, overwritten. It was nowhere near as engaging as I was expecting it to be. There were many flaws with the protagonist too; at only two points in the entire novel did he have any compassion for his fellow man, seeming to view battle as a game, and calling those he murdered his ‘kills’. The Sojourn has clearly been well researched, but its characters are wholly one-dimensional, and there is very little of a character arc to speak of, despite the novel being a formative one. The Sojourn was definitely readable, but the entire human aspect, which I would have expected to be a major factor in the plot, seemed to be missing in action.

 

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz **** 9780099548935
Previous to picking up Imre Kertesz’ Kaddish for an Unborn Child for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, I had read one of his novels, Liquidation, which I bought whilst in Budapest. As with Liquidation, this novella is a meditation on the Holocaust, and also features literary translator B. as its protagonist. In the highly autobiographical Kaddish for an Unborn Child, B. ‘addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world, [and] takes readers on a mesmerising, lyrical journey through his life, from his childhood to Auschwitz to his failed marriage.’

My high hopes for this novella were met; whilst it was rather difficult to read due to its terribly long and sometimes convoluted sentences, it proved to be one of the most powerful and haunting works on the Holocaust which I have yet read. The dense and complicated prose was sometimes exhausting to read, especially given its subject matter, but the stream-of-consciousness style fitted so well with the points which Kertesz brought to the fore. The core idea here is both beautiful and unsettling, and it is sure to linger in the mind for weeks after the final page has been read. The full concentration which you have to allow this novella is entirely worth the effort.

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‘Leone Leoni’ by George Sand ***

George Sand was an incredibly prolific author, and published many varied works over her career.  Leone Leoni, first published in France in 1835, was released in this particular English translation by George Burnham Ives in 1900.  The novel – or, rather, novella – is set in the early nineteenth century, and focuses upon the title character, as well as a young Belgian woman named Juliette Ruyter, and her ‘protector, the noble Spaniard’ Aleo Bustamente.

Juliette and Aleo have arrived in Venice just before its annual carnival, and receive the news that Leone Leoni is in the city ‘with his wealthy playmates’.  Juliette soon feels compelled to tell Aleo ‘the whole story of her progress of ruin and degradation at the hands of one of the most infamous and charming scoundrels of his time’.  The blurb writes that Leone Leoni ‘tells of innocence trapped by debauchery in a dazzling round of intrigue, impersonation and emotional deception.’9780648023302

Sand’s introduction to the volume has been included here, and immediately intrigues: ‘Being at Venice, in very cold weather and under very depressing circumstances, the carnival roaring and whistling outside with the icy north wind, I experienced the painful contrast which results from inward suffering, alone amid the wild excitement of a population of strangers.’  Clearly, this firsthand experience of the city which Sand had allows her descriptions of Venice to feel incredibly present and immersive.  The novella’s opening sentence proclaims the following, in what feels like an echo of Sand’s introduction: ‘We were at Venice.  The cold and the rain had driven the promenaders and the masks from the square and the quays…  It was a fine carnival evening inside the palaces and theatres, but outside, everything was dismal, and the street-lights were reflected in the streaming pavements, where the hurried footsteps of a belated masker, wrapped in his cloak, echoed loudly from time to time.’

Leoni is cocky, and filled with his own self-importance, and delusions of grandeur.  When Juliette tells Aleo of her history with Leoni, she describes the way in which she at first refused to dance with him at a ball, but was soon swept under his spell.  At first, she is not at all happy with the way in which he deceives her mother, and pushes himself into their lives: ‘By such petty agitations did the coming of Leoni, and the unhappy destiny that he brought, begin the disturb the profound peace in which I had always lived.’  As time goes on, though, her feelings for him change: ‘I was dominated by his glance, enthralled by his tales, surprised and fascinated by every new resource that he developed.’

The novella is told from the perspective of Aleo at first, and much of Juliette’s later commentary is displayed in dialogue, thus allowing Sand to use a contrast of voices.  These are perhaps not different enough, however, and do tend to blend a little, using similar phrases and exclamations.  The real strength of Leone Leoni lies in Sand’s descriptions, which pick up on the minutiae of place, movement, and character.  Of Juliette, for instance, she writes: ‘She rose and walked to the window; her white silk petticoat fell in numberless folds about her graceful form.  Her chestnut hair escaped from the long pins of chased gold which only half confined it, and bathed her back in a flood of perfumed silk.’

The prose of Leone Leoni is rather melodramatic at times, although one can rather predict this if they are at all familiar with the period in which the story was written.  Despite the sadness of her story, I felt no empathy whatsoever for Juliette, and the way in which she was treated; to me, she felt rather insipid, and seemed to spend most of her time swooning.  Aleo was not much better.  I found the plot of Leone Leoni to be rather predictable, and whilst the writing and translation are generally strong, I did feel rather disappointed with it overall.

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‘The Standing Chandelier: A Novella’ by Lionel Shriver ****

‘From the award-winning novelist and short story writer, Lionel Shriver, comes a literary gem, a story about love and the power of a gift. When Weston Babansky receives an extravagant engagement present from his best friend (and old flame) Jillian Frisk, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it – or how to get it past his fiancee. Especially as it’s a massive, handmade, intensely personal sculpture that they’d have to live with forever. As the argument rages about whether Jillian’s gift was an act of pure platonic generosity or something more insidious, battle lines are drawn… Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends? Described by the Sunday Times as ‘a brilliant writer’ with ‘a strong, clear and strangely seductive voice’, Lionel Shriver has written a glittering examination of friendship, ownership and the conditions of love.’

36454237I really enjoy Shriver’s writing, and whilst I’ve not even got through more than one of her novels to date, I wanted to see how she would craft a shorter work stylistically. The main nub of The Standing Chandelier – can a man and woman be ‘just friends’? – sounded rather twee and overdone, and is something I would ordinarily avoid. I was more than intrigued by the way in which Shriver might handle it, however, and was pleasantly impressed. She manages to avoid an awful lot of cliched tropes, and creates an exploration which is more unusual than usual.

The prose throughout the novella is intelligent and taut, as I was expecting, and I was pulled in straight away. Shriver still involves a lot of depth when crafting her characters, and both Weston and Jillian come across as fully-formed and believable individuals. Darkly funny at times, the story carries one through from beginning to end at a perfectly adjusted pace. Rather than lose herself in the constrained form, or having to drop more interesting elements of storyline in order to obey the conventions of the novella, The Standing Chandelier is rather perfect in terms of its size. Yes, it can be read in a couple of hours, but it still feels rich, and has a lot of emotional depth to it.

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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