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Reading the World: ‘Strait is the Gate’ by Andre Gide *****

Strait is the Gate is, for some reason, the first of Andre Gide’s books which I have read, despite his having been on my radar for years.  I had written his name upon the list of authors whom I hoped to get to during 2017, and also thought that he would be a great inclusion upon my Reading the World list.  First published in France in 1909, and in Dorothy Bussy’s 1924 translation, I could not pass up the chance of adding yet another marvellous classic of French literature to my list.

Strait is the Gate also seemed a wonderful place to start, being, as it is, the first novel by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner of 1947, and one of his best works in English; indeed, its blurb states that is is ‘… regarded by many as the most perfect piece of writing which Gide ever achieved.  In its simplicity, its craftsmanship, its limpidity of style, and its power to stimulate the mind and the emotions at one and the same time, it set a standard for the short novel which has not yet been excelled’.

9780141185248Strait is the Gate is a ‘story of young love blighted and turned to tragedy by the sense of religious dedication in the beloved’.  The novella’s opening paragraph is relayed in one of my favourite styles: ‘Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue.  So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention, and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away the last pleasure I hope to gt in telling them’.  All of Gide’s writing holds this strength, and his descriptions in particular are absolutely beautiful, and often quite startling.  Of the house of an uncle, our narrator, Jerome, says thus: ‘Certain others [windows] have flaws in the glass which our parents used to call “bubbles”; a tree seen through them becomes distorted; when the postman passes he suddenly develops a hump’.  He describes his aunt, Lucile, whilst she is playing the piano: ‘… sometimes she would break off in the middle of a bar and pause, suspended motionless on a chord’.

After the death of both of his parents, young Jerome becomes infatuated with his cousin, Alissa, with whom he spends every summer at her family’s secluded house in Le Havre.  ‘No doubt,’ he says, ‘like all boys of fourteen, I was still unformed and pliable, but my love for Alissa soon urged me further and more deliberately along the road on which I had started’.  Alissa’s younger sister, Juliette, fast becomes a go-between for the pair: ‘She was the messenger…  I talked to her interminably of our love, and she never seemed tired of listening.  I told her what I dared not tell Alissa, with whom excess of love made me constrained and shy.  Alissa seemed to lend herself to this child’s play and to be delighted that I should talk so happily to her sister, ignoring or feigning to ignore that in reality we talked only of her’.

Religion was not so much of an aspect here as the blurb makes out; rather, it is more of a familial novel, and a wonderfully wrought one at that.  Interesting family politics are at play throughout.  Letters which Gide writes from the perspective of others in Jerome’s family feel entirely authentic; he has captured such nuanced elements of voice, and renders each distinctive.  His prose is packed with emotion, which grows as the work progresses.

Bussy’s translation is seamless; there is such a marvellous elasticity to the writing, and the whole has been rendered beautifully.  Strait is the Gate is a truly beautiful work, and a novella which I was immediately immersed within.  Whilst it is my first taste of Gide’s work, it certainly will not be my last.  I can fast see him becoming one of my favourite authors, in fact.

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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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Novellas

I adore novellas, but definitely see far less reviews for tomes which fit within the given page limit than I do of novels.  Therefore, I wan to pose a few questions to you, dear readers, about the novella.

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One of my favourite novellas

  1. Which are your favourite novellas, and which did you read most recently?
  2. Do you actively seek out novellas, or do you prefer the short story or fuller novel?
  3. If you could recommend just one novella to a newcomer to the form, which would it be, and why?
  4. Which is the next novella that you hope to read?
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One From the Archive: ‘The Misunderstanding’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in September 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid ****

Published in 2007, and subsequently shortlisted for 2007’s Man Booker Prize, so much of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is still timely and relevant.  In fact, I can hardly put it better than the official blurb, which states: ‘Challenging, mysterious and thrillingly tense, Mohsin Hamid’s masterly The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a vital read teeming with questions and ideas about some of the most pressing issues of today’s globalised, fractured world. ‘

9780141029542The Reluctant Fundamentalist is both spellbinding and important.  It opens in a cafe in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province in Pakistan, when a ‘mysterious stranger’ comes to sit at your table – for the novel is addressed to ‘you’, an unnamed character from the Western world, who is not given a name or identity of their own.  ‘Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this speaker of immaculate English to seek you out.  For he is more worldly than you might expect…  He knows the West better than you do.  And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream – and a Western woman – and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens.  Then the true reason for your meeting becomes abundantly clear…’.

Hamid’s writing is sometimes rather spare, but if anything, this gives it more power.  In essence, we are party to a one-sided conversation.  We are lulled into the realistic, fluid voice of the narrator, which has been beautifully crafted, and that makes the horrors which he sometimes discusses all the more poignant and shocking.  The inclusion of the second-person narrative perspective is incredibly immersive, and allows us, the reader, to feel an incredible range of emotions whilst reading.  The way in which the conversation takes place over a single day, is a simple yet effective tool which adds more immediacy to the whole.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the first of Hamid’s books which I have read, but it will by no means be the last.  It is beautifully sculpted, and holds so much importance within its pages.  The multilayered approach, and the way in which interconnected threads and stories weave in and out of the narrative, has been used to great effect.  There is a strength and quiet power to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as well as incredibly memorable scenes and turns of phrase; the combination of its briefness, depth, and memorability render it nothing short of a modern masterpiece.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Cat’ by Colette *****

There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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Anita Brookner and Sarah Duguid’s ‘Look at Me’ ****

I hardly ever link together reviews based upon shared book titles, but I recently read two entitled Look at Me, and thought that they would be interesting to show in this way.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner ****:
9780241977774‘Once a thing is known it can never be unknown.’ By day Frances Hinton works in a medical library, by night she haunts the room of a West London mansion flat. Everything changes, however, when she is adopted by charming Nick and his dazzling wife Alix. They draw her into their tight circle of friends. Suddenly, Frances’ life is full and ripe with new engagements. But too late, Frances realises that she may be only a play thing, to be picked up and discarded once used. And that just one act in defiance of Alix’s wishes could see her lose everything …’

Look at Me is an undoubtedly intelligent novel.  I did not find it as immediately engaging as I did Leaving Home, but there was the same minute level of detail within our protagonist, Frances, and she felt rather realistic in consequence.  There are some elegant turns of phrase here, and an effective unsettling feeling soon creeps in.  Look at Me is an absorbing novella, with such a quiet power.

 

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid **** 9781472229847
‘Lizzy lives with her father, Julian, and her brother, Ig, in North London. Two years ago her mother died, leaving in a trail a family bereft by her absence and a house still filled with her things: for Margaret was lively, beautiful, fun, loving; she kept the family together. So Lizzy thinks. Then, one day, Lizzy finds a letter from a stranger to her father, and discovers he has another child. Lizzy invites her into their world in an act of outraged defiance. Almost immediately, she realises her mistake.  Look at Me is a deft exploration of family, grief, and the delicate balance between moving forward and not quite being able to leave someone behind. It is an acute portrayal of how familial upheaval can cause misunderstanding and madness, damaging those you love most.’

I spotted this in the library catalogue quite by chance when I was searching for Anita Brookner’s novella of the same name.  It wasn’t a book which I’d heard of before, but its storyline sounded so good that I decided to add it to my reserve list.  Tinder Press is also a favourite publishing house of mine, which was a further reason to borrow it.

Look at Me is absorbing, and so cleverly written; its suspense is built beautifully, and a claustrophobia becomes apparent at around the halfway point.  It put me in mind of books by Harriet Lane (also a positive).  It is especially vivid in terms of space and place.  Well written and well paced, Look at Me kept me interested and entertained throughout, and I am very much looking forward to Duguid’s next novel.

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