One From the Archive: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

First published in 2017.


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.

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.


‘Cold Nights of Childhood’ by Tezer Özlü ****

I borrowed Turkish author Tezer Özlü’s classic novella, Cold Nights of Childhood, from the library. Originally published in 1980, and translated into English by Maureen Freely, the edition which I read also features an introduction by contemporary Turkish author Ayşegül Savas.

The unnamed narrator of Cold Nights of Childhood is a young woman ‘between lovers’, who has spent her recent life ‘in and out of psychiatric wards, where she is forced to undergo electroshock treatments.’ At first, she lives between Berlin and Paris, but decides to return to Istanbul ‘in search of freedom, happiness and new love’. Along with her present-day self, we see her childhood, spent largely in the Turkish provinces, ‘and the smoke-filled cafés of capital cities’.

On the opening page, the narrator tries to capture her place in time and space, recognising how much has changed for her since childhood: ‘We’re no longer in the provinces. We’ve abandoned these rambling orchards and large wooden houses to their silent towns. And we’ve abandoned those silent towns to the 1950s.’ From the outset, the sense of place is strong, as is the picture we are given of the narrator’s struggles with her mental health. She recalls that when she was young, ‘Thoughts of death chase after me. Day and night, I think about killing myself. My reasons unclear. To carry on with life, or to die – either will do. A vague disquiet, nothing more.’

Cold Nights of Childhood is filled with a cast of curious characters. Of the grandmother, who lives with the narrator and her family, our protagonist recalls: ‘Her eyes are blue-grey. It’s been seventy years since she last slept with a man. She loves life. Nothing interests her more than her own funeral.’

I appreciated the historical context including throughout, and the way in which the narrator interpreted pivotal events during her childhood. She tells us, for example, ‘I’m in the youngest class in middle school. Stalin’s death is celebrated like a holiday. We dance on maps. Plant tombstones for Stalin and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower is an angel.’

This story of Özlü’s is just over 70 pages in length, and was written over the span of a year. It was her first work of fiction, and the second of three books published during her short lifetime. What I most enjoyed about this novella are the blurred lines between the present-day narrator at the end of the 1970s, and her past selves. I also really admired the stream-of-consciousness quality of the writing: ‘This city never ends. I can go for kilometres without seeing anything to mark a beginning or an end. It has to sleep somewhere, somewhere beyond all these woodlands and lakes. I can almost see it. Nights here are like day. At night the sky goes grey, but never darker. Then it’s day again.’

The introduction discusses Savas’ wish to be a writer, and her subsequent exploration of Turkish literature: ‘The reading materials unravelled steadily, each writer connected to the next, building an impenetrable wall of influence and fraternity, in which I had to try and wedge myself…’. Of this novella, Savas writes: ‘… it confirmed for me that [Özlü’s] work didn’t belong to any school or style, that her voice was uniquely her own: consciousness distilled into narrative form.’ Savas gives a good amount of background information about the author, drawing parallels between this fictional story and Özlü’s own life: ‘… the interest of the book is not so much its autobiographical mirror but the way that life is endowed with an electric mutability. Madness, after all, disrupts the temporal narrative. Here, time is broken and reshuffled through the sharp edge of consciousness.’

Despite its brevity, Cold Nights of Childhood offers a rich reading experience. I found the style of the narrative, made up of a lot of interlinking fragments, rather beguiling. This is a novella which I would highly recommend.


‘Reconciliation’ by Naoya Shiga ***

Translated by Ted Goossen, Naoya Shiga’s Reconciliation is considered a classic of Japanese literature. First published in 1917, and written over the course of just 5 weeks, this novella is described as ‘an understated masterpiece of the Japanese “I novel” tradition (a confessional literary form).’ Shiga was the ‘most celebrated practitioner’ of autobiographical fiction in the country, and went by the ‘god of prose’.

The Translator’s Note, written by Goossen, adds a great deal of context, and information about the author himself. Goossen comments that the novella is ‘highly factual, at least on the surface.’ It was written ‘immediately after the culmination of the drama it describes’: the author’s firstborn daughter dying when she was just a baby, the birth of his second child, and the illness of his beloved grandmother.

For Goossen, the novella ‘is charged with an elemental force that renders the distinction between so-called fact and fiction quite irrelevant.’ One of the ‘most striking features’ of this story for its translator is ‘the close relationship between life and art… [It is] a novella about being unable to write, strewn with references to failed or abandoned works.’ He then goes on to speak about the difficulties of translating such deceptively simple prose.

At just 137 pages long, Reconciliation manages to pack in a great deal. It unfolds with the following opening sentence: ‘This July 31st marked the first anniversary of the death of my eldest child – she had lived just fifty-six days.’ At this point in the narrative, his second child is just 9 days old, and he is going to visit his daughter’s grave.

We learn from the outset that the narrator, Junkichi, has a difficult relationship with his father: ‘I personally disliked father. This was more than the inescapable tangle of emotion that binds most parents and children, I felt: at the root of our mutual animosity was a basic disharmony. But although I found it relatively easy to talk about these feelings, I found I couldn’t express them on paper. I didn’t want to use my writing to emotionally purge myself.’

I found the protagonist unlikeable, prone as he is to cruel outbursts, most of which are directed toward his wife. He shouts things like: ‘“If I were the kind of man who meekly gave in to whatever his father said, I’d never have married you!”’

The prose style is easy to read, as is the first person perspective. There are some distressing scenes here; there is a lot of detail, for instance, about his daughter’s illness and passing, and later his grandmother’s illness. Reconciliation is filled with rumination, but there is far less emotion on display than I would have expected. There are moments of care and sorrow, as displayed here, but these are few and far between in the narrative: ‘After the baby died, our house suddenly became very lonely. When we took our chairs out to the garden to enjoy the cool night air, the distant cries of forest birds drifted across the lake to us… Moments like this were unbearable.’ After this, however, the narrator recalls the following: ‘… what my wife had feared most was seeing a baby about the age of our dead child. I myself was quite unmoved by such a prospect. Sometimes when we were out together she would slip away without telling me. I would usually find someone there was holding a baby.’

In this translation, the narrator is very matter-of-fact. This is something I often find with literature translated from the Japanese; it is often stoic, in my experience, and not at all effusive. Whilst I found it interesting to read something from this period, and I did find the family dynamic an interesting element, I lacked a lot of sympathy for our protagonist, and was somewhat glad to see the back of him.


‘Going Back’ by Penelope Lively ****

I have been working my way through Penelope Lively’s oeuvre, rather slowly, over the last few years. My interest in her 1975 novella, Going Back, was piqued after I saw a brief but glittering review whilst scrolling through my Goodreads feed. Clearly easily influenced, I requested it from my library just moments afterward.

At just 125 pages long, with relatively large font, Going Back can be picked up and read in an afternoon. The entirety follows our protagonist, Jane, who reflects upon her wartime childhood spent at a farmhouse in a village named Medleycott, with her brother, Edward. She remembers days full of bliss, of ‘joyful indulgence’. Regardless, something seems to cast a ‘dark, chilling shadow over Jane’s remembrance, for the idyll came to an abrupt and painful end.’

In the first chapter, Jane tells us, with nostalgia: ‘It seems smaller, going back: the garden, the house, everything. But the garden, especially. When I was a small child it was infinite: lawns, paths, high hedges, the rose garden, the long reach of the kitchen garden, the spinney with the silver birches. It was a completed world; beyond lay nothingness. Space. Limbo.’ Jane goes on: ‘Remembering it like that. There’s what you know happened, and what you think happened… Things are fudged by time; years fuse together. The things that should matter – the stepping-stones that marked the way, the decisions that made one thing happen rather than another – they get forgotten. You are left with islands in a confused and layered landscape, like the random protrusions after a heavy snowfall… There is time past, and time to come, and time that is continuous, in the head for ever.’

Despite the brevity of Going Back, we learn a great deal about the siblings and their family life. The children’s mother passed away when they were toddlers; their father was largely absent. They are looked after largely by Betty, a woman ‘tethered to her kitchen.’ Jane and Edward spent a lot of time outdoors, amusing themselves: ‘The garden was our territory – the space within which we knew the arrangement of every leaf and stone and branch… and the world had stretched and stretched like elastic.’ Indeed, the outside world is alien to them, cocooned as they are within the vast garden: ‘There was a war on, people said… There was a war on, so you couldn’t have lots of sweets any more… and no more oranges or bananas. There was a war on, so we mustn’t waste things because there won’t be any more where that came from.’

I really admire Lively’s prose, and my experience with Going Back was no different. Lively consistently conjures up such specific imagery, seeing the beauty in almost everything. I particularly enjoy the way in which Lively captures the natural world, and the changing of the seasons in her writing: ‘Autumn. The hedge outside the gate has blossomed with spider-webs. All over, they are, from top to bottom, multi-faceted, strung between blackberry sprays or tacked to the dried heads of cow-parsley… We squat on our haunches, absorbed…’. Later, she writes: ‘And the year slid, somehow, into winter. The hot, harvest, blackberry days were gone and we were into November: white skies, dark spiny trees, hot toast for tea, cold hands, feet, noses. Darkness as we fed the chickens, the stable drive pale-fringed with grasses, the landscape huddled under a violet sky, the fields peppered with snow that fell this morning and melted too soon to be any use to us.’

I love the way in which the author views everything through the lens of a child, in a world at once enormous and tiny. Lively delivers complex topics filtered through the eyes of her young protagonist; when their father goes off to fight in the war, for instance, Jane and Edward are content, as they were able to make as much noise as they wanted in the garden, something not tolerated when their father was in residence. Instead, their farmhouse hosts land girls, and then evacuees from London, a period detail which works well, but which the children do not quite understand the reasoning behind.

Interestingly, Going Back was initially published as a children’s book. On reflection, Lively writes in her foreword of August 1990, ‘it is only tenuously so; the pitch, the voice, the focus are not really those of a true children’s book.’ Retrospect helped her to see this book differently. She calls it ‘a trial run for preoccupations with the nature of memory, with a certain kind of writing, with economy and allusion. I was flexing muscles… and it was only by accident that the result seemed to me and to others to be a book primarily for children.’

Despite being set during the Second World War, I found Going Back to be a very gentle, almost comforting, read. Lively has, yet again, managed to create a story which is at once brief, yet moving.


‘Hex’ by Jenni Fagan ****

Jenni Fagan is an author whose work I have enjoyed so much up until now that I no longer read the blurbs of her novels; rather, I just sink into the unknown, feeling sure that I will like what I find. Of course, the title of her newest novella, Hex, does bring with it a lot of punchy imagery, and it is surely not difficult to guess some of the themes which might be found within its pages.

Hex is Fagan’s shortest book by far, coming in at just over one hundred pages. It was published as part of a Polygon series entitled ‘Darkland Tales’, which aims to bring together ‘dramatic retellings of stories’ from Scotland’s history. This is the second book in the series; the first and third have been written by Denise Mina and Alan Warner, respectively.

Set on the 4th of December 1591, Hex weaves together a present day protagonist with a woman accused of witchcraft in Edinburgh. Geillis Duncan, a teenager from Trenant, Scotland, has been locked into a prison cell far below the city’s High Street, and is facing the final night of her life. However, this is not just a work of historical fiction, or an imagined narrative of real historical events. Fagan introduces, in the form of the novella’s narrator, a modern-day character named Iris from the summer of 2021, who tells Geillis that she ‘comes from a future where women are still persecuted for who they are and what they believe.’ Conducting a conversation across the centuries is a clever tool. Fagan reveals that in the vast swath of time which separates Geillis and Iris, not much has fundamentally changed. Fagan offers a simple yet very effective way in which to explore how and why women are still discriminated against almost 450 years later. Numerous parallels are drawn between the characters.

Iris essentially takes on the role of Geillis’ familiar, and directs much of her narrative is toward Geillis. The second chapter begins: ‘Your cell is several floors below the city. It is, far below footfall, or taverns, or flats; below beds, or kitchens, or hugs, or hope, or church, or prayer, or freedom, or laughter, or air; below shuttered windows, or dogs asleep in front of fires. It is so far below the seasons they might as well not exist.’ She goes on to comment: ‘Travelled time all my life’, and then: ‘Five hundred years between us, Geillis Duncan – it’s such a little leap really.’ Iris continues: ‘A woman’s voice is a hex. She must learn to exalt men always. If she doesn’t do that, then she is a threat. A demon whore, a witch – so says everyone and the law.’

When she first meets Geillis, Iris observes: ‘Head turned away, eyes toward me – the outline of your nose and forehead and chin is marked in moonlight; you look like a silver face on a ten-pence coin.’ Such sensual descriptions make Geillis almost tangible to the reader. Iris, otherworldly as she is, then begins to magick things up to help her new companion: a blanket, a meal.

We then transition from Iris’ perspective to Geillis’. As the time approaches dawn, Geillis tells Iris about how she came to be imprisoned, and offers a ‘visceral description of what happens when a society is consumed by fear and superstition.’ When she is tortured in her own home, before being thrown into her dingy prison cell, Geillis describes the following: ‘They turned me over, Iris… everything inside my body felt like it was burning, like I was on fire, like I was already in hell and they were the demons surrounding me, and it is for their crimes I will die!’ When asked why she was persecuted, Geillis responds: ‘I helped women birth… I knew how to pick the right herbs to cure a headache, and I had a terrible want in me to go out at night and see the stars.’

I found Hex to be entirely absorbing. Fagan manages to pack such a lot in, from death and murder, to race and expectations. There is a real brutality to this story, as one might surely expect. I liked the juxtaposition of both narrators, with Geillis’ sometimes old-fashioned turns of phrase, and the very current events given to authenticate Iris’ point of view: ‘If only she didn’t wear stilettos. If only she didn’t walk through a park. If only she didn’t go out at night. If only those smart, brilliant sisters had realised police officers would later take selfies by their dead bodies.’

Something which I admire about Fagan is the way in which her stories are not straightforward. Even in a work as short as this one, she is such a creative author, managing to insert quite original elements, and making for a very memorable reading experience. Another, quite moving, touch is that Fagan chose to dedicate Hex to the real Geillis Duncan.


One From the Archive: ‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

First published in June 2019.


I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time.

This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical.  It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result.  Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York.  Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.

Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling.  She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ.  From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone.  It never stopped all night.  It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind.  The rest of the voices were not so distinct.  It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.

The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth.  Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me.  I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it?  They didnt [sic] know.  She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross.  There had been the burial.  She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face.  She was carried quietly out and put in the casket.  Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her.  Down and the dirt fell in above.  Down and the worms began to tremble in and out.  Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten.  It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’

As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’  The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.

The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania.  Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective.  I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work.  There is a real urgency to her writing.  I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive.  The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.

Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern.  I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella.  Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’  I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.  I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.

There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow.  She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it.  The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story.  An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth.  There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example.  In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality.  There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.


Novella November: ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman ****

I have been meaning to read Fred Uhlman’s work for ages, but as with so many things, I hadn’t got around to doing so. It was a ‘currently reading’ status update on my Goodreads feed that prompted me to seek one of Uhlman’s books out. I felt that Reunion, the title which he is best known for, was a great choice to begin with.

Reunion is incredibly short; the Vintage edition which I read comes in at just 74 pages. It includes an introduction by the translator of the English edition, Jean d’Ormesson, and a short afterword by author Rachel Seiffert. D’Ormesson begins his introduction as follows: ‘I remember as if it were yesterday my first encounter, some twenty years ago, with this small volume, brought to my attention by a friend.’ He goes on to write of the ‘literary perfection’ of Reunion. Sadly, he does give quite a lot of the plot away of this very short book.

Reunion begins on a grey afternoon in the German city of Stuttgart, in 1932. Here, a classroom at a prestigious boy’s school is ‘stirred by the arrival of a newcomer’, Konradin von Hohenfels, the son of a Count. Our narrator, a middle-class pupil named Hans Schwarz, is ‘intrigued by the aristocratic new boy’. After some time, the pair embark on ‘a friendship of the greatest kind, of shared interests and long conversations, of hikes in the German hills and growing up together.’ The intense friendship between Hans and Konradin is set against the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Germany, and the rise of Nazism.

Reunion opens: ‘He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again.’ Hans goes on: ‘I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.’ When Konradin is introduced to the class, Hans comments: ‘… our eyes were concentrated on the Newcomer. He stood motionless and composed, without any sign of nervousness or shyness. Somehow he looked older than us and more mature, and it was difficult to believe he was just another new boy.’

We soon learn that before Konradin’s arrival, Hans was friendless. He comments that there was no single boy in his class whom he ‘believed could live up to my romantic ideal of friendship, not one whom I really admired, for whom I would be willing to die and who could have understood my demand for complete trust, loyalty and self-sacrifice.’ Hans is, of course, a Romantic, yearning for meaningful relationships with those around him, and dreaming of a career as a great poet. This can be seen particularly when he describes elements of his early friendship with Konradin. He narrates: ‘I can’t remember much of what Konradin said to me that day or what I said to him. All I know is that we walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other…’.

The novella is a Bildungsroman, centered around the friendship, of course, but also the political situation which eventually engulfs Hans. The building of their relationship has been well balanced, and religion, and the rise of Nazism, are well handled. Whilst both are ever-present threats in the story, they do not overshadow the more personal details in Hans’ life. As things begin to change around him, Hans recounts: ‘From outside our magic circle came rumours of political unrest, but the storm-centre was far away – in Berlin, whence clashes were reported between Nazis and Communists. Stuttgart seemed to be as quiet and reasonable as ever.’

There is an element of idolatry here; Hans goes out of his way to please Konradin, and there are moments as the narrative goes on where their friendship feels fraught with inequality and contradictions. The influence of Konradin’s parents, particularly his incredibly vocal anti-Semitic mother, has an impact upon him, of course, and his behaviour and disloyalty feels very disappointing. The novella is so vivid that we can feel Hans’ disappointment and hurt on every page. Uhlman’s prose builds such a realistic picture of Hans, and of his surroundings, that once I’d finished reading, I felt like I’d been with the narrator for a very long time.

Reunion was written in 1960, and although the author biography preceding it stresses that it is ‘not an autobiographical book’, it ‘contains autobiographical elements’. These are specifically about the academic element of the book, the school, teachers, and pupils. They have been based upon the oldest and most famous grammar school in Württemberg, which Uhlman attended. There is also an element of autobiography which can be found in the main character, Hans; he is the son of Jewish parents, and is sent away before the Second World War begins. Uhlman himself, a practicing barrister and an anti-Nazi, was of Jewish descent. He fled Germany for Paris in 1933, before moving to London in 1936, and establishing a career as a painter.

Reunion is an expansive novella, which seems to contain far more than one would expect in such a short story. It evokes so much, despite its brevity, and presents a friendship between two very different boys, which was fated to fail from the outset. Both the story and the translation have been excellently handled, and I very much look forward to picking of another of Uhlman’s books at some point in future.


Novella November: ‘The Story of Stanley Brent’ by Elizabeth Berridge **** (One From the Archive)

First published in August 2020.

Elizabeth Berridge has undoubtedly been my author discovery of the year, and it is wonderful to see that she is having something of a resurgence across the book blogging world.  I was most excited when I was offered the chance to read her first ever published work, a novella entitled The Story of Stanley Brent, which has been reissued by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer.  I read it directly after another of her novels, Sing Me Who You Are, which I very much enjoyed.


First published in 1945, The Story of Stanley Brent sounds, on the face of it, rather enchanting.  Its blurb begins: ‘Ada Boucher and Stanley Brent are young things at the time of boaters, parasols, champagne and trippers on the Thames.’  The novella captures a surprising amount, as it charts both their relationship and subsequent marriage, as well as their careers, and runs to the end of Stanley’s life.  In compressing the story of an entire life into a very small space, without rushing or omitting huge chunks, Berridge achieves something wonderful; as Walmer himself comments on the book’s blurb, she ‘navigates a path which speaks volumes.’

At the outset of the story, Ada is working as an apprentice, and Stanley as a land-broker’s assistant.  Although their relationship at first seems relatively happy, Berridge gives hints that something is not quite right.    Ada and Stanley’s courtship, and then their marriage, is ‘flushed through with naïve romance – he is bowled over by her raven-haired beauty, she by his humour and goodness.’  On their honeymoon, Ada discovers that ‘their greatest challenges may be compromise and really getting to know each other.’

I was fully invested in The Story of Stanley Brent from the start.  I found its opening sentence – ‘Stanley Brent formally proposed to Ada in nineteen-hundred and seven, on the landing of her aunt’s house at Paddington’ –  both informative and quite charming, and the same can certainly be said for the rest of Berridge’s wonderfully astute prose.

One of the elements which Berridge excels at is in capturing the relationships between people in all of their glory, as well as in the face of mounting despair.  There is such attention to detail which can be found throughout the novella.  During a storm, for instance, in which Ada and her friends form a party of six, Berridge comments, in rather lovely sing-song alliteration: ‘The men joined them on the bank, bearing the wet wicker picnic hampers on slippery straps.’

Berridge reveals her protagonists bit by bit.  Just before Stanley proposes, for instance, we are given a glimpse into the couple’s physical bearing: ‘Stanley seized her shoulders.  She was the same height but pliable, well-boned.’  Berridge taps wonderfully into the emotions and devotions of Stanley and Ada, and is shrewd and unflinching as she does so.

The Story of Stanley Brent is not entirely serious.  There are moments of humour peppered throughout.  In the same aforementioned storm scene, Ada considers whether she and her friends could run through the rain to her aunt’s nearby house; she thinks: ‘And surely Stan wouldn’t think Aunt Mildred’s skin disease ran in the family?…  Worry, she had said.  Worry and thin blood had been the cause.’  Later, Ada concludes: ‘She didn’t want her family to sound queer.  Even though Aunt Mildred was a distant sort of relation.’

As well as humorous, Berridge can also be rather a sharp narrator at times.  She does not shy away from anything, and the subjects which she focuses upon seem rather modern, given that this novella was published in the mid-1940s.  In her frank prose, she writes: ‘But when they returned from the honeymoon Ada was still a virgin.  There had been a frightening, confused scene in the gilt and crimson hotel bedroom overlooking the sea, which had finished with Ada weeping fitfully, alone in the big double bed – aware for the first time that terrible, upsetting things lay perilously near the surface of life.’  She also focuses upon Stanley’s interpretation of this experience, commenting: ‘This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself.  He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging.  He had never felt so helpless.’

As with Berridge’s other work, atmosphere is so important within The Story of Stanley Brent.  Ada’s home life, for instance, held an ‘uneasy atmosphere that lay, persistent and indefinable, within the tall narrow house.  [Stanley] would often think about it as he walked up the long road that seemed to bear such extremes of weather in its length.’

The Story of Stanley Brent is certainly a slim story, running to just 75 pages in this edition.  However, it has a great deal to say, both about the individual and the family unit.  Berridge makes comments upon society throughout, and the whole is well grounded within its historical context.  For such a short piece, Berridge provides a wonderful commentary on how a relationship can develop over time.  There is a lot of depth here, and the character development is both believable and insightful.  The nuanced prose has been split into short sections, a structure which works well given the length of the piece.  Even in this, her first story, Berridge is a confident writer, and her writing style really suits this shorter form.


Novella November: ‘Waiting for Bojangles’ by Olivier Bourdeaut ***

Quirky, quintessentially French fiction has always been something which I’ve been drawn to as a reader. I love picking up unusual books with memorable scenes and characters, and it must be said that I’m quite a fan of the more madcap elements which can often be found in books written between Pas-de-Calais and Provence. Olivier Bourdeaut’s novella, Waiting for Bojangles, is just such a story.

I hadn’t heard of this book, or of its author, but I spotted the slim volume on a trip to the library, and was intrigued. The novella is Bourdeaut’s first published work, and is the recipient of three prizes in France. When I started to read the blurb, I knew that it was a story I wanted to read. The reviews which pepper its covers attracted me further; Elle France calls the novella ‘a joyful and witty mess’, and Spanish El Correo says it is ‘delightful and overwhelming’.

Waiting for Bojangles is partly narrated by an unnamed, and quite sweetly endearing young boy, who lives with his ‘eccentric family who grapple with the realities of mental illness in unique and whimsical ways.’ He lives in a beautiful old Paris apartment, with his rich parents, and a crane named Mademoiselle Superfluous, who likes to make her presence known. He tells us: ‘The elegant and surprising bird lived in our apartment, parading her undulating long black neck, white plumes jutting from her violently red eyes.’ Mademoiselle Superfluous ‘ate canned tuna fish, enjoyed classical music, wore custom-made jewelry, attended cocktail parties and had lost the knack for birdier things.’

His father continually calls his mother by different names: ‘… she’d turn to the mirror and greet the new Renee with a pout, the new Josephine with a regal gaze, the new Marylou with puffed-out cheeks.’ Only on one single day during the year does her name stay the same: ‘on February 15, her name was Georgette. It still wasn’t her real name, but Saint Georgette’s day was the day after Saint Valentine’s Day.’ The ‘Mr Bojangles’ of the novella’s title relates to a Nina Simone song which both parents love, and often dance to. His parents often speak in rhyme – which, I admit, did get a little tedious after a while – and are quite irresponsible, leaving all of their mail unopened, often serving dinner at midnight, and throwing endless parties for swathes of strange friends.

Chapters are told from the perspectives of both the young boy and his father; these shift from one to another, and back again. Of course, we learn more of the concrete details from the father, as he is evidently more aware of what the mother is going through. He is also not as distracted by everything else around him, as the boy can be. In the first chapter narrated by the father, he describes their first meeting: ‘I could see perfectly well that she wasn’t all there, that her delirious green eyes hid secret fault lines, and I ought to beware. That her plump, childish cheeks concealed a painful past, and that this beautiful young woman, who at first glance was droll and dazzling, had been through the mill and had emerged bruised and unraveling. I was thinking that that had to be why she danced so madly – both gladly and sadly – to forget her troubles, that’s all.’

There is a darkness lying behind the more whimsical details of the story. The boy’s mother, suffering from an unnamed mental illness, gets more and more ill as time passes. His father takes it upon himself to keep her safe and, longing to save her from hospitalisation, he moves the family from bustling Paris to an idyllic country house in Spain – crane and all. The boy comments: ‘… Dad had purchased a beautiful castle in the air. It was in Spain, far south of Paris. You had to drive a little, fly a little, drive a little more, and be very patient. Perched on a mountainside, floating above an all-white village where the streets were empty in the afternoon and full of people at night, all you could see from the castle was pine forests.’ At the point of moving, his parents offer him ‘early retirement’ by taking him out of school.

Throughout, I far preferred the perspective of the young boy. He observes things with more care; for instance, ‘The real problem was that she [his mother] was losing her mind and didn’t know where to find it.’ He also reveals, very early on, ‘I often didn’t understand my father. I did a little more as the years went by, but never completely. Which was fine with me.’ There is a real feeling of loneliness to this real character at times. I quite liked the way in which we were never quite certain of his age, particularly when his father plies him with such things as cigarettes and gin and tonics.

There is a lot left unsaid in Waiting for Bojangles. We never learn the names of the characters, or the condition which his mother suffers from; indeed, we do not know if she is ever diagnosed. These ambiguities fit very well with the story; they show just how the perceptions which one projects can be markedly different from their realities. His mother gets incredibly upset from time to time, but otherwise, he says, ‘she was rapturous about everything, found the world’s progress thrilling, and skipped along with it joyfully.’ She treats her son not like a child, but ‘more like a character from a book that she loved very dearly, and that could absorb all her attention in an instant.’

Regan Kramer’s 2019 translation was excellent; so much of the detail is captured with a great deal of fluency. Kramer has managed to capture a rhythm here, and to maintain elements such as rhyme schemes from the original. The translation itself is definitely one of the real strengths of the English version.

Overall, there is something quite beguiling about Waiting for Bojangles, and it is certainly a memorable story. However, in many ways, there is too little realism to it, despite the mother’s mental health difficulties. The family have almost too many eccentricities to make the more serious elements of the plot believable. There are shifts in the lives of the family as the mother becomes more unwell, but there is perhaps too much of a light touch here. Bourdeaut undoubtedly displays a great deal of imagination here. However, whilst in some ways I enjoyed the novella, in others, it did not quite work for me.


‘Winter Flowers’ by Angélique Villeneuve ****

Peirene Press has been one of my favourite publishing houses since its inception, and whilst I sadly don’t manage to catch all of their new releases any more, I still very much look forward to reading them at some point. I particularly love the French literature which they have translated and published for the first time to an English-speaking audience, and was thus eager to get my hands on a copy of Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers.

Translated by Adriana Hunter, Winter Flowers begins in the October of 1918, when the First World War has almost reached its end. Toussaint Caillet is returning home to his small apartment in Paris, to his wife, Jeanne, and young daughter, Léonie, who does not know him. He has been recovering at the Val-de-Grâce Military Hospital for many months, following a traumatic facial injury. For Jeanne, left alone for so long, Toussaint’s return ‘marks the beginning of a new battle: with the promise of peace now in sight, the family must try to stitch together a new life from the tatters of what they once had.’

Jeanne is a ‘flower-maker’, often working for hours after dark to create exquisite flowers from nasty chemicals. Her position is an incredibly difficult one; along with her poorly paid employment, she has to ensure that Léonie is fed, and is taken to school, as well as the usual chores to keep the apartment running. The pair are at the mercy of others who live in their poorly heated building: ‘The room is filled with flickering lamplight that seems to mirror Léo’s never-ending sing-song, and the smell of boiled and reboiled stew slowly rises, catching at Jeanne’s nostrils and numbing her fingers.’

When Toussaint returns home, without warning, Jeanne knows at once that he is a changed man. He is wearing a magnetic plate over his facial injury, which he never removes. He sits ‘utterly still. After the warped wooden stairs, it’s now his whole body, his nocturnal presence, that creaks as he grimaces in a silence streaked with blue light.’ Villeneuve captures the couple’s reunion with such a depth of emotion, describing it thus: ‘At first Jeanne stays rooted to her chair, entirely consumed with watching him and avoiding him. She knows what she should see, though, where she should look, but it bounces about, slips away from her. What she does grasp is that he’s taller, and handsome in his uniform, and unfamiliar too.’

Jeanne has a wealth of varying emotions, some of them conflicting. She feels lonelier when Toussaint returns than she did when he was away. Part of her feels as though he is interrupting her quiet existence with Léonie, altering the relationship between mother and daughter. Toussaint is always present, always the observer: ‘And if the man ever keeps his eyes open, he’s busy watching them from afar, her or Léo… This daughter he hasn’t seen grow up, he watches her too, with miraculous, disturbing patience… Toussaint is always there, watching or sleeping.’ The lines of communication within the family are stretched and strained; Toussaint is ‘… just there, shut down, shut away.’

Villeneuve captures a great deal in her prose. On the very first page, for instance, she writes: ‘Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain.’ I enjoyed the philosophical element which sometimes creeps into the prose; for instance: ‘What exactly was a war? An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible. Incomprehensible.’

This novella is set during the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic. I always find this a strange parallel at present, to read about an awful, deadly disease of the past, whilst the world of the present suffers through the same thing. There is, of course, a lot of trauma here; not just from the First World War, and all of those around them who have been lost, but also the fallout from the pandemic. Villeneuve masterfully captures everything. She makes excellent use of period detail, and pays attention to everything. Movement and emotion have also been wonderfully portrayed throughout. There is tenderness and empathy within Winter Flowers, balanced with the realism of the couple’s relationship, Léonie’s jealousy at having to share her mother, and the still raging war. As Villeneuve writes: ‘The war can strike in other ways. The war can rob people of speech.’

Villeneuve is the author of eight books to date, and Winter Flowers is the first to be translated into English. This novel is beautiful, contemplative, and heartachingly tender, and demonstrates throughout the fragility of life. I savoured every single word. Winter Flowers has very deservedly won four literary prizes in France since its publication in 2014. I have a feeling that there will be many more treats in store with Villeneuve’s books, and can only hope that they are translated into English, and soon.