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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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‘Magda’ by Meike Ziervogel **

Magda, the debut novel by the founder of Peirene Press, tells the ‘brutal story’ of Magda, the wife of notorious Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Ziervogel has examined Magda’s story ‘as a vehicle to examine the psychology behind familial murder, and to explore deep-rooted and destructive relationships between mothers and their daughters’. ‘Seeking to understand the actions of a ruthless woman,’ the press release tells us, ‘Ziervogel adds context to Magda’s shocking story, encouraging the reader to view it with fresh eyes’.

9781907773402The book opens with the troubled aspects of the Goebbels’ lives present from the outset: ‘Magda enters Joseph’s study without knocking. Joseph is pacing back and forth… He doesn’t stop when his wife comes in’. Something unsettling makes itself known in the very bones of the story, and remains throughout. After this short scene, Magda gathers her and Joseph’s six children around her in order to tell them about the long journey they are about to embark on: ‘”We might pass Uncle Adolf’s house,” replies Magda. “But we are going further this time.”‘

In the next chapter, Ziervogel then goes on to examine Magda’s own upbringing, as a child of illegitimate status, in a strict Belgian convent. She paints a short picture of Magda’s troubled childhood, indoctrinated by the nuns, something of a bully ‘behind these thick convent walls’, and the way in which she continually self-harms. Magda is a very dark book, as one might expect given the subject matter, and Ziervogel highlights the way in which almost every character is troubled in some way. In fact, the entire book is filled with cruelty. Some of the scenes throughout are harrowing and rather horrendous, and the novella does not make for easy reading. These vignettes come like sharp shocks, and the sheer amount of cruelty which has been crammed into just a few pages is quite overwhelming at times.

In some ways, Ziervogel has been rather clever with her mixture of fact and fiction, but it becomes a little annoying as far as the reader is concerned, in that no allusion to, or explanation of, which elements are made up merely of poetic licence has been included. We learn very little about Joseph Goebbels throughout, an aspect which would certainly have made the story stronger. The scenes which include him gloss over his character somewhat, and whilst the novella focuses mainly upon Magda herself, the inclusion of her husband may have made her motives in the murder of her children a little clearer.

Magda is a short book, more a novella than a novel, and is split into eight different sections, which range from ‘The Preparation’ and ‘The Girl Behind the Convent Walls’ to ‘The Pillbox’ and ‘The Final Task’. Herein are where the problems lie. Ziervogel has attempted to use several different narrative techniques throughout – the third person omniscient, diary entries supposedly written by the fourteen-year-old Helga Goebbels, and a first person monologue from the perspective of Magda’s mother. These differing techniques are interesting to a point, but they do not effortlessly tie together. Some of the literary devices used are traditional, and others, as in the monologue, are not. Here, any movements made by Magda’s mother are shown in brackets – for example, ‘(The old woman adjusts her bag on her lap.)’ and ‘(She sniffles.)’. Again, the juxtaposition between two very conflicting ways of writing does not quite gel.

Whilst Magda is written well, some of the details throughout do not feel realistic. During the monologue of Magda’s mother, some sentences feel as though they would be more at home during an episode of Eastenders than in the conversation of an ageing woman after the Second World War: ‘At that moment I didn’t give a fig. About the neighbours or nothing’. Helga’s diary entries, too, do not feel realistic, and it is difficult to believe that a young teenage girl could write in the same vein as these letters to ‘Dear Gretchen’. The relationships which Ziervogel seems so keen to portray are often underdeveloped, and sadly feel rather cliched in consequence.

Magda is not a bad book by any means – in fact, its concept is incredibly interesting – but there is too much going on, both in terms of style and storyline, to enable it to come to fruition and reach its full potential. The scope of the novella feels a little too overambitious, and one cannot help but think that the book would have been more engaging in its current style had it been double, or even triple, its length. The execution of the story is not tight enough and therefore feels a little lacking at times, and it is as though the story is trying to do too much in too restricted a space.

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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Festival of Insignificance’ by Milan Kundera ***

Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance was translated from the French by Linda Asher, and was first published in the United Kingdom in 2015.  I hadn’t heard of it before I spotted it in the library, and thought it would be perfect for my Saturdays in Translation challenge.  I have largely enjoyed Kundera’s writing in the past, and the blurb certainly intrigued: ‘Casting light on the most serious of problems and at the same time saying not one serious sentence; being fascinated by the reality of the contemporary world and at the same time avoiding realism – that’s The Festival of Insignificance’. 9780571316465

Split into seven parts, and filling just over one hundred pages, the novella begins in a way that, to me, smacked of Kundera: ‘It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street.  He observed the young girls, who – every one of them – showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.  He was captivated; captivated and even disturbed: It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body’.  In the opening section of the book, we meet what Kundera terms the ‘Heroes’ of the piece.  D’Ardelo, for instance, has been given the all-clear following a rigorous series of medical tests, but decides to fabricate an illness when he meets former colleague Ramon in the park: ‘Just simply, without knowing why, his fictional cancer pleased him’.

As with a lot of Kundera’s work, elaborately philosophical ideas and chapter headings have been inserted into every chapter – for instance, ‘Ramon’s Lesson on Brilliance and Insignificance’, and ‘Alain Sets a Bottle of Armagnac on Top of His Armoire’.  Many of these details are superfluous, but they do occasionally add a little humour to what would otherwise feel like quite a serious, slow-moving piece of literature.  The inclusions about Russian history were fascinating, but some of the philosophy, and a lot of the initial ideas, were repeated, often several times.  The Festival of Insignificance was, to me, a book which I could happily have not read; it was not as compelling as other works of Kundera’s, and did not really reach a favourable ending, slim as it was.  I do admire Kundera’s books, but I certainly wouldn’t count him as among my favourite authors.  It was, I suppose, rather an insignificant entry upon my reading list; one which I am relatively indifferent to.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Garden’ by Magnus Florin ***

I hadn’t heard of Magnus Florin’s The Garden before spotting it in the library, but when I slid its small form out from where it was sandwiched on the shelf, its premise intrigued me and I added it to the large pile already finding breathing room in my arms.  Florin’s book was first published in Sweden in 1995, and has ‘long been regarded there as a classic of contemporary literature’.  The edition which I read, printed by the small press Vagabond Voices in Glasgow, has been translated into English by Harry Watson.  Florin’s prose is deemed ‘brave’ and ‘colourful’, and the book is proclaimed as ‘a work of imagination of intrigue, unafraid to question the shape of our world and the roots of existence’.

9781908251268Before I began, I was expecting to be able to draw some parallels between this and Kristina Carlsson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which was published a couple of years ago by the wonderful Peirene Press.  Whilst it deals with different figures – one Charles Darwin, and the other Carl Linnaeus – there are many themes in common, and even the structures share some similarities.  The Garden presents a fictionalised account of Linnaeus’ life, the leading figure of the Swedish Enlightenment, whose classifications of plants and animals are still used in biology.

Linnaeus and his scientific counterpart in Sweden, Petrous Arctaedius, ‘imagined everything in the world divided into two halves.  The hard things in one half and the soft things in another.  The fixed and the moveable.  The annual and the perennial.  What had no tail and what had a tail.  That which was fast and that which was slow.  The two-legged and the four-legged’.  The pair take a straightforward approach to classification; they decide to simply halve the animals and plants to give one another a pool to work from: ‘Arctaedius took the amphibians, the reptiles, the frogs and toads and the fish.  Linnaeus took the birds and the insects, the mammals and the stones.  Along with the plants’.

Florin denotes the vast differences between Linnaeus and his gardener, the latter of whom ‘perceives things for what they are in themselves – and for their beauty or usefulness’.  The pair ‘often find themselves in dialogue, but rarely understand one another’.  For me, the gardener was a  shadowy figure; Linnaeus also only came to life in his fictionalised form in the sections in which his young siblings are taken ill, and when he himself is suffering.

Florin’s use of imagery and sense of place are deftly crafted, and there are certainly some lovely ideas here: ‘Linnaeus, awake, steps outside, strolls to his grove.  He hangs pairs of green Kungsholm glasses as bells on the branches of an oak, an elm and an ash in order to listen to the jingling caused by the wind when it rises.  They are his Aeolian beakers, his mind-harps of glass.  But this morning the wind is still, and the bells are motionless’.  Watson’s translation is nice and fluid; the prose is intelligent, and the patterns of dialogue interesting.  The novella, which runs to just ninety pages, is told in slim fragments, which do not lead seamlessly from one to another.  In fact, the overall feel is a little disjointed.  Whilst the story which Florin presents is fascinating, especially with its roots in reality, the structure makes it feel too fragmented to connect with.  The Garden is an interesting tale, but overall, it is a little underwhelming.

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‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift ***

Getting my hands on a copy of this book was rather difficult.  There was a one hundred and twenty-person strong waiting list in my home library system, and I felt guilty trying to procure a full-price copy whilst on a book buying ban.  My patience (yes, for once I had some) paid off, and I was able to borrow it from a Glasgow library by just walking into a branch and locating it on the shelf.  Wonders shall never cease.

9781471155239Mothering Sunday was a choice for mine and the excellent Katie’s Chai and Sheep book club, and both of us very much liked the premise when the book was co-selected.  At the time of picking it up, it seemed fitting; I had just been in a three-hour induction session led by one of my dissertation supervisors, whose current specialism is in daily novels.  This marked my first foray into Swift’s work too; he has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I was unsure as to which book of his I should begin with.  Then this incredibly hyped, very popular (in my home county, at least!) novella came along, and I hoped that it would provide a good introduction to his work.

The novella’s setting is Mothering Sunday in March 1924: ‘It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June.  And it must have been a little after noon’.  Jane Fairchild, ‘orphan and housemaid’, has nothing with which to occupy her time on this, the day in which maids nationwide were allowed the day off so that they could visit their mothers.  The blurb which accompanies the book is rather intriguing, particularly with regard to the questions which it asks: ‘How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?’  It goes on to praise the novel highly, as ‘constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving’, and declares it ‘Graham Swift at his thinking best’.

Paul, beloved sole remaining son of the well-to-do Cunningham family, has been having clandestine liaisons with Jane for quite some time, but on this Sunday, the pair being the only two in the house after his parents travel ‘to Henley for lunch’, things escalate, and they make love in Paul’s bedroom.  The aftermath of the act is what Swift appears to be interested in: ‘… and she wasn’t going to say, now he was on his feet and the decision all but made, “Please, don’t go.  Please, don’t leave me.”  She was disqualified from the upper world in which such dramas were staged.  She had her lowly contempt for such stuff anyway.  As if she couldn’t have used – but she wasn’t his wife, it was all the other way round – a different, quieter but fiercer language.  Or just the bullet of a look.’

The opening sentence of Mothering Sunday marvellously sets both the scene and the historical period: ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid…’.  Some of Swift’s imagery is just lovely; for instance, when he writes: ‘The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage’.

Whilst I wasn’t blown away by the whole, I did find the class divides which Swift portrayed rather interesting.  His descriptions were largely well evoked, and did work well with the story, but I found some of his prose rather jarring in its style.  I’m unsure as to whether Swift is an author I’ll pick up again; I certainly wasn’t as enamoured with this as I believed I would be at the outset.

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