3

‘A Greedy Peasant’ by Alexander Ertel ****

Russian author Alexander Ertel’s novella, A Greedy Peasant, has recently been published by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer Publishers. I have been a huge fan of Russian literature since my teens, and jump at the chance to try out any new-to-me Russian authors, of which Ertel was one. That his work was ‘greatly admired’ by Tolstoy is reason enough to pick one of his books up.

Originally written in 1886, the 1929 English translation, which appears in this version, was completed by Ertel’s daughter, Natalie Duddington. A Greedy Peasant is described by the publisher as ‘a moral fable distinguished by its lucid colour and realistic detail’, which immediately intrigued me.

A Greedy Peasant takes as its focus two brothers named Ivan and Yermil, who live in a rural region of Russia – a village rather grandly named Great Springs – and could not really be more different in their approaches to life. Ivan is largely content with his lot, putting in a great deal of effort on the family farm for not much reward. Yermil, however, has ‘dreams of improvement’; he is desperate to make his fortune, and ‘escape the drudgery of the peasant round’. The third brother, Onisim, is killed early on in the novella, a victim of conflict. His wife and young children become dependent on Ivan and Yermil. The family is ‘just made both ends meet, and that was all. They never had to buy bread and they had two ploughs… But there was nothing to spare.’

Yermil finds employment with a rich merchant in the local town. This merchant proves to be a ‘good master’ who ‘on holy days treated him to a glass of vodka’. His health improves alongside his wealth, but as his greed grows, everything begins to fall apart. Ertel writes: ‘At first he had grown fat on the good food he had at his master’s: his cheeks stood out, his neck was like a bear’s and the coat he had brought with him from home hardly met round the waist: when he tried to fasten it the buttonholes gave way. But now his thoughts made him grow thin; he looked sallow and his eyes were sunken. He could not master his greed.’

Ivan and his family spiral further into poverty whilst Yermil gives them barely a second thought. Stoic Ivan, though, tries to teach his brother lessons about what really matters, and to make him grateful for what he already has. When Yermil has to move back to the farm for a period, he seems ‘like a stranger in the house; it was as though he had returned from the town another man.’ Here, Ivan tells him, rather wisely: ‘You mustn’t look at other people, but live as good men do.’ Of course, Yermil takes no notice.

On his return to the town, Yermil becomes seethingly jealous of his master’s lifestyle. Perhaps inevitably, a day comes when Yermil is presented with an ‘horrifying opportunity’ to improve his life; he takes it, but ‘little does he realise that this dreadful secret action will set in motion a train of events which will end in catastrophe.’

Ertel’s prose is simple yet effective, and the emotional consequences build as the story progresses. I very much enjoyed the repeated descriptions, which somehow became more chilling as they went on: ‘The sky was white, the fields were white, sign-posts were stuck in the snow to mark the road, the sledge runners creaked in the frost.’ This use of repetition shows that although the lives of some of the protagonists change irrevocably, little perceptively does in the grander scheme of things.

A Greedy Peasant is a perceptive story, which is sure to appeal to anyone already interested in Russia, or who is wanting to try something a little different to their usual reading fare. There are a lot of important themes at play within A Greedy Peasant, and although some of these are relatively briefly explored, it sets a precedent for what one can expect from Russian literature of the nineteenth-century.

Ertel’s novella is easy to read, but provides a lot of food for thought. In the way of morality tales, The Greedy Peasant moves along well. A lot of cultural detail can be found throughout the book, and I am keen to try some of Ertel’s longer works – and soon – to see how they compare.

2

‘The Story of Stanley Brent’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

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.

54568079First 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.

2

Two Novellas by Yūko Tsushima

I recently read two novellas from a new-to-me author, both of which I picked up on a whim from my local library.  Both books, Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, were written originally in Japanese by Yūko Tsushima, and translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt.  Both translations are exquisitely rendered; the prose has a wonderful flow to it in both cases.

 

Territory of Light ****

9780241312629Territory of Light, which was first published in a serialised form in a magazine between 1978 and 1979, has been variously described as ‘spiky, atmospheric and intimate’ (Spectator), and ‘disturbing and dream-like’ (Financial Times).  The novella, which begins in springtime, takes as its focus a young woman, who has been abandoned by her husband, and who has to start a new life in a Tokyo apartment with her young daughter.  Territory of Light charts the protagonist’s life over the course of a calendar year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old alone.

From the first, I very much admired what Tsushima had set out to express.  The new apartment of her unnamed narrator is ‘filled with light, streaming through the windows, so bright you have to squint’, but regardless, she ‘finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness; becoming unstable, untethered.’  This instability of self threads through the novella, and we learn quite quickly just how much the narrator has to deal with.

She is scared by her newfound independence, but is also set on carving a life away from her husband.  She comments: ‘I didn’t want him ever to set foot in my new life.  I was afraid of any renewed contact, so afraid it left me surprised at myself.  The frightening thing was how accustomed I had become to his being there.’  The narrator is also scared of the effects single parenthood has on her as time goes on.  She says: ‘I wish I could forget I even had a child.  I’d been coping on my own now for less than six months, though maybe that was just long enough to have grown used to the new life, which could be why the insidious tiredness was starting to knock the wind out of me.’  She turns to sleep to try and cope alone, leaving her small daughter to fend for herself.

At just 122 pages, so much human feeling fills the pages of Territory of Light.  Its protagonist is at a point of crisis in her life, and her situation and responses are wholly believable.  The structure of the novella, which is essentially made up of twelve loosely connected stories, works wonderfully.  Whilst there is not a great deal of plot to drive the book along, in consequence it perhaps becomes more realistic.  The narrator is concerned with the minutiae of her everyday, as well as the bigger picture.  She muddles through the most ordinary things, all of which are beset with problems, and speaks openly to the reader about her many anxieties.  I so enjoyed the writing style and narrative voice of Territory of Light, and it feels like a great place to start reading Tsushima’s work from.

 

Child of Fortune ****

Child of Fortune was first published in Japan in 1978, and appeared in a revised version of Geraldine 9780241335031Harcourt’s English translation in 2018.  As with Territory of Light, this novella focuses upon a female protagonist named Kōko, a young woman who has been ‘defying her family’s wishes’ for some time.  She has, against what was viewed as acceptable in Tokyo society at the time, brought up her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, alone in her apartment.  After embarking on a ‘casual affair’, she finds herself pregnant once more, and is forced to juggle her present and future selves.

The book’s blurb says that Child of Fortune combines ‘the beauty and unease of a dream’, and presents ‘an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires’.  Angela Carter described it as ‘a terrific novel’, and the Japan Times declares that it is ‘as relevant today as when it was published… at once powerfully uplifting and achingly sad.’

At the outset of the story, Kayako has moved in with Kōko’s sister and her family.  The young girl ‘now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights.  She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning.’  This concerns Kōko to an extent, and she clearly misses seeing her daughter every day, but her attention is soon filled with the idea of a new child in her life, one who will be fully dependent upon her.  On Kōko’s behalf, the narrator reflects: ‘Maybe, she was reaching an age when it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died.  Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point in worrying about what people thought.  She would soon be thirty-seven.  The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko.’

Kōko’s present is interspersed throughout with her childhood memories, and her vivid, strange dreams.  I must admit that in comparison to Tsushima’s first person narrated novella Territory of Light, I did not find the third person perspective overly effective.  The story too, whilst readable, was nowhere near as absorbing.  However, I still had so much interest in its protagonist, and felt invested in her and her story.  Child of Fortune is more detached, but upon reflection, this makes the two novellas – which I read within days of each other – feel different, despite similarities in protagonist and plot.

Although well written and translated, the conversational patterns in Child of Fortune did not always flow naturally.  The novella, however, deals with some interesting and important themes around womanhood, motherhood, and societal perceptions, and held my interest from start to finish.  I will be seeking out Tsushima’s back catalogue of work as soon as I possibly can.

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Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.

2

‘In Love’ by Alfred Hayes ****

I hadn’t heard of Alfred Hayes before I picked up his 1953 novella, In Love, in the library. I was drawn in by an Elizabeth Bowen quote, in which she calls the story ‘a little masterpiece’, and decided to borrow it.  My interest was piqued further by the Sunday Times, which calls In Love a ‘tour de force’, and the Guardian, who term the book ‘a noirish masterpiece’.

9781590176665In Love, which is seen as Hayes’ greatest work, takes place on ‘one lost afternoon’ in a bar in New York City.  Here, a nameless middle-aged man tells a story involving his relationship with a lonely young woman, also nameless.  Their relationship took quite a turn when a wealthy businessman ‘offered to pay to spend the night with her’, and he discusses how, ultimately, the love which they once had for one another ‘turned to hate’.

I was drawn in by the novella’s opening sentence, which reads as follows: ‘Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.’ What follows is a monologue, in which this protagonist recounts the rest of his story.

I found Hayes’ use of vocabulary rather striking.  He creates such vivid imagery in every scene, writing sentences like ‘… from the curtain rods, her stockings were suspended as limply as hanged men’.  When he describes the woman whom he fell for, he says ‘… but when I think of her, she seems to exist for me in a debris of hats, jewelry, elaborate shoes, an inscribed book, telephone messages, fruit quietly rotting in a bowl, tasseled pillows, love letters tied with a ribbon and hidden away and taken out and read again and sometimes discarded, candy boxes, and of course portraits…’.  Throughout, I really admired Hayes’ sentence structure; they are often long, and constructed with a great deal of complexity, but are still easy to read and interpret.

Hayes really examines the character of this woman.  She is having a crisis of self at their first meeting.  The protagonist voices: ‘Why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably food and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gauge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?’  He is revealing of both this woman, and his protagonist; we learn about both characters through the lenses of one another.  He captures the relationship between the two with honesty: ‘She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; yet, but all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love.’

When the businessman’s quite bizarre offer is made, our protagonist is baffled.  He recollects: ‘We both understood that the money, however tempting, was unthinkable, and that what she was being light and gay about, here, in the restaurant, was simply the fact that what had happened was an unusual experience, to be somewhat amazed at, obscurely flattered by, and a little amused with.’  The woman, however, takes a day or so to think about it, and does not feel as though she can refuse such a large sum of money.  This is the point at which their relationship begins to disintegrate.

In In Love, Hayes presents a simple plot device which has been so well executed, and which sustained my interest throughout.  The author has placed more focus, not upon their relationship, but upon its ending, and considers its effects.  We learn about the characters together, but the retrospective positioning is flooded with lament.  There is a bleak quality to Hayes’ prose, but it is so compelling.  The dark humour which creeps in at points works well with both the tone of the prose, and the events of the plot.  In Love is not the most cheerful book you could read this year, but I am still thinking about it weeks after reading it, and feel that this is a ringing endorsement of a successful story.

4

‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth ****

Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth seems to be a little hit and miss for many readers; I have heard comments which call his work pretentious, and others which state that his characters are unrealistic.  I had read a couple of his other books before picking up a copy of his novella, Everyman, from the library, and very much enjoy his prose style, hence my reasoning for writing a full review.  First published in 2006, Everyman won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

9780099501466The novella is described as ‘a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that it ‘shimmers with the mysteries and regrets of a whole life…  poignant, droll and eloquent.’  The Observer grandly declares that it is ‘capable of altering the way you see the world.’

Roth’s Everyman is never named.  We follow his life backwards from his funeral, at the outset of the story, and meander through various childhood memories, his marriages, and his troubled relationships with his children.  The novella aims to explore ‘the common experience that terrifies us all.’

I find it such an interesting plot device when an author chooses to begin a work at the end of the central character’s life, and in this case, it really captured my attention.  The opening, in which various people who had connections to Everyman have gathered, is striking.  Roth writes: ‘Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.’  Everyman is then eulogised both by Nancy, and his brother, Howie, who says: ‘We can say of him what has doubtless been said by their loved ones about nearly everyone who is buried here: he should have lived longer.  He should have indeed.’  After the funeral, Roth comments: ‘That was the end.  No special point had been made.  Did they all say what they had to say?  No, they didn’t, and of course they did.  Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary…  [and] no more or less interesting than any of the others.’

Roth, in a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Everyman, builds a full portrait of his protagonist.  He considers how this particular individual deals with tragedy, and how he discovers his own mortality.  We learn about his interactions with those around him, his three marriages, and the professional relationships which he formed during his career.  Roth also places attention upon the medical issues which Everyman had, writing: ‘… he was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seems threatened all the time.  He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

A.S. Byatt calls Everyman ‘a story for our times’, and in a way, it is.  There are very particular scenes in here, which of course not a great deal of readers will be able to entirely relate to, but I felt that Roth’s presentation of his central character was fully thought out, and his actions of interest.  I found the novella really easy to get into, and enjoyed Roth’s prose and turns of phrase.  His writing is intelligent, and whilst one does need to concentrate on his style at first, it is well worth the effort.  Roth’s approach is introspective, and he explores, with a lot of depth, his Everyman, in this satisfying story.

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‘So Long a Letter’ by Mariama Ba ***

I have wanted to read Mariama Ba’s debut novella, So Long a Letter, for such a long time.  It was a title which appeared in my first to-read notebook, which I began around 2006; needless to say, it has taken me an awfully long time to track down a copy and sit down to read it.  Set in Senegal, where the author was from, So Long a Letter was first published in French in 1980, and in English translation by Marlupé Bodé-Thomas in 1981.  It has long been considered a modern classic.

200px-mariamaba_solongaletterBa chose to write her novella due to ‘her commitment for eradicating inequalities between men and women in Africa’.  Filling only 90 pages of narrative, So Long a Letter is a ‘sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye, who has recently been widowed.’  It is written as a letter to her oldest friend, Aissatou, and gives a ‘record of her emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife.  Although sanctioned by Islam, his action is a calculated betrayal of her trust and a brutal rejection of their life together.’

Ramatoulaye’s husband, Madou, dies following a heart attack.  When she sees his body, she remarks: ‘I listen to the words that create around me a new atmosphere in which I move, a stranger and tormented.  Death, the tenuous passage between two opposite worlds, one tumultuous, the other still.’  Culturally, this element of the novella, in which Ramatoulaye sets out the burial customs of Islam, is fascinating.

The couple had been married for thirty years, and had twelve children.  The decision of Madou’s to take a second wife is all the more heartbreaking in this respect, and neither Ramatoulaye or her children can believe or support his decision.  Following Madou’s death, she reflects: ‘The presence of my co-wife beside me irritates me.  She has been installed in my house for the funeral, in accordance with tradition.’  The relationship between the two is never explored in as much detail as I would have expected; rather, it is mentioned from time to time, but the finer details are glossed over.

I found the prose of So Long a Letter textured and rich; there is a sensual quality to it.  At the outset, Ramatoulaye writes: ‘I conjure you up.  The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions.  I close my eyes.  Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the wood fires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths.  I close my eyes.  Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother’s ochre-coloured face as she emerges from the kitchen, the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs.’

The society in which Ramatoulaye lived as a young woman is reflected and commented upon.  She writes: ‘Because, being the first pioneers of the promotion of African women, there were very few of us.  Men would call us scatter-brained.  Others labelled us devils.  But many wanted to possess us.  How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled on lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty handed?’  In this manner, Ramatoulaye’s history is intertwined with the social and political climate of the entire nation of Senegal.  One of the real strengths of the book for me was the way in which Ramatoulaye writes about the experiences of women in a suppressed society, and the way in which she has lived through ‘the birth of a republic, the birth of an anthem and the implementation of a flag.’

Whilst there are certainly some positive and admirable elements to So Long a Letter, I did not feel as though the quality of its prose was sustained throughout.  It soon became quite repetitive, and I did not feel as engaged with the story after around the first quarter had passed.  Something about the prose felt detached; perhaps this is a consequence of its translation, but there was definitely a stilted quality to it, which became more apparent as the story went on.

At first, it seemed to me that the narrator’s voice had such a presence, but this somehow waned after a while; it became more formal, and I felt less connected to it.  I was pulled in at the outset, but found myself becoming increasingly indifferent to the rather stubborn narrator.  It felt as though she was being both open and secretive about elements of her life.  I admire the agency which she gave herself, but for me this was not realised strongly enough, or early enough, to make a difference in my feelings for the protagonist.  Whilst I loved the use of cultural details within So Long a Letter, I must admit that it was not as absorbing as I had expected it would be.  Although I was interested in the wider story, I felt that Ba’s characters could have been more realistically drawn, and this would have made for a far more memorable story.

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‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’.  First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993. 9780571342723

Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’  The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.

Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author.  She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system.  This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’

The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her.  She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false.  The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me.  It was total science fiction.  The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’

After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter.  This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart.  I was thrilled.’  I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination.  ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again.  Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet.  I will not be defeated.  I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’  To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself.  Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.

I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different.  Much of her writing is searching and lovely.  In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place.  If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely.  Still, it just might be the life for me.  When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene.  In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’

As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts.  Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one.  However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence.  Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.

Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone.   Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories.  Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways.  In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt.  Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget.  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them.  This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.

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6

‘A World of Love’ by Elizabeth Bowen ****

I have read a few of Elizabeth Bowen’s books to date, but still have rather a lot of her oeuvre outstanding.  With this in mind, I could not resist picking up a copy of her novella, A World of Love, which was first published in 1955.  This is one of Bowen’s later works, and only two finished novels were written after it.

The premise of A World of Love is that a twenty-year-old woman named Jane Danby, 9781784873950living in a crumbling old house in County Cork, Ireland, finds a package of old letters in the attic.  This leads her ‘into the world of love’, in which a rather eccentric neighbour, Lady Vesta Latterly, ‘rich, promiscuous, parvenue Englishwoman… will play a part in Jane’s awakening.’  The house, Montefort, ‘harbours a group of people held together by odd ties of kinship or habit, and haunted by the memory of its former owner who was killed in France as a young man.’  Jane lives there with her parents, Fred and Lilia, and twelve-year-old sister Maud, ‘all of whom owe their domestic situation to Montefort’s owner, Antonia’, who inherited the house from her cousin Guy, who died during the First World War.  The Danby family’s place here is ‘uncertain, never secure, never defined.’

A World of Love takes place during a heatwave.  It begins on a sultry June morning.  Here, writes Bowen, ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.  There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.  The river gorge cut deep through the uplands.  This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.’  As I have come to expect with Bowen’s writing, her descriptions sing.  The way in which she writes about Jane, too, is unusual and exquisitely layered.  When she introduces her protagonist, she asserts: ‘Kindled by summer though cool in nature, she was a beauty.  The cut of her easy golden hair was anachronistic over the dress she wore: this, her height and something half naive half studied about her management of the sleeves and skirts made her like a boy actor in woman’s clothes, while what was classical in her grace made her appear to belong to some other time.’

Bowen goes on to explore the isolation which surrounds the house and its inhabitants.  The day before, she explains, ‘They had all been to the Fete, and a backwash from it still agitated their tempers and nerves – in the house itself residual pleasure-seeking ghosts had been set astir.  The Hunt Fete, which drew the entire country, now was the sole festivity of the lonely year, for Montefort the only annual outing – which, more and more each summer, required nerve.’

The Vintage edition of A World of Love is introduced by Selina Hastings.  She notes that this book was written soon after the death of Bowen’s husband, but does not perhaps encompass the depths of sadness which one might expect.  Instead, writes Hastings, ‘although the book is in a sense a ghost story, with the pervasive presence of the dead permeating both place and plot, yet its mood is lyrical and light, a spirited comedy of manners finely balanced over a more sombre subterranean level of betrayal, frustration and loss.’  Bowen herself, indeed, called this novella ‘a joy to write’.  Hastings praises Bowen’s protagonist; she notes that she ‘has an almost wilful independence of spirit very different from the other solitary young girls who people Bowen’s novels.’

The family dynamics at play throughout this novella are deep and somewhat complicated.  The letters which Jane discovers quite by chance, wrapped up in a muslin dress which she takes a fancy to in the attic, provide a crux in the novella, causing – or perhaps just providing a means for allowing – the characters to quarrel amongst themselves.  These letters are not overly interesting to Jane at first: ‘The ink, sharp in the candlelight, had not faded.  She could not fail, however, when first she handled them, to connect these letters with that long-settled dust: her sense of their remoteness from her entitled her to feel they belonged to history.’  They soon begin to grow with an almost mythic importance in Jane’s mind, however.

A World of Love is an opulent novella, written by the most observant of authors.  Much of the little action which plays out here revolves around the characters, and what they mean to one another.  There is often a great deal of tension embedded within their relationships.  Each of Bowen’s creations is unusual in some way; Maud, for instance, has an imaginary friend of sorts named Gay David, who is banned from entering the dining room, and Lilia has ‘a neurosis about anyone standing outside a door.’  Whilst not overly plot heavy, there is a lot to consider within A World of Love, and it is a novella which I am sure to be thinking about for a long time to come.

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6

‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

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. 4616545

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.