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Reading the World: ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ***

Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller.  Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English. 9780241293850

Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade.  A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’.  Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’.  Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.  Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.  As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready, nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile.  Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man’.  The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.

Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office.  He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life.  This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet.  The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent.  Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant.  They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’  The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.

The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective.   Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life.  And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’  The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.

One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War.  The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested.  Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig.  There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg **** (One From the Archive)

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

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‘The Lost Daughter Collective’ by Lindsey Drager *****

I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective.  Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.

The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole.  This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well.  We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.31305921

Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms.  The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life.  The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city.  The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’  The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing.  ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism.  When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life.  The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait.  Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’

I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles.  The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm.  The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them.  There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective.  There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.

Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously.  She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories.  Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale.  Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.

There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own.  The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards.  The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach.  It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.

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‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami ****

The second book from Pushkin Press’s Japanese Novellas series which I am going to review today is Ms Ice Sandwich by Kawakami Mieko (yes, she shares the same last name as Kawakami Hiromi whose Record of a Night Too Brief I reviewed last week, but the two authors have no relation whatsoever as far as I am concerned).

Ms+Ice+SandwichI had never read anything by Kawakami Mieko before, but I have to admit that this novella caught my interest from the outset. It might have been very brief and left me yearning for more, but I developed an instant liking to her quirky yet utterly captivating writing style.

The story revolves around a young boy whose name and exact age are never really revealed (I’m guessing he’s a junior high schooler but I could be wrong), who has fallen in love with the lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the supermarket. His innocent infatuation drives him to visit her sandwich stand every so often just so he can catch a glimpse of her face. When he descibes the lady, he places specific emphasis on the beautiful characteristics of her face and her “ice-blue eyelids” which earned her the nickname Ms Ice Sandwich.

The only people who know about the boy’s infatuation are his grandma, who is stuck in her bed, unable to move and to whom the protagonist often entrusts his deepest thoughts and feelings, and his best friend from school, Tutti, with who he seems to start developing a deeper relationship as the story progresses. During one of the boy’s visits to Ms Ice Sandwich, he hears one of her customers shouting ugly words at her about her face, which he also happens to overhear from some of his female classmates the day after the event. The author does not really spend any time weaving a mystery around the lady’s face (something which I rather expected to happen), she chooses to focus on the boy’s feelings and perceptions of the woman instead.

Ultimately, this is not at all a love story and it was never supposed to be one. Instead, it is a fascinating, touching and quiet coming-of-age story with a plethora of lessons to be taught and inspiring passages. One of my favourites was from Tutti’s motivational speech to our protagonist:

If you want to see somebody you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them anymore. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.

Another issue this short novella tackles is, of course, difference and how people and the society deal with people who are “different”. While I felt that the author could have expanded a lot more on this issue rather than just leaving it as a side-issue, perhaps nothing more was needed to be said. One thing I have definitely learned from reading Japanese literature is that, sometimes, subtlety is much more powerful.

That brings me to the last thing I want to discuss about this book. The translation was excellent and flowed very naturally, so very much so that at some point I forgot I was reading Japanese and not Anglophone literature. Not having read the original, I cannot know whether that was a feature of the original text itself or whether it was the translator’s magic, but I was quite satisfied with it.

Overall, Ms Ice Sandwich is a very heart-warming and quiet novella about growing up, first love, loss and learning to cope with all these new feelings which inundate kids at that age all of a sudden. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with no exception, as you are certain to gain something upon reading it regardless of your literary preferences.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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Novellas

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

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One of my favourite novellas

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