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‘Leone Leoni’ by George Sand ***

George Sand was an incredibly prolific author, and published many varied works over her career.  Leone Leoni, first published in France in 1835, was released in this particular English translation by George Burnham Ives in 1900.  The novel – or, rather, novella – is set in the early nineteenth century, and focuses upon the title character, as well as a young Belgian woman named Juliette Ruyter, and her ‘protector, the noble Spaniard’ Aleo Bustamente.

Juliette and Aleo have arrived in Venice just before its annual carnival, and receive the news that Leone Leoni is in the city ‘with his wealthy playmates’.  Juliette soon feels compelled to tell Aleo ‘the whole story of her progress of ruin and degradation at the hands of one of the most infamous and charming scoundrels of his time’.  The blurb writes that Leone Leoni ‘tells of innocence trapped by debauchery in a dazzling round of intrigue, impersonation and emotional deception.’9780648023302

Sand’s introduction to the volume has been included here, and immediately intrigues: ‘Being at Venice, in very cold weather and under very depressing circumstances, the carnival roaring and whistling outside with the icy north wind, I experienced the painful contrast which results from inward suffering, alone amid the wild excitement of a population of strangers.’  Clearly, this firsthand experience of the city which Sand had allows her descriptions of Venice to feel incredibly present and immersive.  The novella’s opening sentence proclaims the following, in what feels like an echo of Sand’s introduction: ‘We were at Venice.  The cold and the rain had driven the promenaders and the masks from the square and the quays…  It was a fine carnival evening inside the palaces and theatres, but outside, everything was dismal, and the street-lights were reflected in the streaming pavements, where the hurried footsteps of a belated masker, wrapped in his cloak, echoed loudly from time to time.’

Leoni is cocky, and filled with his own self-importance, and delusions of grandeur.  When Juliette tells Aleo of her history with Leoni, she describes the way in which she at first refused to dance with him at a ball, but was soon swept under his spell.  At first, she is not at all happy with the way in which he deceives her mother, and pushes himself into their lives: ‘By such petty agitations did the coming of Leoni, and the unhappy destiny that he brought, begin the disturb the profound peace in which I had always lived.’  As time goes on, though, her feelings for him change: ‘I was dominated by his glance, enthralled by his tales, surprised and fascinated by every new resource that he developed.’

The novella is told from the perspective of Aleo at first, and much of Juliette’s later commentary is displayed in dialogue, thus allowing Sand to use a contrast of voices.  These are perhaps not different enough, however, and do tend to blend a little, using similar phrases and exclamations.  The real strength of Leone Leoni lies in Sand’s descriptions, which pick up on the minutiae of place, movement, and character.  Of Juliette, for instance, she writes: ‘She rose and walked to the window; her white silk petticoat fell in numberless folds about her graceful form.  Her chestnut hair escaped from the long pins of chased gold which only half confined it, and bathed her back in a flood of perfumed silk.’

The prose of Leone Leoni is rather melodramatic at times, although one can rather predict this if they are at all familiar with the period in which the story was written.  Despite the sadness of her story, I felt no empathy whatsoever for Juliette, and the way in which she was treated; to me, she felt rather insipid, and seemed to spend most of her time swooning.  Aleo was not much better.  I found the plot of Leone Leoni to be rather predictable, and whilst the writing and translation are generally strong, I did feel rather disappointed with it overall.

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‘The Standing Chandelier: A Novella’ by Lionel Shriver ****

‘From the award-winning novelist and short story writer, Lionel Shriver, comes a literary gem, a story about love and the power of a gift. When Weston Babansky receives an extravagant engagement present from his best friend (and old flame) Jillian Frisk, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it – or how to get it past his fiancee. Especially as it’s a massive, handmade, intensely personal sculpture that they’d have to live with forever. As the argument rages about whether Jillian’s gift was an act of pure platonic generosity or something more insidious, battle lines are drawn… Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends? Described by the Sunday Times as ‘a brilliant writer’ with ‘a strong, clear and strangely seductive voice’, Lionel Shriver has written a glittering examination of friendship, ownership and the conditions of love.’

36454237I really enjoy Shriver’s writing, and whilst I’ve not even got through more than one of her novels to date, I wanted to see how she would craft a shorter work stylistically. The main nub of The Standing Chandelier – can a man and woman be ‘just friends’? – sounded rather twee and overdone, and is something I would ordinarily avoid. I was more than intrigued by the way in which Shriver might handle it, however, and was pleasantly impressed. She manages to avoid an awful lot of cliched tropes, and creates an exploration which is more unusual than usual.

The prose throughout the novella is intelligent and taut, as I was expecting, and I was pulled in straight away. Shriver still involves a lot of depth when crafting her characters, and both Weston and Jillian come across as fully-formed and believable individuals. Darkly funny at times, the story carries one through from beginning to end at a perfectly adjusted pace. Rather than lose herself in the constrained form, or having to drop more interesting elements of storyline in order to obey the conventions of the novella, The Standing Chandelier is rather perfect in terms of its size. Yes, it can be read in a couple of hours, but it still feels rich, and has a lot of emotional depth to it.

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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‘Mrs Sartoris’ by Elke Schmitter ****

Elke Schmitter’s Mrs Sartoris has been described as ‘an explosive first novel – Madame Bovary in modern Germany – about a wife and mother whose failed love affairs have driven her to the edge of sanity and to a startling attempt at vindication.’  It has been translated from its original German by Carol Brown Janeway, and was first published in English in 2002.

Mrs Sartoris opens in rather an intriguing manner: ‘The street was empty.  It was drizzling, as it often did in this region, and twilight was giving way to darkness – so you can’t say that the visibility was good.  Perhaps that’s why I was so late in spotting him, but it was also probably because I was deep in thought.  I’m often deep in thought.  Not that anything comes of it.’ 9780571219193

Our protagonist is Margarethe Sartoris, transcribed in the English version as Margaret.  After she is jilted by a rich boyfriend, with whom she is much in love, at the age of eighteen, she is sent to a sanitorium.  Reflecting on her experiences, she says: ‘A nervous breakdown didn’t belong in our circle.  Such a thing required a cause, and the cause arbitrarily existed.’  When she is released, she ‘throws herself into a comfortable and stifling marriage to Ernst, a war veteran with a penchant for routine and order who still lives with his mother in a small German village.’

Margaret, who has a wealth of psychological scars attained in her past, quickly becomes dissatisfied in her choice, and ‘neither Ernst’s adoration not the birth of a daughter can reawaken her frozen emotions.’  Of her decision to marry Ernst, she writes: ‘From that moment on, it was a form of ice-cold delirium.  When I awoke next morning, I allowed myself an instant’s reflection – but my mind was made up.  I had enormous willpower, and I had no desire to stop myself.  I was grateful for the rage that had swallowed everything up: the exhaustion of the last six months, the sense of indifference and alienation and the feeling of not being at home in the world.  I thought of all that and was terrified.’

When she first studies her daughter, Daniela, whilst in the hospital’s maternity ward, Margaret muses: ‘She had inherited nothing from either of us…  Ernst’s hair was mouse brown, and my own mop of curls was dark blond… and this daughter of mine, my first and last, had red-gold down on her head and was so delicate she could disappear at any moment, whereas the rest of us were tall and quite well built.’  She is both loving towards, and scared of, her daughter, and becomes indifferent towards Ernst, a catalyst which pushes her in the direction of affairs with a series of troubled males.

Mrs Sartoris is structured in a series of rather short sections, which contain both threads of Margaret’s present story, and memories and reflections of scenarios in her past.  Schmitter’s portrayal of Margaret is a searching one, and there is a strength in both her writing and her creation of a believable narrative voice.  Mrs Sartoris does become taut and tense as it progresses, and is engaging from the first.  Despite being rather a slight book, it is packed with a lot of depth and feeling, as well as much darkness.

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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.