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‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber ****

Joan Silber’s ninth novel, Improvement, was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2018.  The wonderful contemporary novelist Sarah Moss comments: ‘I admire Joan Silber’s ability to braid the narratives of objects and people lost and found into a shapely story.’  Lauren Groff, another of my favourite authors, praises: ‘I love all of Joan Silber’s work for her mastery of character, her ferocious and searching compassion, and her elegant lines that make the mind hum for hours’.  The Washington Post refers to Silber as ‘our country’s own Alice Munro’, a high accolade indeed, and one which I was keen to explore.

9781911630067In Improvement, Silber focuses upon Reyna, a young mother who can see the faults in her relationship with African-American Boyd.  Nonetheless, ‘as she visits him throughout his three-month stint in prison, their bond grows tighter.’  He starts to pull Reyna into ‘a scheme which violates his probation’, and which she soon realises is a grave mistake.  She decides to withdraw herself from both the situation and her relationship with Boyd.  Silber then explores how Reyna’s refusal to be involved in the scheme affects so many people, and how ‘her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events’.  This is a relatively simple idea, but Silber uses the multicausal plotline to great effect.  Along the way, she examines convictions, crimes, family, and the connections which we forge with others.

I found the opening of Improvement thoughtful.  Silber writes: ‘Everyone knows this can happen.  People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there.  They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand.  They take up with beautiful locals, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes.  But maybe not forever.’  We are then introduced to Reyna’s aunt, Kiki, who lived for some time with a carpet seller in Turkey, before moving back to the United States.  Each section follows a different character, all of whose stories are related to the one which comes before.

When we first meet Reyna, she is in New York, which Hurricane Sandy has just hit.  She is concerned for her aunt’s safety, living alone as she does, and takes her four-year-old son, Oliver, along to check on her.  Despite her worry, Reyna is not always appreciative of her aunt, and the unfailing help which she gives.  She says: ‘Why would I take advice from a woman who slept every night alone in her bed, cuddling up with some copy of Aristotle?  What could she possibly tell me that I could use?  And she was getting older by the minute, with her squinty eyes and her short hair stuck too close to her head.’

Kiki is quite a fascinating character, and certainly the one which I wanted to know most about in the novel.  She prides herself on her independence, and spends much of her spare time reading and re-reading, and then extolling the virtues of literature to all who will listen.  Of her aunt, whom she is very close to, Reyna reflects: ‘Only my aunt would think someone like me could just dip into twelfth-century philosophy if I felt like it.  She saw no reason why not.’

Reyna is the only character who has been given her own voice.  For the others, Silber has chosen to use omniscient narration, which allows her to really focus on the connections between the stories, and the knock-on effects which a single decision can have.  Improvement is an entirely human novel, which is most interested in relationships and the associations which we can have with those whom we have only met fleetingly.  Silver writes about the interesting, unusual, and far-reaching consequences of Reyna’s choice, and I found the way in which she went about this created a highly immersive novel.

Silver’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at times, but it is filled with much which makes the reader think.  Her writing is easy to read, and her characters largely realistic.  The different directions which the novel takes have been so well thought out, and I found them largely unexpected.  I did not expect the snaking character trail which Silber creates, and now want to explore the rest of her oeuvre to see how her books compare.

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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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Last Train to Istanbul’ by Ayse Kulin **

Last Train to Istanbul, translated by John W. Baker, was originally published in Kulin’s native Turkey in 2002. The novel begins in Ankara in 1941, with a married couple, Macit and Sabiha. The former often works late, seeing his job as his one priority in life, and the latter is exasperated because of his attitude, which was surely a common one at the time. Macit is rather unfeeling, certainly, and thinks of his wife in rather unkind terms: ‘She had chosen the wrong time to have a nervous breakdown. How on earth could he find the time to care for her when he was inundated with work?’ Sabiha’s sister, ostracised from the family, is living in France with her Jewish husband, against the backdrop of Nazism.

The social context of the period which the characters live within is set out in the first chapter: ‘They were living in very unsettled times… If Turkey chose the losing side, Russia would make her pay dearly where the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles were concerned. This nightmare had been ongoing for two years’.

I am unsure as to whether the general emotion which should fill a book like this one was lost in Baker’s translation, or whether the original novel has the same feel to it, but the telling is rather matter-of-fact: ‘Sabiha was very unhappy… From the beginning, her daughter had been a disappointment, as she had expected a son; her husband was only interested in his work; her parents were perpetually ill…’. This, a paragraph which should surely be powerful, seems rather void of emotion to me. Even descriptions of death and suffering lack emotion of any kind, and have no real depth to them. The language which has been used does not quite fit with the story at times. I cannot really imagine someone in Istanbul in 1933 saying ‘Nope’, ‘Now it’s becoming boring’ or ‘For God’s sake’ so often.

The storyline is relatively interesting, but I don’t feel as though it has been executed all that well. The relationships between characters are underdeveloped, as are the characters themselves. The prose is rather repetitive with regard to the details which it reveals, and at points of drama and crisis, it reads in the same plodding way. The sense of place is also lacking throughout.