Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cesare Pavese, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, war

‘The House on the Hill’ by Cesare Pavese (translated by Tim Parks)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 176 pages; 2021. Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks.

First published in 1948, Cesare Pavese’s novella The House on the Hill, which is set in Italy during the Second World War, makes a perfect companion read to Dominic Smith’s Return to Valetto.

Said to be based on the author’s own wartime experiences, it recounts the tale of a school teacher who falls in with a group of anti-fascists but can’t quite commit to their cause because he’d rather lead a quiet life.

The book explores notions of self-preservation versus altruism and examines the concept of collective moral responsibility in the face of war.

Safe on the hill

Set in and around Turin, in 1943, during a time of immense political upheaval, it shows how the Italian people, living under a Fascist regime aligned with Nazi Germany, tried to continue their normal day-to-day activities while their evenings were beset by the terror of bombs and fires.

It is against this backdrop that Corrado, a young unmarried man, lives his life, teaching in a school by day and escaping to a house on the hill at night. He rents a room in the house, occupied by two live-in landladies and their dog, and occasionally feels guilty for “escaping the sirens every evening, hiding away in a cool room, stretched out on my bed in safety”.

When he returns to the unscathed school every morning, he is never sure which children will have died in the night-time air raids, but seems immune to their plight, dismissing it as just another symptom of war:

We’d all become inured to terrible events, found them banal, ordinary, disagreeable. Those who took them seriously and said, ‘That’s war,’ were even worse, dreamers, morons.

Meeting the partisans

It is from the vantage point on the hill that he can often hear laughter and frivolity rising up from the valley, and when he traces those sounds he comes across a group of local partisans, who gather to drink and sing in a house-turned-tavern every night.

He joins them socially when he realises an old flame, Cate, is part of the group but stops short of signing up to their movement.

She [Cate] walked a few steps with me, then stopped.
‘You’re not a Fascist, I hope?’
She was serious and laughed. I took her hand and protested. ‘We’re all Fascists, Cate dear,’ I said softly. ‘If we weren’t, we’d be rebelling, chucking grenades, risking our necks. Anyone who lets be and puts up with it is a Fascist.’
‘Not true,’ she said. ‘We’re waiting for the right moment. When the war is over.’

Later, when Fascist leader Benito Mussolini is disposed and imprisoned and the Germans begin occupying Italian territory, a new era of violence is ushered in. Corrado must make an important decision: should he take up arms and join the partisans, or keep his head below the parapet and continue living his relatively stable and uninterrupted life where he has a roof over his head and food on the table every day?

The book charts what happens next, and it’s not quite as straightforward as Corrado might have imagined.

Countryside charm

Alongside this exploration of human weakness and raw doubt, all beautifully translated by Tim Parks, Pavese uses the Italian countryside as a metaphor for life continuing on regardless of human history. His descriptions of the timeless landscape, its plants and the changing seasons are vivid and cinematic.

I walked in the sunshine, on the wooded slopes. Behind le Fontaine there were vineyards and fields with crops, and I were there often, to gather herbs and mosses in sheltered little glades, an old hobby from when I’d studied natural sciences. I always preferred ploughed fields to houses and gardens, and the edges of the fields where the wild takes over.

Told in a self-reflective, self-aware and often resigned voice, The House on the Hill gives us a glimpse of one man’s moral uncertainty and indecision at a time of great violence and political uncertainty.

The way Corrado rationalises his choices and tries to remain uninvolved is honest and insightful. Until we are put in those same situations, how does anyone know how they will react?

This is a real literary gem, and one I am pleased to have discovered.

Finally, the beautiful cover image of this Penguin Classic edition of the book is by Italian artist Mario Borgoni (1869-1936) from a 1927 travel and advertising poster of Merano.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, E.M. Forster, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘Howards End’ by E. M. Forster

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 302 pages; 2000.

First published in 1910, E.M. Forster’s Howards End is often cited as a masterpiece of 20th-century literary fiction. Even Forster himself claimed it was his best book (he wrote six novels, and this was his fourth).

Set during the Edwardian era, it’s a tale about the clash between town and country, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This is mirrored in the three different families which form the core of the story.

Three families

The well-educated and well-off Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, are half-German and live in London, where they can pursue their interests in the arts. Young, confident women — and with strong opinions — they are idealists who want for nothing.

The Wilcoxes, by comparison, are self-made pragmatists with an eye on social climbing and the acquisition of material possessions to cement their place in the world. They, too, are rich, but they are from new money. They have both a pied-à-terre and a country estate, the eponymous Howards End.

And then there is the lower-class Basts — Leonard, who is an insurance clerk, and Jacky, his older wife, a “fallen” woman whom he has “rescued”. This troubled couple is often short of money and struggle to get by, but Leonard is aspirational and loves nothing more than reading books and going to musical recitals, which is how he comes to meet the Schlegel sisters.

Complex plot

It’s a convoluted plot — heavily reliant, it has to be said, on coincidences to work — which brings all three families together.

I’ve not seen the 1992 film, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book, but I’m assuming most people will be familiar with the storyline. If you’re not, it goes like this:

Helen gets engaged to the younger son of the Wilcoxes, then breaks it off, and in the process Margaret befriends Mrs Wilcox, who leaves Howards End to her when she dies. Except the Wilcox family hide this fact from Margaret. Then — plot twist coming up — Margaret, for reasons I cannot fathom given she’s so independently minded and staunchly her own person, marries Mr Wilcox and moves to a new country estate with him. Meanwhile, the sisters drift apart and Helen does a runner, for reasons that become clear later on (I won’t spoil it here). Later, Margaret discovers that Jacky Bast was once her husband’s mistress, but she decides to stand by her man because that’s what she thinks is the right thing to do.

Yes, it’s all a bit dramatic. And I haven’t even mentioned the scandal near the end, nor the murder!

Compelling read

Fortunately, in Mr Forster’s safe hands, the narrative remains sensible — and compelling.

The characters are all wonderfully alive and interesting and enigmatic and flawed and, for the most part, their actions are authentic and understandable. Likewise, the dialogue, of which there is a lot, is excellent: every conversation, argument and intellectual discussion feels real rather than contrived.

Written at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time of great societal, economic, political and technological change (cars, for instance, were slowly replacing horse and cart), Forster captures England in a state of flux, where the new world is colliding with the old world, where the city is growing rapidly and encroaching on the countryside, where the traditional role of women is being challenged by the suffragette movement.

These big themes give the novel an intellectual weight that might otherwise be missing if Howards End was viewed as nothing more than a romantic drama.

Forster, for instance, looks at what responsibility, if any, the rich have towards the poor (the welfare state was in its infancy at the time of publication), and whether it is acceptable for the impoverished to pursue artistic interests, such as music or literature.

He also highlights the hypocrisy in society by comparing the attitudes to sex outside of wedlock for both men (acceptable) and women (improper to the point of being outcast), along with the limitations society places on women and asks if it’s fair to restrict their potential, intellectual or otherwise.

It’s a wonderfully rich, evocative and engaging read. I’m not quite convinced of its masterpiece status — the string of coincidences and the odd death at the end takes away from its credibility — but on the whole, I much enjoyed this book and have promptly gone out and bought a couple more of Forster’s novels.

This is my 12th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand so long ago that I can’t exactly remember when I purchased it but the price scrawled in lead pencil on the first page tells me I paid £2.50 for it. 

‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster, first published in 1910, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “truly a masterpiece, the novel has moments of real beauty and optimism”.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Julian Maclaren-Ross, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘Of Love and Hunger’ by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Penguin Classics edition, published 2002

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 204pp; 2002.

It’s always great to kick off a new reading year with a brilliant book, and Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger couldn’t be a more perfect start to 2019.

First published in 1947, it’s set in a seedy seaside town on the English coast (most probably Bognor Regis), shortly before the beginning of the Second World War.

It tells the tale of Richard Fanshawe, a 27-year-old door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, who’s struggling to keep his head above water and lives in fear of getting the sack. 

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock.

Unable to make the required number of weekly sales, he’s behind in his boarding house rent, and his bill at the local store, where he buys his cigarettes on “the tick”, is inching towards the £4 mark, which is a small fortune. 

He keeps kidding himself that his wealthy Uncle George might save the day by sending him a cheque in the post, but his landlady has already cottoned on to this and watches him collect his mail every day, hoping she can snare the “gift” before it’s spent elsewhere.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.
‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.
‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’
‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ 

New Penguin Modern Classics edition, published 2018

Meanwhile his personal life is slightly brighter, full of visits to pubs and cafes, drinking beers and coffee, playing pool — and occasionally winning a few quid for his efforts. Then, when his colleague joins the Navy and asks him to look after his wife, Sukie, what he imagines to be a chore turns out to be a pleasant surprise: Sukie is a lot of fun and great company. He later falls in love. But what will he do when the husband returns?

Voice of the age

Of Love and Hunger is narrated in Fanshawe’s engaging but cynical voice. He’s a troubled character living a hand-to-mouth existence, but you get the impression it hasn’t always been this way. In a previous life he lived in Madras, India, where he worked as a newspaper reporter, and now he fancies himself as a bit of a writer — if only he could find the will to put pen to paper.

His personal torment is revealed in bad memories, which are italicised in the text, reminding him not to get ahead of himself. He seems to be ever conscious of not cocking things up again, for he has been unlucky in love before and realises he’s made one or two bad decisions:

Yes. I’d lost Angela all right. Perhaps if I’d married her when I was home on leave that time, when she’d wanted me to, everything would have been different. I certainly wouldn’t have lost my job.

With the threat of war looming, there’s a dark, brooding atmosphere to the story, a kind of hopelessness about the future, and it’s hard not to foresee the writing on the wall for poor Fanshawe and his cohorts.

There’s not much of a plot, but the characterisation and the often humorous anecdotes he relays more than makes up for this. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in Fanshawe’s company and if this is any indication of the quality of Maclaren-Ross’s usual output, I’ll be seeing what else I can discover by this most impressive writer.

For another take on this novel, please see Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal.

This year I am going to try to read 40 books from my TBR (books purchased before 31 December 2018). This is the first of #TBR40.

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Choderlos de Laclos, Fiction, France, Penguin Classic, Reading Projects

‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (translated by Helen Constantine)


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 418 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by Helen Constantine.

I have a problematic relationship with French fiction (it often feels too cold, too distant), and, similarly, I don’t always get on with pre-20th Century fiction either, so how would I cope with a French book first published in 1782?

There’s no doubt that Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I read it purely on the basis that it had been selected for my face-to-face book group, and while my heart sank when I was told that this was February’s read, I figured it was a good opportunity to try something I wouldn’t normally choose to read myself.

Most people will be familiar with the 1988 film starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, but, philistine that I am, I have never seen it. This meant I approached the book completely “blind”, with no preconceptions (other than, help, it’s French and help, it’s an 18th Century classic) and no knowledge whatsoever of the storyline.

I was heartened to see that this 418-page door-stopper is an epistolary novel, because I find that reading letters between characters makes any book much more, well, readable. (I wasn’t aware of this, but, according to the introduction to this book by its translator, Helen Constantine, the epistolary novel “was by far the most popular kind of fiction in the eighteenth century”.)

It can also help you see characters from other people’s points of view, and in the case of Dangerous Liaisons, it was the perfect vehicle to highlight how certain characters showed different faces, or facets of their personality, to different people.

Two French aristocrats

The novel, which is broken up into four large chunks, tells the story of two French aristocrats — the widow Marquis de Merteuil and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont — as they play a series of Machiavellian games designed to entertain themselves while quietly ruining the lives and reputation of other people. Yes, these two are a right old pair of dastardly devious schemers.

Vicomte de Valmont, who I quickly took a strong dislike to, is on a mission to seduce a highly respected and religious woman, Presidente de Tourvel, for no other reason than to cause a scandal. He woos her through a succession of purple-prosed letters (even though, at times, they are residents in the same house) until she finally succumbs to his advances. He then unceremoniously and very cruelly dumps her.

Meanwhile, the Marquis de Merteuil, a forthright, feisty woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, plots the ruin of a 15-year-old bride-to-be, Cecile Volanges (the sweetest character in the whole book, it has to be said), as a way of getting back at Cecile’s future husband, Comte de Gercourt.

The Marquis encourages Valmont to help her in this quest. Together they play match-maker, as they aid and abet a forbidden romance between Cecile and her piano teacher, Chevalier Danceny.

Somewhere along the line, the schemes between these two cunning characters go off on unexpected tangents, and Valmont, unable to help himself, seduces pretty much anything that comes his way. Similarly, even the Marquis is not immune from having her way with certain men.

Shocking and immoral

Dangerous Liaisons caused a sensation when it was first published, and I’m not surprised. Even by today’s standards, some of the scenes in this book are shocking and immoral. In fact, I have to agree with KevinfromCanada, who recently wrote a comment on this blog which said: “Dangerous Liaisons is one of the best explorations of evil that exists in literature.”

I found myself wanting to throw the book against the wall on more than one occasion and at one time I actually called Valmont an evil bastard out loud. That the story provoked such a strong reaction in me suggests that it was worth reading, even though I found much of it dragged and I thought the language terribly over-written (understandably a product of its time, not helped by my editor’s brain which lives by the motto “why use a long word when a short word will do”).

I found it helped to read the book in large chunks, including a three-hour marathon reading session on Saturday, because whenever I put it down I just did not want to pick it up again.

But the last 100-page section sped by, and I found the ending completely unexpected, way too abrupt (I had to read it over, in case I’d missed anything) and just a smidgen sad. Above all, I was relieved to have survived my first foray into French classic fiction, although I don’t plan to return any time soon.

‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which says the book, written by a lieutenant in the French Army, still manages to “shock and delight in equal measure”.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting, Thomas Hardy

‘A Mere Interlude’ by Thomas Hardy


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 125 pages; 2007.

Ahh, Thomas Hardy, how I love thee! It has been far too long since I last read anything by you. I think it was probably Jude the Obscure, way back in 1996, after I had seen the heartbreaking Michael Winterbottom film Jude. But I also have fond memories of Tess of the d’Urbervilles read during my final year at school as part of my HSC (Higher School Certificate) back in 1987.

More recently, I have seen the church you helped to restore in north-eastern Cornwall and the Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Church, a short walk from King’s Cross tube station, so I have to confess that part of me is intrigued by your life (and loves). I tend to feel guilty that I have not read more of your work, and so when I discovered A Mere Interlude in Penguin’s Great Loves collection I had a chance to rectify this a little.

I am so glad I read this slim volume — as a short story writer you are so very skilled. All three stories presented here — A Mere Interlude, An Imaginative Woman and The Withered Arm — are so very tragic. Perhaps this is why Penguin has billed this particular book as “love can be heartbreaking”.

What is it that happened in your life that allowed you to render the female heart so realistically?

In the first story I could feel the pain of the protagonist, Baptista, who is travelling home to marry her parents’ old neighbour. Enroute she bumps into her long lost lover and elopes with him. But then tragedy strikes and he dies unexpectedly. Under any circumstances this would be devastating, but Baptista has to pick herself up, dust herself off and return home as if nothing has happened. She marries the old man she has been betrothed to and then spends an inordinate amount of time worrying that someone somewhere will discover her tragic secret…

The second story is as equally disturbing, in that a young married woman falls in love with a poet she has never met. Pretending to be a male poet, she strikes up a correspondence with her heart’s desire, only to discover this form of communication is no substitute for the real thing. She tries to engineer a meeting with him, but tragedy strikes before the pair can meet face to face.

The third and final story is the closest thing to a Gothic horror story that I have read for a long time. When a local farmer marries a young woman, one of the older milkmaids feels she has been usurped. Then the milkmaid has a disturbing and incredibly realistic dream in which she grabs the arm of the farmer’s wife and “whirled it backwards to the floor” so violently that she awakes in a cold sweat. On the morning after the milkmaid’s dream the farmer’s wife discovers strange and painful marks on her arm which will not go away. Over the course of time her limb begins to slowly wither away and there seems little that can be done to stop this, until she visits a local witchdoctor who suggests a rather creepy solution…

Thank-you, Mr Hardy, for these truly memorable stories that got stuck in my brain and will no doubt stay there for a long, long time to come. I enjoyed reading them and found myself admiring — not for the first time — your talent, your skill and your imagination.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Katherine Mansfield, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, short stories

‘Something Childish But Very Natural’ by Katherine Mansfield


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 110 pages; 2007.

I’m not a great fan of the short story, but knowing that New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is widely regarded as one of the best short story writers of her generation, I was keen to read some of her work.

This collection, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves series, seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with her writings. Each of the eight tales revolves around the theme that “love can be innocent” and features one of her more famous short stories, “Something Childish But Very Natural”, which was written in 1914 but published after her death.

In this sweet story we meet Harry, a young man (“nearly eighteen”) who falls in love with a girl (“over sixteen”) on a train, and begins a relationship with her. Unfortunately Edna is very distant with him and shies from his touch. “I feel that if once we did that — you know — held each other’s hands and kissed, it would all be changed,” she tells Harry. “And I feel we wouldn’t be free like we are — we’d be doing something secret. We wouldn’t be children any more…silly, isn’t it?”

This characterises the rest of their friendship: Edna wants to keep it purely platonic, but Harry, patient and caring, is desperate to take it to the next level. He must always keep his feelings in check, despite the fact he is desperately in love with Edna “with the marigold hair and strange dreamy smile that filled him up to the brim”.

One day the pair stumble upon a lovely little cottage in the countryside and fantasise about living in it together. When Harry, in his eagerness to move in immediately, says,  “I have a feeling that it’s dangerous to wait for things — that if you wait for things they only go further and further away” you get the impression he’s not just talking about the house.

I won’t reveal how the story ends, but the course of true love does not run smoothly!

The other short stories in this slim volume are: “Feuille d’Album”, “Mr and Mrs Dove”, “Marriage à la Mode”, “Bliss”, “Honeymoon”, “Dill Pickle” and “Widowed”.

They are all quite similiar in showing how love can be one-sided and that even in the strongest of relationships there is always one person who loves his or her partner more than is reciprocated.

I particularly enjoyed “Bliss”, about a 30-something mother who believes her life in London is completely perfect, until she hosts a dinner party for a small collection of haughty friends and unwittingly discovers that her husband is cheating on her with one of the guests. When she comes to realise what is going on beneath her nose, the reality of the situation is like a strong blow to the stomach. I thought it was a pitch-perfect story and I think I might have actually gasped out loud when I got to the denouement.

All in all, I enjoyed this brief introduction to Mansfield’s work, but it hasn’t made me rush out to read everything else she’s ever written. I’m afraid my bias towards novels is too strong for that.

You can find out more about Katherine Mansfield here and here.

Author, Book review, History, Ireland, J. M. Synge, Non-fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘The Aran Islands’ by J. M. Synge


Non fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 208 pages; 1992.

At the turn of the 19th century, Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge made numerous visits to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. He had been encouraged to make his first visit in 1897 by his friend, William Butler Yeats, who told him: “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”

I wanted to read this book, because I had imagined it to be one of those oh-so authentic travelogues that would tell me what it was like to live in a remote place at a time when tourism was not commonplace. And that, my friends, is pretty much exactly what I got, along with a healthy dose of fairy stories and some wonderful descriptions of breath-taking scenery.

As Tim Robinson points out in the introduction, the book is completely self-sufficient in the sense that Synge never explains why he went to the Aran Islands nor what impact it was to have on the rest of his life. But we know now that he spent his first summer there shortly after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (then completely untreatable) and that after his final visit, some five years later, he achieved extraordinary success with his play The Playboy of the Western World first published in 1907, the same year as The Aran Islands was published. He died just two years later.

The Aran Islands records the day-to-day lives of Irish peasants living in small fishing communities on one of the most rugged and windswept islands in the world. Here’s Synge’s first impression of the island as he wanders along its “one good roadway”:

I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Whenever the cloud lifted I could see the edge of the sea below me on the right, and the naked ridge of the island above me on the other side. Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.

But while a great deal of this book is about the landscape and the terrain and the ever-present roaring sea, it is also about the people whom he befriends along the way. And here, huddled around turf fires, he not only perfects his Irish but collects stories and folklore from local residents. On his first visit he meets a blind man who believes in the “superiority of his stories over all other stories in the world”.

Afterward he told me how one of his children had been taken by the fairies.
One day a neighbour was a passing, and she said, when she saw it on the road, ‘That’s a fine child.’
Its mother tried to say, ‘God bless it,’ but something choked the words in her throat.
A while later they found a wound on its neck, and for three nights the house was filled with noises.
‘I never wear a shirt at night,’ he said, ‘but I got up out of my bed, all naked as I was, when I heard the noises in the house, and lighted a light, but there was nothing in it.’
Then a dummy came and made signs of hammering nails in a coffin.
The next day the seed potatoes were full of blood, and the child told his mother that he was going to America.
‘That night it died, and believe me,’ said the old man, ‘the fairies were in it.’

Synge also records the harsh conditions in which the island’s tiny population lives and the difficulties that confront them in terms of feeding and clothing themselves adequately. His description of poverty-stricken villagers is, at times, heartbreaking.

But he also enjoys experiencing the primitiveness of the culture, such as sailing on the ocean in a curagh — “a rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went on the sea” — and using handmade articles from natural materials — cradles, churns, baskets and the like — which “seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world that is about them”. I particularly loved his descriptions of the island’s fashions:

The simplicity and unity of the dress increases in another way the local air of beauty. The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted around their chests and tied at the back. When it rains they throw another petticoat over their heads with the waistband around their faces, or, if they are young, they use a heavy shawl like those worn in Galway. Occasionally other wraps are worn, and during the thunderstorm I arrived in, I saw several girls with men’s waistcoats buttoned around their bodies. Their skirts do not come much below the knee, and show their powerful legs in the heavy indigo stockings with which they are all provided.

Because Synge makes several visits over a five-year period he is able to notice small changes to the culture with each visit he makes. Take this example, written during his fifth and final visit, in which he realises that progress has made its mark, and not necessarily in a good way:

I am in the north island again, looking out with a singular sensation to the cliffs across the sound. It is hard to believe that those hovels I can just see in the south are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend. Compared with them the falling off that has come with the increased prosperity of this island is full of discouragement. The charm which the people over there share with the birds and flowers has been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain. The eyes and expression are different, though the faces are the same, and even the children here seem to have an indefinable modern quality that is absent from the men of Inishman.

The Aran Islands is a fascinating account of another culture in another time confronted by development, or, as the blurb on the back of my Penguin edition so eloquently puts it, “the passionate exploration of an island community still embedded in its ancestral ways but solicited by modernism”. Not necessarily an easy read, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, a free version is available online at Google Books.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Ivan Turgenev, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘First Love’ by Ivan Turgenev


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 102 pages; 2007. Translated from the Russian by Isaiah Berlin.

First Love is Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s most famous novella. First published in 1860, it has been beautifully repackaged and republished as part of Penguin’s Great Love series.

At just over 100 pages, this is a book that can quickly be read in one sitting (I achieved it via two 20-minute train journeys), although its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. First Love is exactly what the title suggests: a man looks back on his first love. “I was sixteen at the time,” he writes. “It happened in the summer of 1833.”

His name is Vladimir Petrovich. He is 40 now, but he recalls the time he stayed in a holiday house – “a wooden building with pillars and two small, low lodges” — in the country with his parents. He would spend his days studying, horse riding and strolling through the Neskootchny Park, but when he notices a “tall, slender girl in a striped pink dress with a white kerchief on her head” in the garden next door he is immediately smitten.

[…] there was in the girl’s movements (I saw her in profile) something so enchanting, imperious and caressing, so mocking and charming, that I nearly cried out with wonder and delight. […] My rifle slipped to the grass; I forgot everything: my eyes devoured the graceful figure, the lovely neck, the beautiful arms, the slightly dishevelled fair hair under the white kerchief –- and the half-closed perceptive eyes, the lashes, the soft cheek beneath them…

Eventually he gets to meet the young woman, Princess Zasyekin, who is five years his senior, and
falls into her circle of friends –- a quintet of suitors comprising a count, doctor, poet, captain and soldier. The suitors belittle him, but he is too in love with the princess to care.

For whole days I did nothing but think intensely about her. I pined away, but her presence brought me no relief. I was jealous and felt conscious of my worthlessness. I was stupidly sulky, and stupidly abject; yet an irrestible force drew me towards her, and it was always with an involuntary shiver of happiness that I went through the door of her room.

Despite the princess’s almost penniless existence — her father had gambled all their property away and then scandalously married the daughter of a minor official — Vladimir continues to fawn at her feet, knowing full well she is in love with someone else.

As a reader I found it almost unbearable to follow Vladimir as he tries to figure out who the princess has given her heart to, because, for me at least, it was painfully obvious. But, in many ways, this is what makes this book tick so beautifully: as much as you want to protect the youthful, inexperienced narrator from having his heart broken, you want to see how he will react when the penny finally drops and so you keep turning the pages.

While First Love seems strangely naive in this day and age, it has a quiet, restrained beauty that makes it a delightful read. But be warned: this story is not just about falling in love for the first time, it’s also about betrayal and cruelty of the finest order.

Anais Nin, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Eros Unbound’ by Anais Nin


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 112 pages; 2007.

Anais Nin (1903-1977) is mainly known as a diarist, publishing a series of personal journals spanning 60 years of her life. But she is also one of the world’s most famous and finest writers of female erotica.

No surprise then that this book, part of the Penguin Great Loves series, depicts a ripe orange that resembles a woman’s breast on the cover. It almost looks too naughty to read…

In fact, it could be argued that this is a very naughty book indeed. Featuring eight sexually-charged short stories, this wafer-thin collection makes for a wonderful introduction to the French-Cuban’s work.

According to the blurb, Eros Unbound explores “the nature of sex and the awakening of desire” which is a fitting description for a series of stories that includes everything from an erotic encounter on the beach between two strangers to a naive model slowly discovering her sexuality (on a pommel horse, of all things).

I have to admit that many of the stories contained here were already familiar to me, having read a similar collection (now out of print) in the early 1990s, but re-reading them was like discovering something wicked, but beautiful, all over again. My only quibble is that Nin concentrates less on the story arc and plot development than she does on her sentence construction, so while the writing is sensual and languid the abrupt endings leave you feeling like you’ve been cut short — or, to use a terrible sexual pun, as if you’ve climaxed too early.

Anais Nin is obviously not for everyone. The stories are sensual without being overly raunchy, but there’s still frequent references to genitalia and sexual acts that might disturb some readers.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Popular Classics; 67 pages; 1994.

In my quest to read more work by Irish literary greats, I recently purchased a newly repackaged Penguin Popular Classic version of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest. This edition, with its vibrant green cover and tracing-paper thin paper (all 100 per cent recycled), retails for a meagre £2 — that’s a damn cheap price for a masterpiece, in my opinion.

I don’t normally read plays (as the 200-plus reviews on this blog will attest), but I decided to make an exception in this case. (Well, to be honest, I’d already read The Picture of Dorian Gray back in my early 20s and because there’s a distinct lack of other novels in Mr Wilde’s back catalogue I wasn’t left with much choice.)

I had seen a film version of this play a couple of years ago (the 2002 version starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench) and I remember laughing out loud at a lot of it. But seeing the words in black-and-white print makes them seem even funnier — if that is possible.

For those who don’t know the storyline, the brief synopsis goes something like this: Country gentleman Jack Worthing invents a younger brother, Ernest, whom he pretends to be when he visits the city. This gives him free reign to pursue the beautiful Gwendolen. Meanwhile his city-based friend, Algernon Moncrieff, invents a poorly relative, Bunbury, whom he pretends to visit in the country in order that he can leave his dull city existence behind for a bit of fun and frivolity. One day Algernon pretends to be Ernest and visits Jack’s pretty charge, Cecily, in the country, which leads to all kinds of confusion about identity. Obviously, Jack is not happy, but when his own deceptive behaviour is called into question, the scene is ripe for much farce and hilarity.

In three short acts, this play delivers so many laughs and classic one-liners it’s difficult to appreciate the genius of it in just one reading. Fortunately, it’s short enough — just 67 pages in this edition — to read cover-to-cover twice in a very short amount of time.

How many people haven’t heard this line (delivered by Lady Bracknell to Jack)?

“To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune: to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Or this one (delivered by Gwendolen to Cecily):

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

But it’s not just the lines which are funny, but the setting and the ways in which they are delivered that makes certain scenes especially comedic. This scene, in which Cecily serves tea and cake to her new rival in love, Gwendolen, is a good example of Wilde’s ability to capture the little details in people’s behaviour that conveys so much about their character and mood.

Cecily [sweetly]: Sugar?

Gwendolen [superciliously]: No thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar in the cup.]

Cecily [severely]: Cake or bread and butter?

Gwendolen [in a bored manner]: Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

Cecily [cuts a very large slice of cake and puts it on the tray]: Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

Without wishing to wax lyrical, this is a sumptuous, dazzling read — a wonderfully clever farce to brighten up the dullest day. It’s tightly written, with not a word wasted, and there’s a delightful conclusion in which all the lose ends are brought together and tied up with an unexpected flourish. Masterpiece, indeed.