Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sabahattin Ali, Setting, TBR2020, Turkey

‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2017. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

If you have ever stopped and stared at a painting and been slightly bewitched by the subject, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat will resonate.

This haunting Turkish novella drips with melancholia and heartache. First published in 1943, it tells the tragic story of a young man from Ankara who travels to Berlin in the 1920s where he falls in love with the portrait of a woman he sees in an art gallery.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman. But while that face was utterly new to me, I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen her many times before. Surely I knew this pale face, this dark brown hair, this dark brow, these dark eyes that spoke of eternal anguish and resolve. […] She was a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined.

He eventually meets the woman from the painting and the pair strike up an intense friendship. But when he is called back to Turkey, following the death of his father, their romance is cut short. They never see one another again.

A story in two parts

The book has an unusual structure. An unnamed first-person narrator introduces us to a colleague named Raif Efendi, a talented but reclusive translator, whom he befriends. When Raif takes to his bed suffering from an unspecified illness, the narrator visits him at home to discover that his living arrangments are odd and that his family is kept at arm’s length. It is clear that Raif is deeply disturbed by something.

When he collects Raif’s belongings from the office, he discovers a notebook. Raif encourages him to read it. It is this notebook, a reflection on what happened in Berlin 12 years earlier, that forms the rest of the novella. In it, Raif explains his quiet disposition, his incredible shyness and his inability to properly communicate with people, including his immediate family who shun him because they fear he is too feminine.

This lack of typical masculine traits is what brings him close to Maria, the Madonna in the painting, because she recognises that his kindness and quiet, caring nature is far removed from the men she normally meets in the cabaret hall where she dances.

‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men … I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say … just know that I am always completely open … like this … like a man … I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone …’ She looked me over, before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you … Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a young girl …’ How surprised I was – and how saddened – to hear a new acquaintance echo my parents’ words!

But Raif’s inability to overcome his low self-esteem and his constant self-flagellation leads to his undoing, for even when he is deeply in love he cannot quite bring himself to fully open up to Maria. He keeps her at an emotional distance, in much the same way that his family keeps him at an emotional distance.

Never in my life had anyone loved me, ever.

Hypnotic, languid prose

I really liked this story with its hypnotic, almost languid prose and its acute psychological insights into one man’s soul.

And while Raif’s passivity annoyed me, there was enough character development to completely understand why a naive 24-year-old man — his first time in the West — might behave in such a way. (Anyone who has ever travelled alone for any length of time will know that there is something about being outside of your comfort zone in a foreign land that can inexplicably lead to a torpor from which you can’t escape. This is especially true if you are an introvert. I recall that Gail Jones writes about this, too, in her novel A Guide to Berlin.)

What is perhaps less understandable is why his siblings, his wife and his children seem to care so little for him, but perhaps that’s because he’s shut them out emotionally. It’s hard to know.

But I digress. As you might have guessed, this is a rather sad tale. It focuses on missed opportunities, thwarted love and the perils of living too much in your own head. If you like reading romantic stories full of tragedy and pathos, then Madonna in a Fur Coat is definitely a must-read. I promise you, it will linger in your thoughts for days, possibly months, afterward.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this Kindle edition on 9 January 2019 for £3.99. I have no idea why. Perhaps it is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and that’s why I bought it. Unfortunately, I can’t check because my copy is still in London, but if anyone knows maybe you could enlighten me…?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Norway, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Tarjei Vesaas, TBR40

‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 144 pages; 2018. Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan.

Oh, what a strange and mysterious and intriguing and totally atmospheric little book this is!

First published in 1963 and translated into English in 1966, The Ice Palace was written by Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), a poet and novelist widely regarded as one of Norway’s greatest writers of the 20th century. (According to the author biography in my edition, he wrote more than 25 novels and was nominated for the Nobel Prize 30 times!)

Set in rural Norway, presumably in the late 1950s/early 1960s, it focuses on two 11-year-old schoolgirls, Siss and Unn, who strike up an intense friendship.

Siss is the more outgoing of the pair and popular at school; Unn, a relative newcomer to the area following the death of her mother, is quiet, shy, reserved, preferring to stand on the sidelines and watch the other children having fun. But there’s something intriguing about her, and when she invites Siss home with her after school one day, to see the house she lives in with her aunt, it changes the course of both their lives.

Into the looking-glass

It starts with something as ordinary as a mirror. In the intimacy of Unn’s bedroom, the girls sit beside each other on the edge of the bed, holding a mirror between them, peering into it.

What did they see?
Before they were even aware of it they were completely engrossed.
Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. […]
They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.
Siss asked: ‘Unn, did you know about this?’
Unn asked: ‘Did you see it too?’
At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

Unn then persuades Siss to get undressed with her, just for the fun of it. When they get cold they put their clothes back on and Unn asks an intriguing question: “did you see anything on me just now?” Siss says she did not. Unn then confesses she wants to tell Siss a secret, but changes her mind at the last moment. Siss, frightened of the awkwardness between them, runs home to her parents.

The next day, Unn is embarrassed about the evening before and decides to bunk off school so that she doesn’t have to explain herself to Siss. She heads off on a day-long excursion to explore the ice palace, a frozen waterfall, which she has heard the children at school discuss. When she finally gets there after a trek across a frozen lake, she looks into a deep ravine and sees an “enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery”.

All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.

Shouting with joy, Unn explores this magical castle, intrigued by its beauty and its strange labyrinth of rooms, but she gets lost within it and fails to return home.

Later that night a search party is organised, and Siss, distraught by the loss of her new friend, joins in. But despite the whole community looking day and night Unn is never found. There is pressure on Siss to explain what Unn might have told her the evening before she went missing, but Siss can only tell the adults around her what she knows: that Siss had a secret but did not share it.

When it becomes clear that it’s unlikely Unn will ever be found, Siss makes a promise never to forget her friend. Stricken by grief and loss she begins to take on some of Unn’s personality traits, becoming introverted and unsociable, abdicating her “most popular girl” position at school and choosing to stand on the sidelines watching her fellow students at play rather than participating herself.

The book ends with a small party of school children, including Siss, visiting the ice palace at the tail end of winter just as the ice is beginning to crack. When it collapses and falls away it takes all its secrets with it.

A simple, subtle tale

As Doris Lessing says in the review she wrote in 1993 (to mark the book’s reissue at that time), this is a simple, subtle tale, but it is unique and unforgettable.

Not much seems to happen and yet a lot *does* happen. Lots of questions are asked but very few are answered. It’s almost as if Vesaas wants the reader to do half the work, to formulate their own ideas about Unn’s secret and Siss’s strong reaction, to figure out what might have happened rather than being told.

The prose style is elegant and sparse, if slightly staid, and the descriptions — of the winter-rimed landscape, the frozen lake and the ice palace itself — are beautiful and evocative, conjuring up a magical winter wonderland.

But for all its strange beauty, the pace of the novella is slow and there is much repetition — of descriptions, feelings, thought processes — perhaps to mirror the nature of the seemingly endless search for Unn. And if you’re the type of reader who wants everything neatly tied up at the end, The Ice Palace may prove a frustrating read.

However, as a story about grief, loss and loneliness, The Ice Palace is a haunting tale about the frozen worlds of our own making.

This is my 14th book for #TBR40. I can’t quite remember how it came into my possession, but I think it was a review copy sent by Penguin. I do know I have owned it since December 2017, because I took a photo of its beautiful cover and posted it on Instagram that month!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley

the well

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 234 pages; 2007.

I first read The Well, by Elizabeth Jolley, in the late 1980s, when my sister pressed it into my hand and told me I would love it. I have only vague memories of it, so when Lisa at ANZLitLovers announced she was going to host an Elizabeth Jolley week, I knew this was the book I was going to read and review.

First published in 1986, The Well was Jolley’s seventh novel (she came to writing late; her first book was published in her early 50s). It earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s an exquisitely written tale about love, loneliness and growing old, but it’s also about trust — how we earn it and how easy it is to throw away — and of two women struggling to maintain an unconventional relationship in a strict patriarchal society.

Hit and run

Set on a remote sheep and wheat farm in rural Western Australia, the book opens in dramatic fashion. One night, returning from a party in town, Miss Hester Harper and her young companion Katherine are driving home too fast when they accidentally hit a creature on the farm track. They dispose of the body by pushing it down the farm’s unused well, which is covered over with a tin roof.

At this stage in the story the reader does not know whether the body is human or animal. And we do not know why the two women have chosen to keep the incident from the authorities. All we know is that both are frightened, that both are perplexed by what has happened because there’s “never ever anyone along this track”.

Then Jolley does something rather wonderful. Nine pages in, having captured our attention, she shifts the action back to the past and gives us Hester and Katherine’s back story. As an example of how to create suspense in a novel, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that matches this powerful master stroke.

Unconventional relationship

Much of the story focuses on Hester and Katherine’s unconventional, almost symbiotic, relationship. Hester is a wealthy and eccentric middle-aged woman who has inherited the family farm. She’s got a lame leg and uses a walking stick. She’s never married and never had children. She lives very much in the past, recalling travels through Europe with a German nanny, whom she adored, and looks down upon the local townsfolk, thinking their concerns and interests petty and trivial. She’s independent and resents being told what to do.

Shortly before her father’s death, Hester invites 15-year-old Katherine, who grew up in an orphanage, to live at the farm. The decision is an impulsive one, made “partly out of pity and partly from fancy”, but the pair get along well.

She treated Katherine with an affectionate though severe generosity. She did not regard herself as a mother or even as an aunt. She did not attempt to give any name to the relationship. She realised quite quickly that she was possessive.

Later, when Hester goes a bit mad spending money on frivolous things, her financial adviser, Mr Bird, encourages her to rent out the homestead to someone better able to run the farm. Slightly resentful that she’s being told what to do, Hester and Katherine set up home in a little stone cottage on a remote corner of the farm, free from prying eyes and busy bodies.

Living in this rather splendid isolation, the pair become more eccentric and more dependent on one another than ever before. They pass their time playing silly games, listening to music, cooking, gardening, dancing, knitting and doing embroidery. They are happy.

But reality soon intrudes when Hester realises her status in the local community — as a fine, upstanding woman running a successful farm — is on the slide. She continues to cling to money — and to spend it — when her resources can no longer support the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed.

And then, when locals begin commenting on Katherine’s vitality and marriageability, Hester’s possessiveness kicks into overdrive. She does not want to lose “ownership” of the young woman she loves so much. The impending visit of one of Katherine’s friends from her orphanage days also threatens Hester’s sense of proprietary.

Collision course

This all comes to a head, of course, when the pair collide with the mysterious creature on the farm track in the opening pages of this book. Hester’s decision to hide the body in the well represents a major shift in the relationship between her and Katherine, which slowly disintegrates over the days and weeks that follow.

Their individual reactions are telling: Katherine, a hopeless romantic, believes she’s going to marry and live happily ever after with the creature trapped in the well; Hester, who does not want Katherine to get married and leave her, takes to her bed with a crippling migraine, dreaming up ways to save their relationship.

The Well is ultimately a dark book about holding on to love at any cost. I really loved the strange, otherworldly nature of it, and Jolley’s carefully understated commentary on women’s lives, companionship, desire and the disparity between the landed gentry, common townfolk and the impoverished.

This is my first book for #20booksofsummerI bought it several years ago, but I’m not sure where I bought it. I think it was when Blackwell’s on Charing Cross had a closing down sale, but it could have also been on one of my trips back to Australia. I just know I purchased it because I love Penguin Modern Classics and it’s so rare to see an Australian author in this series.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2018

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Evan S. Connell, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell

Mr Bridge

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 304 pages; 2013.

First published in 1969, Mr Bridge is a companion novel to Mrs Bridge, which was published a decade earlier.

I read and reviewed Mrs Bridge in 2013 and loved the way it told the quietly understated story of one woman’s married life in Kansas City largely before the Second World War. Mr Bridge tells the story from the husband’s perspective.

Unconventional novel

Like its predecessor, Mr Bridge is not a conventional novel. Yes, there is an overarching narrative — that of one man’s life moving forward from the beginning of his marriage through to his children becoming adults and forging lives of their own — but it’s told in an episodic style in brief, self-contained chapters, each one almost a short story in their own right.

There’s no real plot, apart from Mr Bridge and his family growing older, and the setting is purely domestic: think suburban America in the 1930s and 40s. It is, essentially, a portrait of a financially successful man who’s emotionally stunted, unable to fully connect with his wife or their children on any truly meaningful level and leading a fairly safe, yet dreary, life.

What makes the story so poignant (and perhaps frustrating) is that Walter Bridge lacks self-awareness: he has no real knowledge that his obsession with doing “the right thing” and shunning risks of any kind makes him an entirely dull and boring man. He’s a good provider, yes, but he never gives into frivolity or spontaneity and lives his whole life by a strict moral code where joy simply does not exist. The most excitement he can ever muster is giving his children stock certificates for Christmas, which he immediately takes back to manage for them.

Prejudices from another era

In his world of white male privilege, he does not think black people should go to college, fails to see the benefit of his daughters gaining an education when they’re simply going to be married off, and believes his wife is happy because she has all the material comforts for which she could wish.

The thing is Mr Bridge is not a bad person. He’s kind and often charitable. He wants the best for his children. And he works hard. But he never sees the room for self-improvement. Even when a friend of his wife tells him he’s an odd man, he doesn’t quite get it:

“You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,” she said. “I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock, where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?”
“I’d have to think about it,” he smiled, and picked up the menu. “What do you recommend?”

Perhaps the crunch comes right at the end, when Mr Bridge’s past actions come home to roost: his older daughter plans to marry an impoverished student he does not approve of; his son wants to join the military against his advice; and his long-serving secretary breaks down when she realises he takes her entirely for granted. And then, dragged to church by his wife to celebrate Christmas, he reflects that he has not known joy and that it is, in fact, beneath him.

He remembered [feeling] enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.

This is my 15th (and final) book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying it, but I do know that it was at the same time as I bought Mrs Bridge, so it’s been sitting on my shelves for at least four years.

20 books of summer (2017), Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Yasunari Kawabata

‘Snow Country’ by Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 121 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker.

Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first Japanese novelist to do so. His best known work is probably A Thousand Cranes, published in 1952. Snow Country came later — in 1956.  It tells the story of a doomed love affair between a city man and a rural geisha, and is widely regarded as a classic of Japanese literature.

Annual holiday in the “snow country”

Shimamura is a married man who travels to the remote mountain hot springs of western Japan every year to relax away from his family. It is here that he meets Komako, a young geisha with whom he thinks he has fallen in love.

But their relationship is not straight forward: they come from two different backgrounds. Shimamura is wealthy and cultured; Komako is uneducated and provincial.

It doesn’t help that Shimamura is often distracted by his fascination with Yoko, a young woman he spotted on the train, whom Komako knows. He also lacks commitment and sometimes struggles to cope with Komako’s volatile behaviour.

Komako is a troubled character. As a rural geisha she lacks the social status and the training of her city counterparts. She’s prone to emotional outbursts and spends a lot of time getting drunk.

Right from the outset, it’s clear that their relationship is doomed to failure, but even the ending of this quietly understated novella is more shocking than one might expect.

Evocative and beautiful prose

Written in crisp, clear prose, Snow Country has moments of great lyricism and grace, conveying not only the beauty of the setting but the complex, quietly pained, relationship between these two deeply flawed people.

Occasionally it feels predictable and some of the dialogue is repetitive, but I suspect Kawabata simply wanted to convey the stagnation of the romance, that the couple had become trapped — by circumstance, prejudice and an unwillingness to compromise — and couldn’t find a way forward.

As a result Snow Country evokes a sad, melancholy air, with an undercurrent of foreboding throughout, but on the whole this is a deeply moving story that showcases Japanese traditions and culture against a starkly beautiful landscape — the snow country of the title.

This is my first book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying this book, but it’s been sitting in my pile of Penguin Modern Classics for several years, hence my decision to read it now.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Brazil, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Raduan Nassar, Setting

‘A Cup of Rage’ by Raduan Nassar

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 45 pages; 2015. Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler.

Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage was first published in 1978, but this is a new translation by Stefan Tobler, whom may be familiar to some of you from the independent publisher & Other Stories, and it tells the tale, in just seven chapters, of a bitter, almost violent, argument between two lovers — an older unnamed man and a younger woman — after a night of heated passion at the man’s remote farm house, and is written in such a breathless manner (each chapter is composed of one long sentence, meaning there are just seven sentences in total across the 45 pages that make up this classic novella) that I came to the end in about an hour but then felt I needed to reread it to pick up on all the things I hadn’t processed first time round, and yet it’s not a complicated story to follow, it’s actually quite simple and goes something like this: the man and the woman meet at his house for an evening of erotic sex (you have been warned) but their raunchy rendezvous comes to an abrupt end the next morning when the man erupts into a rage over what appears to be a minor issue unrelated to the woman whom he then verbally attacks when he sees her chatting to his maid (or is she laughing at him?), so the woman retaliates, which is a natural reaction, and then the full extent of the man’s latent rage is rained down upon her, but she gives as good as she gets because she can’t let anything go (and why should she?), and then, when things reach a climax, the man’s rage morphs into sexual teasing, which excites the woman, who then discovers the man’s motives aren’t as obvious as she first thought, and by the time the story ends you realise this is a misogynistic tale about power, domination, cruelty and desire, one that leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, but which demonstrates that even the most experimental of fiction can be just as compelling and intriguing and as deeply unsettling as the most conventional of psychological dramas, and I would recommend reading it if you are looking for something challenging and different, but don’t expect to like it — I kind of hated it but admired the style and respected Nassar’s bravura enough to want to read more by him.

1001 books, Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classic; 169 pages; 2003. Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies.

How people bridge two diverse cultures, the impact of colonisation on Africa by the British, and the ways in which women are treated in both the East and West, are the main subjects of this Arabic language book, which was first published in 1966 as Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal. Banned in the novelist’s native Sudan for many years, it was translated into English in 1969, named as  “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001 and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

I read it as part of #DiverseDecember and found myself completely drawn into the story of a Sudanese man,  Mustafa Sa’eed, an intellectual prodigy courted by aristocrats and intellectuals alike, who loses all sense of decorum when he moves to London (after being educated in Cairo)  in the 1920s. After committing a string of appalling crimes and serving a sentence for murder, he returns to the Sudan to lead a quiet, understated life with a wife and two young sons in a remote village by the Nile, in the hope that he can start afresh where no one knows his past history.

But when a young man from the same village returns home after many years living in London and befriends him, Mustafa can’t help but tell him about his exploits in the West. What follows is a no-holds barred confession about a life of sexual decadence, a tale which is, by turns, compelling, shocking — and powerful.

An arrogant man’s tale

The story is narrated by the young unnamed man who befriends Mustafa, but large chunks of it are told in Mustafa’s arrogant and conceited voice. Occasionally we meet other characters — many of whom are distinctive, if slightly two-dimensional — such as Wad Rayyes, the old man with a huge sexual appetite, and Bint Majzoub, an old uninhibited woman who smokes, drinks and swears “like a man”.

The prose style is crisp, clear, concise, but there’s a poetical beauty to it, too. The author is particularly good at scene setting, so you feel very much as if you are there, living in the village on the banks of the Nile:

I wandered off into the narrow winding lanes of the village, my face touched by the cold night breezes that blow in heavy with dew from the north, heavy too with the scent of acacia blossom and animal dung, the scent of earth that has just been irrigated after the thirst of days, and the scent of half-ripe corn cobs and the aroma of lemon trees. The village was as usual silent at that hour of the night except for the puttering of the water pump on the bank, the occasional barking of a dog, and the crowing of a lone cock who presently sensed the arrival of dawn and the answering crow of another.

Compelling read

Season of Migration to the North is one of those rare books that is quick and easy to read but is so ripe with meaning and metaphor that I could never possibly unpick it without reading it several times over. Indeed, I raced through it in a matter of hours, so I am positive much of the subtle nuances about colonisation and the differences between Arab-African and European cultures went over my head. That said, some elements did feel dated: an Arab man wreaking his vengeance on the West by simply sleeping with promiscuous women, for instance, appears relatively tame by today’s standards.

But what did jump out at me was the sexual violence that characterises women’s lives, whether living in the West in the 1920s, or the East in the 1960s, and which runs like a menacing undercurrent through the entire narrative. (Mind you, the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic.)

In fact, the book has a menacing tone throughout, the kind of tone that gets under the skin and leaves the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable, as though you’ve been given a seat at a dining table with the devil. This all-pervasive feeling comes to a head at the climax of the novel, which is rather gruesome and bloody but entirely memorable. This is not a fun read, but an important and powerful one.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Schneider, Publisher, Setting

‘The Wall Jumper’ by Peter Schneider

The-wall-jumper

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 139 pages; 2005. Translated from the German by Leigh Hafrey.

One of the seminal events in my life was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was 20 years old at the time, but I can still remember watching the live coverage on TV from my living room in Australia with a mixture of joy, fascination and unbridled optimism for the future.

Peter Schneider’s classic German novel, The Wall Jumper, which was penned in 1982, provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin life before the wall came down.

Life in a divided city

The book follows the lives of a handful of East Berliners who move to the West: Robert, who misses the rigid predictability of his previous life; Pommerer, who spends his time trying to outwit the system; Lena, a woman infected by suspicion and paranoia; and the unnamed narrator, who spends quite a lot of time crossing the border to visit family and friends.

The best time to cross the border at Heirich Heine Strasse is between twelve and two in the afternoon. The checkpoint is almost empty: just one other traveler, with a shepherd dog on a leash, waits under the loudspeaker for his number to be called. I could simply drive up to the shed from which a border official will soon emerge to hand me my numbered ticket. But I know the consequences of crossing the white line unasked: the officer, even if he is there and ready, will wave me back and make me wait until he gives me a sign. I can’t follow impulse: I have to wait for his beckoning hand, and I can’t afford to miss it. The message in this ritual is clear and seems deliberate: I am entering a state where even things that will happen anyway require authorisation.

Much of the book revolves around the narrator collecting stories of people “jumping the wall”, which are told anecdotal style in this plot-free narrative. Many of these anecdotes show the ingenious (and sometimes hilarious) lengths people will go to, the risks they will take, to outwit the system and cross the border — and the absurdity of having to risks their lives to jump through such hoops.

The author’s overall message seems to be that even with the wall removed, there would still be divisions between east and west, because it is difficult for people to ignore the way they are raised and the political values to which their society subscribes. Or, as the narrator puts it:

Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us. If I insist on majorities as instinctively as Pommerer distrusts them, it is because we have been equally receptive sons of the system that has brought us up.

Such ingrained attitudes become apparent when both of them witness a violent protest in the street one day: the narrator thinks the protest is purely an act of spontaneity; Pommerer believes it is a set-up by police designed to give them reason to prevent a real protest at a later date.

Heavy read

The Wall Jumper’s short length might suggest it’s a quick read, but it is actually quite heavy going, seeing as it explores many big issues — freedom, repression, the line between the state and the self, propaganda and politics, capitalism and communism, to name but a few — and does so in a dry, authoritative style, occasionally lightened by humour.  Indeed, I had to double-check this wasn’t a non-fiction book when I began it, because it feels like reportage or long-form journalism.

But as a slice of fictionalised history it does an important job of showing how people lived their lives in the shadow of the Cold War’s most tangible symbol.

Author, Book review, Evan S. Connell, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Mrs Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell

Mrs-Bridge

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 187 pages; 2012.

Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge is one of those delightful books that is a joy to read from start to finish.

First published in 1959 and set largely before the Second World War, it is not a conventional book by any stretch of the imagination — indeed, it breaks every rule in the novel-writing book: there’s no real plot, the structure is episodic, the female character is nice but bland, and the setting is purely domestic. Yet there’s something about the simplicity of the story and its depiction of universal truths that makes it especially appealing.

The book basically charts Mrs Bridge’s married life — her wedding, motherhood, middle-age and then widowhood — in short, but beautifully controlled and sensitively written, chapters (some of them are only a page long).

Nothing of great importance happens in these vignettes, but they highlight Mrs Bridge’s kindness, her naivety, her desire to please others, her attitudes on race and class, and her constant inability to understand her three children — particularly her youngest, Douglas, whose every action seems to puzzle her.

Domestic goddess

As you progress through the book you come to realise that Mrs Bridge is the quintessential housewife and mother, putting her family’s needs before her own, as women of that time were wont to do. But as her life moves on in relentless fashion, she begins to experience a rather niggling feeling — that perhaps there is more to life than domestic drudgery. (Though I should point out Mrs Bridge’s version of drudgery doesn’t stretch much beyond writing grocery lists and doing the odd bit of cooking — she has domestic help to do all the rest.)

But in her attempts to fill the days that yawn before her with all manner of “hobbies” — bridge, shopping, visits to the country club, driving her expensive car, she even takes art classes at one point — she can never quite sustain the motivation to take these activities all that seriously. Indeed, she approaches everything half-heartedly, almost as if she knows there’s no real point in devoting too much time and effort into something that her husband will think trivial or silly.

At one point, she considers going to a therapist, as many of her friends are doing, only to have Mr Bridge, a busy lawyer, poo-poo the idea.

A sad but funny read

This might make the book sound a little dull and serious, but it’s actually a delightfully funny read. The humour works because Mrs Bridge seems constantly perplexed by things or fails to comprehend situations or conversations. It’s not that she’s dumb; she’s just a little unsophisticated in the ways of the world.

Of course, it is also a sad read, because you see the lost opportunities and the failed connections, even if Mrs Bridge doesn’t.

I’m now looking forward to reading Mr Bridge, published 10 years later, that tells the husband’s side of the story.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Robertson Davies, Setting

‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies

Fifth-Business

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 272 pages; 2005.

First published in 1970, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business is a Canadian literature classic and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It is the first volume of the Deptford Trilogy, but can be read as a standalone novel. The title refers to the idea of a person being neither hero or heroine, confidante nor villain, but still being a vital part of a plot — without them the denouement or resolution would not happen. And that is the perfect description of the role with which our narrator, Dunstan “Dunny” Ramsay, fulfills — he is the “fifth business”.

A seminal moment

The novel opens by recounting a rather compelling and ultimately seminal moment in Dunny’s life:  It is “5:58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908” and he is “ten years and seven months old”. He is returning from a sledding adventure with his friend (and occasional enemy) Percy Boyd Staunton and snowballs are being thrown. Hidden in one of the snowballs is a stone.

Percy throws this dangerous snowball at Dunny, who ducks to avoid it, and it hits a woman, walking nearby, on the back of the head. She cries out and then collapses to the ground. Her name is Mrs Mary Dempster and she is out taking a stroll with her husband, the local Baptist minister. They do not see who threw the snowball — no accusations or confessions are made — but Dunny is plagued by guilt because of two shocking outcomes: Mrs Dempster is pregnant and the fall results in her baby being born prematurely; she also spends the rest of her life as a “simpleton”.

From this one incident, Dunny finds himself forever tied to three people: Percy, who threw the stone; Mrs Dempster, who he helped carry home on his sled; and Paul, the premature baby, who grows up to become one of the world’s leading illusionists.

The bigger picture

From this exciting start, the book suddenly expands into a wider view as we learn that Dunny is now in his early 70s and has recently retired as a teacher. In fact, what we are reading is a report to a headmaster in response to an “idiotic piece that appeared in the College Chronicle in the issue of midsummer 1969″. It seems Dunny did not appreciate the portrait of himself and wishes to correct the impression that he is “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose”.

But what most galls me is the patronizing, dismissive tone of the piece,
as if I had never had a life outside the classroom, had never risen to the
full stature of a man, had never rejoiced or sorrowed or known love or
hate…

The rest of the novel fills in the gaps by telling the story of Dunny’s life. And he is right — if you can forgive the slight snobbery in his voice and his often hard-hearted tone (he feels no emotion on the death of his parents, for instance) — Dunny has done much more and experienced much more than the drab biography of him in the newspaper might suggest. Not only has he devoted 45 years of his life to teaching boys in a private school in Toronto and become a decorated war hero (the latter a point of embarrassment rather than pride), he has developed an interesting sideline as a hagiologist (a specialist in saints) and sold 10 books on the subject, some of them to extraordinary best-selling success.

He has travelled the world, not only as a soldier in the Great War — in which he was “frightened for three years”, mistakenly thought dead on the battlefield and awarded the VC “posthumously” — but in pursuit of knowledge about the saints he finds so fascinating.

Along the way he has fallen in love with various women — his affairs are recounted in the narrative — but has never been able to commit to any one in particular, except perhaps Mrs Dempster, who he comes to believe is a religious saint after he sees her face on a Madonna in a church he seeks refuge in during the height of the war.

And he has kept in contact with Percy, almost his polar opposite, who becomes a very rich man focused on material gain, and constantly runs into Paul, who reinvents himself under another name to become a magician renowned around the world.

Problematic novel

I have to be honest and say I thought The Fifth Business a rather hit-and-miss affair, which may partly explain why it has taken me so long to pen this review (I finished the book in late January). I think there are two factors at play here.

First, because the narrative is essentially composed of a series of set pieces and “chapters” in Dunny’s life, the interest level (or entertainment value, for want of a better description) was not consistent throughout.  I enjoyed the early parts of Dunny’s life and I loved his experiences during the Great War and in the immediate aftermath, but for me other parts waned and when I put the book down I struggled to pick it back up again.

And second, I found the way in which all the women were depicted as problematic — and chauvinistic. I realise that is probably a reflection of the time in which the book was set (and written), but Dunny’s treatment of all the women who come into his life is so reprehensible (or alien) that I did not find him particularly empathetic. He cannot understand his mother (and feels nothing upon her death), he puts Mrs Dempster on a pedestal, and he treats the nurse who falls in love with him during the war very badly indeed. The girl waiting for him at home is portrayed as empty-headed and husband-hungry, and another woman he meets in later life comes across as a vicious manipulator. They are all desperate and needy.

That said, I loved the eyewitness view of history presented here and being able to follow the way in which people’s lives play out — Percy’s rise to riches and Dunny’s complicated friendship with him is one of the novel’s highlights. Similarly, Davies’ portrayal of small town Canadian life, where alliances are forged depending on which church you attend, and how communities can band together (or pull apart) at times of need, is deftly portrayed. And its exploration of moral responsibility, the ties that bind us to people and places, and our diametrically opposed hunger for new experiences and the comforts of home, makes it a high-quality read.

But I think it is fair to say I didn’t love Fifth Business enough to want to explore the two follow-up novels, The Manticore and World of Wonders. Others may feel differently.