20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘England, Your England: Notes on a Nation’ by George Orwell

Non-fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 188 pages; 2021.

George Orwell’s England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a collection of five essays brought together in one volume published by Pushkin Press last year.

The subjects covered are incredibly varied but all share a common theme: English life and culture in all its peculiarities.

The essays were penned between 1931 and 1946 and showcase Orwell’s gift for observation and his masterful ability to convey the political machinations that underpin society. And everything is written in his distinctive pared-back prose style that makes it an effortless read.

Essays one and two

The first essay, Decline of the English Murder, is an almost satirical look at the tabloid press’s obsession with true crime reportage, and reading it now, more than 75 years later, not much seems to have changed.

[…] one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer would be a little man of the professional class —  a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.

In Shooting an Elephant, he reveals his personal experience in the early 1920s when, as a policeman in Burma — then a province of British India — he was required to shoot a rampaging elephant.

He made the decision to play the hero as a way of proving himself to the locals, who had taken against him, even though he did not want to shoot the animal because he was squeamish and regarded it as murder. He has an alarming sense of self-awareness:

Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece, but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Essay three

Perhaps the most interesting essay, or at least the one that is most shocking (to this reader anyway), is Down the Mine, a look at what it was like to be a coal miner deep underground in the 1930s.

Orwell’s first-person piece, which first appeared in his book The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937), details the hardships and sheer grunt work the men do in dangerous, claustrophobic conditions in tunnels so small they cannot even stand up to wield their picks and shovels.

He marvels at the speed at which they do their work — shifting coal at around two tons an hour — and is amazed by the idea they often have to walk, or crawl, more than a mile underground to reach the coal face.

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

Essay four

The grim theme continues in The Spike, which is about life inside a workhouse. In this 1931 essay (which you can read in full online at The Orwell Foundation website), Orwell details an overnight stay when he was deliberately living as a vagrant as part of his studies for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Acting as a passive observer, he paints pen portraits of the men that eat and sleep there and contrasts life inside the institution — dank, depressing, grim — with life outside, on the road, where “the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky”.

He explains how the men are given a bath, a medical inspection, a bed to sleep in for the night and an enormous meal, but are then thrown back out onto the street and left to fend for themselves once again. In between, they are locked up inside, denied their tobacco and forced to talk to one another to pass the time.

It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.

The masterpiece essay

The book culminates with Orwell’s three-part essay on English socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn, which was first published in 1941 and outlines his opinions on the Second World War and the role that Britain was playing in it at the time.

His analysis of the British character, the class system and Empire seems remarkably on point more than 80 years later, particularly in light of Brexit and the political shenanigans currently happening in the UK.

I underlined so many pertinent sentences and paragraphs and, indeed, entire pages, that I couldn’t possibly summarise or review this essay in any meaningful or articulate way. Instead, let me share some of my favourite quotes:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.

Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled by largely the old and silly.

I could go on… but I won’t.

England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a gem of a collection: forthright, thought-provoking and an astute observation of English life from another generation but one that still resonates today.

This is my 8th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from the independent book store Crow Books here in Perth last Christmas using some money I was given by Mr Reading Matters to treat myself to “books and beer”! I love the look and feel of this Pushkin Press edition. There’s a second one in the set, “Inside the Whale: On Writers and Writing”, that I now need to hunt out.

20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Madeleine Watts, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Pushkin; 256 pages; 2021.

Madeleine Watts’ debut novel, The Inland Sea, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s yet another (fashionable) coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman grappling with the complexities of the modern world — think Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Niamh Campbell, Sophie Hardcastle et al —albeit with a distinctive Australian twist.

This one marries personal accountability with ecological disaster, misogyny and sexual agency.

There are recurrent themes about the foolishness of colonial exploration (in search of the rumoured inland sea, hence the book’s title) and uses the mining and exploitation of the Australian landscape as a metaphor for the ways in which women continue to be dominated and used. Which is a roundabout way of saying this is not a novel about navel-gazing: it looks at the bigger picture and puts the central character’s life into a societal and historical context — and is all the more rewarding for it.

Life in a call centre

Set in Sydney, The Inland Sea charts a year in the life of an unnamed narrator with red hair who is striking out on her own after graduating from university. She takes a job as an emergency call dispatcher — “Emergency, police, fire or ambulance?” — and discovers that the outside world is a very dangerous place. She puts emergency calls through to the relevant first responders for everything from domestic violence incidents to car accidents, bush fires to heart attacks.

I had always been told that cars were more dangerous than planes, and had never really taken the idea seriously, but the first weeks at Triple Zero taught me to reconsider their dangers. Cars flipped over. They started smoking. They ran down children. They veered off the road, they smashed through houses in the middle of the night. They poisoned their passengers. I did not know how to drive, but if I had, I would have stopped. The calls made me walk along footpaths as far away from the road as I possibly could.

Her own life is full of emergencies, too, including, but not limited to, an unplanned pregnancy, chlamydia, anemia, low liver function and a tendency to blackout from drinking too much alcohol. Against her better judgement, she is also sleeping around and having a rather lust-filled affair with the boyfriend of a friend, and part of her hopes they are discovered, if only so things are out in the open.

A climate emergency

This tendency towards self-destructive behaviour is told in parallel with an ecological emergency that is unfolding in Australia — extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, there are bushfires raging and even an earthquake.

The news said that January was of hottest-ever days and broken records, 123 by the end of the season. Some days, the heat was so powerful that people died simply sitting in their own homes. The newspapers had started calling it the “Angry Summer”.

And further to this, terrible things are happening to women. There are references to notorious murders, including Gillian Meagher, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a pub in Melbourne in 2012, and the narrator is becoming increasingly aware of the sheer number of domestic violence incidents she must respond to in her call centre job.

This dovetails seamlessly with her own experience of domestic violence as a child. While the reader is spared any specific detail, we get an overall picture of her mother living in fear of her husband and then taking drastic steps to whisk away her daughter to a place of safety, of her father being unhappy about it and then moving south to Melbourne, rarely to be seen again.

Life on the edge

While the book doesn’t have a strong plot, it sustains interest through the narrator’s experiences, her tendency to live life on the edge, her seeming inability to take care of herself and flashbacks to her childhood. Interleaved with this very personal storyline, are anecdotes about John Oxley, a 19th-century colonial explorer, who went in search of an interior body of water but never found it, which adds interest. Occasionally, some aspects — about history, ecology and news events — do feel a bit shoehorned in, but this is a minor criticism.

On the whole, The Inland Sea is an eloquently written story about finding refuge in a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe, one that highlights the chaos and fear around us, but demonstrates that we all need to take personal responsibility for our own actions and our own safety. It’s a powerful read.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2021 and my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it shortly after it was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award because it sounded like something I would enjoy.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Marta Orriols, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR 21

‘Learning to Talk to Plants’ by Marta Orriols

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 251 pages; 2020. Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Marta Orriols’ Learning to Talk to Plants is an age-old story about a woman grieving the untimely death of her long-time partner, only there’s a crucial twist — just hours before he dies in a cycling accident, he announces that he is leaving her for someone else.

Paula, the central character, is a neonatologist, a doctor who specialises in the care of newborn babies, particularly those who are ill or born prematurely. She works in a busy hospital in Barcelona and spends more time with her colleagues than her partner, Mauro, who works in book publishing.

She is unaware that Mauro is pursuing an affair, so his admission, at a carefully arranged dinner, is a shock. That shock is only superseded when he is killed cycling home just a few hours later. Her grief is compounded by the fact that she keeps Mauro’s desertion to herself; to tell family that he had left her would only tarnish their well-held opinion of him — and she refuses to do that.

The novel charts the ways in which 40-something Paula tries to make sense of her new reality. She throws herself into work, pursues a love affair with a beguiling stranger she met in Amsterdam, and grows closer to her beloved father who raised her singlehandedly after the untimely death of her mother.

But as she navigates this new existence, she is plagued by thoughts of Mauro. Why did he find it necessary to seek love elsewhere? And who was the woman that captured his heart?

Prize-winning novel

This intelligent and introspective novel won the Omnium Cultural Prize for Best Catalan novel in 2018 and was translated into English last year.

I found it a little uneven in terms of pacing, and the style is similarly patchy, with some elements written in eloquent, deeply thoughtful prose and others reading like a (high-brow) romance novel.

But the story is a good twist on the “grief novel” — one largely focused on a character coming to terms with the death of a loved one — and explores all kinds of issues, including love, trust, betrayal and loyalty. It’s also a story about family and how we are shaped by our childhood experiences.

And it’s full of metaphors — the babies that Paula saves at work, for instance, not only add meaning to her life, they represent all the children she, herself, never got to have with Mauro. Similarly, when all the plants that Mauro grew begin to die, she does her utmost to rescue them, because they are the last living link with the man she never really knew.

Learning to Talk to Plants is an honest portrayal of grief and charts some dark moments. But it’s also blackly humorous in places and never suffocates under its own melancholic sense of sadness. There’s plenty of rage here too — at the injustice of being “widowed” when all you want to do is kill the man who’s left you!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan: A fast-paced novel written from the perspective of the other woman whose lover dies after a three-year illicit relationship.

This is my 14th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last year mainly because I am interested in reading more Catalan fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cambodia, Fiction, Peter Fröberg Idling, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, TBR40

‘Song for an Approaching Storm’ by Peter Fröberg Idling

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 336 pages; 2015. Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling’s Song for an Approaching Storm is set in Cambodia in the summer of 1955. It tells the story of a complicated love triangle between two political rivals and a beauty queen, but it’s also a powerful evocation of a country at a pivotal point in its history: its first ever democratic elections following independence.

First, some (brief) history to put the story in context. The Kingdom of Cambodia was granted independence (from France) in 1954 following the Geneva Conference, which was designed to settle issues resulting from the Korean War and the First Indochina War. The following year, in early 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated, in favour of his father, so that he could found the Popular Socialist Community Party (commonly known as the Sangkum). This would ensure Cambodia remained a constitutional monarchy (modelled on the UK system) and would rival the left-leaning Democratic Party, which was pro-independence and sought to abolish the monarchy and set up a republic.

The election campaign, which preceded the country’s first democratic election after independence in September 1955, was marred by violence and bloodshed as rival parties fought to be elected to a 91-member National Assembly. The prince’s party won all 91 seats.

Three characters, three narratives

When Song for an Approaching Storm opens there’s just one month remaining in the election campaign. The novel, which spans the 30 or so days leading up to the actual poll, is divided into three parts and each part is told from the point-of-view of a different character.

In part one, Sar is leading a double life as a well-respected school teacher who is officially campaigning for the opposition, but behind the scenes he’s helping an armed Communist network that seeks to take over the Government. He’s engaged to Somaly, a striking young woman who won the Miss Cambodia beauty contest, but their relationship is unravelling and he’s not sure what to do about it. Some 20 years later he will reinvent himself as Pol Pot, the leader of the deadly Khmer Rouge.

In part two, we meet Sary, the ruthless deputy prime minister who is a close ally of the prince and is hell-bent on ensuring that his party stays in power at whatever cost necessary. He’s married with children, but that doesn’t stop him pursuing Somaly who becomes his lover.

And in the final part, we hear from Somaly herself and discover her affection for both men and her deep desire to be independent in a restrictive society that imposes strict rules on a woman’s behaviour and lifestyle.

Love story wrapped up in a riveting political thriller 

As a love story, Song for an Approaching Storm is a fascinating read, but as a political thriller — complete with betrayals, bitter rivalries, house arrests and murder — it is absolutely gripping. Told in rich, languid language, albeit in short, fragmentary sentences (all beautifully translated by Peter Graves), it almost reads like poetry.

Admittedly the first part, told entirely in the second person, is a challenging read and there were a couple of times that I considered abandoning the book because I couldn’t get a handle on it. But by part two, which is told in the more comprehensible third person, the story really came alive for me and I ate up the remainder  in two (longish) sittings because I was anxious to discover what would happen next.

It’s perfectly paced and totally assured. Fröberg Idling is fully in charge of his subject matter. By contrasting the lavish cocktail parties of the elite with the poverty-stricken lives of the peasant underclass, he’s able to paint a richly atmospheric tale based on real people and real events. As a compelling fictionalised account of Pol Pot’s lives and loves, it’s a story I won’t forget in a hurry…

This is my 4th book for #TBR40. I purchased it late last year in preparation for a week-long trip to Cambodia (I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap between 20-27 January 2019) because I always love to read books set in the places I’m about to visit / have visited. It certainly helped my comprehension of this story by knowing a brief history of Cambodia, which I learned during my travels, and of seeing some of the places mentioned in this book.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Emma Viskic, Fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘Resurrection Bay’ by Emma Viskic

Resurrection Bay

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin (Vertigo); 304 pages; 2018.

Emma Viskic’s debut novel, Resurrection Bay, is an unconventional slice of noir set in Melbourne, Australia.

It’s unconventional because the main character, Caleb Zelic, is profoundly deaf but is such a skilled lip reader that few people realise his inability to hear.

It’s also unconventional because it’s not a police procedural as such: when Caleb’s childhood friend, a senior constable, is brutally murdered, he’s determined to track down the killer.

He carries out an investigation via the private security firm he runs with his business partner Frankie, a former police detective, who is battling a secret dependence on alcohol.

Their work is fast-paced — and dangerous. It swings between the city and Resurrection Bay, Caleb’s home town on the coast, and involves a shady cast of characters, including corrupt cops, thugs and innocent people caught up in a web of lies and secrets.

A deftly plotted page turner

Resurrection Bay is a truly original story. It’s incredibly well plotted and full of twists and turns, but it’s so fast-paced it left me feeling breathless in places.

But it’s also very violent. There’s a lot of death and a lot of brutality, perhaps a little too much for my liking.

Yet it’s not without gentleness, for Caleb is nursing a broken heart and is still getting over his marriage break up with Kat, an aboriginal artist, who is unwittingly caught up in Caleb and Frankie’s investigation.

If I was to fault the story it would be that sometimes it feels unrealistic, but this is a minor quibble, because the tale is so gripping it hardly matters.

Caleb, of course, is the star of the show, a convincing protagonist, appealing and likeable. And the twist at the end caught me off guard, which is always the sign of a great crime thriller.

Resurrection Bay has been shortlisted for two prestigious CWA awards — the Gold Dagger and the New Blood Dagger — but it’s also won a slew of awards in Australia, including the Ned Kelly Best Debut and iBooks Australia Best Crime Novel.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2018 and my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it when it came out in paperback earlier this year because I’d heard good things about it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Machi Tawara, Poetry, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara

Salad Days

Poetry – paperback; Pushkin Press; 141 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I don’t normally review poetry — and that’s for a very good reason: I very rarely read it. But when this delightful-looking collection popped through my letterbox unannounced late last year I couldn’t resist putting it on my bedside table to read when the mood struck me. Now seemed a good a time as any, especially as it tied in nicely with Tony Malone’s “January in Japan” J-Lit month.

Tanka poetry

Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 and within the first six months it had sold 2.5 million copies in Japan alone. According to the press release that came with this newly reprinted edition, it has now sold 9 million copies worldwide. How’s that for an impressive figure?

And I can see why it’s so popular: these poems (there’s 15 in total) slip down like hot chocolate. They’re all rather sweet and easy to read, brimming with life, energy and wit, yet there’s something rather soothing about them, too. That’s probably because of the way they are structured, for these poems are technically called “Tanka”, an ancient Japanese form of poetry in which each poem traditionally comprises 31 syllables arranged over five lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (You can read more about this genre of poetry on Wikipedia and see an easy example here.)

However, in the Afterword, the translator explains that not all of the poems follow the strict 5-7-5-7-7 format and that they are almost always written in a single line in Japanese. In this English translation most of the poems are structured over three lines and read more like Haiku (17 syllables over three lines following a 5-7-5 pattern). But this is all by the by: you don’t read this collection to quibble over syllable counts and the number of lines; you read it to be transported into another world.

An ordinary world told in an extraordinary way

And what a world Tawara creates. There are many recurring themes, often revolving around romantic love, cooking, travel and the weather, but the main overriding theme is the ordinariness in our day-to-day lives. The irony is that she writes about it in a far from ordinary way.

Ordinary conversations, ordinary smiles—
the ordinariness of home
is what I like best
[From the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self”]

And

“Be an ordinary girl”
Listening, I munch
on spicy-hot snacks
[From the poem “So, Good Luck”]

The language throughout feels fresh and contemporary, despite the fact the poems are almost 30 years old now. Perhaps it helps that the poet was just 26 when she wrote them — she has a young mindset and her thoughts continually turn to what it must be like to be in love and to find someone to share your life with. (At the time of writing, the translator tell us, Tawara was single.)

There’s also an all-pervasisve feeling of a young woman torn between discovering the world, leading her own life and yet not wanting to leave her comfortable upbringing. She captures the bittersweet nature of this in the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self” oh-so perfectly:

The day I left home, Dad muttering
not “So you’re off”
but “So you’re leaving us”
The day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years
of separation ahead

Fukui Station, where I left Mother
with a light “See you, then”—
as if going shopping

But my favourite poem in the collection is “Summertime Ship” which evokes all the joy and other-worldliness of travelling by ship to China, where she wanders the “lively, glittering Shanghai streets / crammed with bicycles and men at work”.  On her journey she drinks Tsing Tao beer, cruises the “milk caramel” Yangtze River, buys souvenirs in Luoyang and goes to Xi’an to see:

Hundred upon hundreds of figures
in the terracotta army—
their thoughts sleep standing

Hypnotic sequences

If you haven’t already guessed, I really enjoyed my exploration of an unfamiliar art form. Even if you are not a poetry fan — and I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as one — it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Tawara’s way of seeing and depicting the world. I loved reading these tanka poems over the space of a fortnight — one a night before turning out the light — and felt the cares of the day being washed away by their hypnotic rhythm and gorgeous language.

Salad Anniversary won the Association of Modern Poets’ top prize in 1987, and the book’s opening poem, “August Morning”, won the coveted Kadokawa Tanka Prize.

Finally, the book would make a gorgeous gift. It’s smaller than your normal-sized novel (it measures 12cm x 16.5cm), has French flaps and the cover paper stock has a textural feel to it and is printed with ink that captures the light so it sparkles. The artwork is by Mio Matsumoto, a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, who is an illustrator based in Tokyo. Her official website is here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Monte Carlo, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, Stefan Zweig

‘Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman’ by Stefan Zweig

Twenty-four-hours-in-the-life-of-a-woman

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 100 pages; 2003. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

Stefan Zweig, an Austrian-born author who died in an apparent double suicide pact with his wife in 1942, is one of those authors that bloggers champion — and with good reason. He writes beautifully framed stories, often about thwarted passion, and this novella, first published in 1927, is typical of his ability to get inside a woman’s head.

A scandal in a small hotel

The story begins in a small hotel on the French riviera, where holiday-makers from across Europe are staying, “ten years before the war”. The guests are scandalised when Madame Henriette, a married French woman, runs off with a younger man, leaving her wealthy husband and two daughters behind, seemingly on a passion-fuelled whim.

This scandalous event acts as a catalyst for another guest, Mrs C, a distinguished 67-year-old woman from England, to recall a similar incident from her past. She decides to unburden herself to our narrator, a nameless man, because she realises he will have a sympathetic ear.

She comes to this conclusion because she heard him defend Madame Henriette in a rather heated dinner party conversation. He said it was highly probable for a woman in a “tedious, disappointing marriage” to want to “take some decisive action” and that he thought it “more honorable for a woman to follow her instincts freely and passionately than to betray her husband in his own arms, with her eyes closed, as so many did”.

A compelling confession

Mrs C obviously appreciates this non-judgemental — and refreshing — take on a woman’s desire and invites our narrator to her hotel room, where she tells him, in great detail, about a day that changed her life some 24 years earlier. It is her confession which forms the substance of this strangely mesmerising book.

In her early 40s, freshly widowed and no longer having to care for her two adult sons who had left home, she takes a solo trip to Monte Carlo. In the casino she spots a handsome young man whom she is compelled to help when he runs from the venue distraught, having lost all of his money, and collapses on a park bench.

Over the course of the next 24 hours she finds herself bewitched by this troubled Polish aristocrat and decides she would give up everything to be with him despite his crippling gambling addiction. Her confession is heart-breaking and, in typical Zweig style, it is recounted with great sensitivity, understanding and compassion.

Impulsive action

Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman reveals how acting on an impulse — whether it be motivated by passion, as per Madame Henriette and Mrs C, or desire for riches, as per the gambling addict — can have far-reaching and life-changing consequences. For a woman in the early 1900s this was especially so: respectability was at stake.

But, it could also be argued, that for men from powerful families, throwing your money out the window had similar ramifications.

In this short tale about obsession, compulsion and following your heart, Zweig delivers an incredibly powerful read.

Antal Szerb, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hungary, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, Venice

‘Journey by Moonlight’ by Antal Szerb

Journey-by-moonlight

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 240 pages; 2010. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.

Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight has been on my wishlist since November 2007 when I spotted it in my local Waterstone’s. At the time I was looking for novels set in Venice, and this one seemed to fit the bill perfectly. So I was delighted when it was chosen as the July read for the book group to which I belong.

Sadly, Venice only plays a minor role in the story, much of which is set in other parts of Italy, including Perugia, Florence and Rome.

It deals with a Hungarian couple, Mihály and Erzsi, who get married following a one-year affair in which Erzsi leaves her husband. By all accounts they should be madly in love, yet the cracks are beginning to show when they go on their honeymoon to Venice. For a start, Mihály, keen to explore the city’s secret alleyways, stays out all night, without telling his new wife. Then, when he meets an old school friend, who is appallingly rude about Erzsi to her face, he gets lost in a world of nostalgia that only serves to strain their relationship further.

Things go from bad to worse when he gets on the wrong train, having disembarked for coffee en route from Florence to Rome, leaving Erzsi behind. I don’t think it is a plot spoiler to say the marriage is effectively over, but it is how both parties deal with the outfall that makes up the bulk of the novel. While most of the narrative follows Mihály’s quest to come to terms with his past, we do get fleeting glimpses of Erzsi’s new life.

Yet the book is frustrating, because the narrative is so uneven, and the (meagre) plot is littered with far too many coincidences to be believable.

But the novel’s strength lies in its intellectual ruminations on death, not just the physical ending of life, but on the loss of youth and how we grieve for past lives and experiences which can never be recaptured. For Mihály, a man from a privileged background, it is almost as if has never learnt to do anything or decide anything for himself; he’s been swept along by other people, including a dominant father, and he has never figured out where he truly belongs, other than in the past, where he felt “alive” amongst his childhood friends, a set of intriguing siblings, Éva and Tamás.

In fact, Mihály might be in his mid-30s but he seems alarmingly adolescent in his inability to grow up and get on with his life. And there are elements of his passivity, his ennui, which suggest to me that he might be suffering from undiagnosed depression.

But lest you think Journey by Moonlight suffers under the weight of its own pretensions, the novel has some comic, often absurd moments. And Szerb, who wrote this book in 1937, isn’t afraid to poke fun at his characters. Indeed, he seems to relish making some of them, such as János, who is accused of being a pick-pocket, a little bit dastardly.

While I cannot pretend to love this book as much as others — the reviews on the blurb from The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement make it sound like a masterpiece — it’s an interesting story about a lost soul trying to find his way in life.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Mexico, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, Stefan Zweig

‘Journey into the Past’ by Stefan Zweig

JourneyintoPast

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 124 pages; 2009. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A few days ago Gav from Next Read asked a pertinent question: What have you read that you wouldn’t if it wasn’t for a blog? I’ll admit I was stumped, because even though I know I have picked up loads of recommendations from fellow book bloggers over the years, nothing jumped immediately to mind. But since then I can quite happily say, Stefan Zweig.

Austrian-born Mr Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942, is one of those authors that crops up on book blogs all the time. I’ve seen countless reviews of his posthumously published novel The Post Office Girl and several references to his novella Chess, also published after his death. And only last week John Self reviewed Zweig’s Amok & other stories which prompted me to confess that I was a Zweig virgin. When I asked which book I should try first, John suggested Chess because “it shows him in full maturity as a writer”, but as it turned out it was Journey into the Past that caught my eye for no other reason than it was the only Zweig book on Foyles’ shelves when I visited on Friday afternoon. (Interestingly enough, Amazon claim that this book isn’t published until Tuesday, although it seems readily available from the Pushkin Press website.)

Journey into the Past is a quick read coming in at just over 100 pages but it’s the kind of story that lingers and I can see how it would be possible to catch the Zweig bug and want to read more of his work. This one has only just been translated into English, although it was published in German as Widerstand der Wirklichkeit (Resistance to Reality) in 1976 from a manuscript discovered 30 years after his death. But, as the translator Anthea Bell tells us in her Afterword, parts of it had been reproduced as early as 1929 in Vienna under the title Fragment of a Novella in an anthology of works by the Austrian National Association of Creative Artists. Even so, this makes it his final novella (unless other discoveries lie in wait) and for that reason you would expect it to be an accomplished piece of writing.

Indeed it is. It’s also very moving and is brim full of lovelorn angst, a perfectly delicious read that, in less masterful hands, may have come across as sentimental old claptrap. What we have is a love story between two opposites — an impoverished but incredibly intelligent young doctor, and a slightly older woman already married to a rich man — whose affair is never fully consummated before Ludwig is sent away and the First World War ruins his plans to return.

But the book starts where it ends: with Ludwig returning to Germany after an absence of nine years to see whether the woman he so passionately loved has waited for him as she once promised.

I’m not going to spoil the ending and tell you what happens, but it’s a near-perfect examination of how we glorify the past and cling onto the flimsiest of memories to move into the future. Or, as the blurb on the back of my book so aptly puts it, Journey into the Past “is a poignant examination of the angst of nostalgia and the fragility of love”. It’s also superbly written and filled with the kind of gentle nuances other novelists would struggle to emulate.