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Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky

Chivers, 2008, 142 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith.

Le Bal cover

The good lady noticed this (very) large print book in a local library. As every Némirovsky I have read so far has been excellent I immediately borrowed it. This is a thin volume with very large print but still contains two novellas.

Le Bal © Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1930.
Catholic Rosine Kampf is a selfish would-be social climber with a less than reputable past. Her husband Alfred (a Jew who converted on marriage) made a sudden killing in currency dealings to transform their fortunes. Rosine now sees this as her time and sets out to exploit it. They have a fourteen year old daughter, Antoinette, who is straining on the verge of adulthood. As her mother does nothing but scold and deride her Antoinette harbours intense feelings of dislike and frustration. All this has ramifications for the ball (Le Bal of the title) Rosine is planning to hold to lever up the Kampfs’ place in society. In a story as short as this characterisation could be problematic but Rosine is well drawn, as is Antoinette, and Alfred shows that greater degree of indulgence fathers often have towards daughters.

Snow in Autumn © Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1931 as Les Mouches d’automne.
This is another of Némirovsky’s tales of Russian émigrés covering the years just before and after the cataclysm of the Revolution. The viewpoint is that of Tatiana Ivanovna, the aristocratic Karine family’s nanny. In a statement redolent of the pre-war times she reminds her employer, “You know very well that cockroaches are a sign of a wealthy household.”
Left behind to look after the house when the older family members fled to Odessa, she witnesses the murder of the Karines’ son, Youri, in the revolutionary takeover and then treks after them with their jewels sewn into her skirts. Later, in exile in Paris, she tries to uphold standards that seem pointless to people who have lost everything, who are “like flies in autumn” as the French title has it.

There was one curious piece of translation where the description sleeping room (rather than bedroom?) was used.

Like all Némirovsky’s fiction the two stories in Le Bal do not disappoint.

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

The idea was the good lady and I would read both this book and Tender is the Night (written of course by Zelda’s husband F Scott) in order to compare and contrast.

Save me the Waltz cover

There are similarities between the two novels, both feed on the relationship between the spouses and their lives, both have dialogue that is full of non-sequiturs, both can be irritating.

Save Me the Waltz is perhaps more explicitly autobiographical, the protagonist Alabama Beggs is the youngest of three sisters and marries David Knight during the Great War. Subsequently the Knights have a daughter.

The first part of the novel describes Alabama’s young life before marriage and is much the best part of the book. The main narrative takes place after the war when the family is living in France. About halfway through the novel Alabama decides to take up ballet dancing – despite the fact that she is really too old. After hard work she eventually makes a fist of it and is offered a part in a ballet in Naples. This is only after we are treated to interminable, tedious descriptions of her lessons with Madame. This is of course detrimental to the marriage. I still found Save me the Waltz more readable than Tender is the Night, though.

Shrunk count 1, plus a “use to.”

Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

Penguin, 2000, 333 p + xlvi p of introduction and select bibliography, 10 p of Notes on the Text and 9 p of Variants in different editions. First published 1934.

Tender is the Night cover

Maybe it was due to my impending house removal but I just couldn’t get into this one at all. Alternatively it may be because initially I found the characters flighty and tedious, the dialogue curious. The novel is structured into three books and that too was part of the problem. Book 1 is set on the French Riviera where Dick Diver and his wealthy wife Nicole play host to a succession of vapid individuals. Their idyll is interrupted when nascent film star Rosemary Hoyt turns up at the resort with her mother and Dick is taken with her. In this section a duel between minor characters occurs – for no good reason I could see – and a body is found in a hotel bedroom with no apparent consequences.

However, things picked up in Book II where the narration flashed back to the first meeting of Dick and Nicole when he was a psychologist and she a patient. It immediately occurred to me that this would have been a better place to start the book as the situation and the characters are more interesting. In the notes at the end I discovered this was a revision that Fitzgerald had intended to make for future editions before his death and from 1948 till this Penguin edition the novel did appear with that altered structure.

By Book III the Divers’ marriage disintegrates as Dick takes to drink and Nicole becomes more and more independent.

There were a few bon mots. “A man is vulnerable only in his pride, but delicate as Humpty Dumpty once that is meddled with.” “Doctors, chauffeurs, and Protestant clergymen could never smell of liquor.” “Women marry all their husband’s talents and naturally afterwards are not so impressed with them as they keep up the pretence of being.”

The book’s provenance in the 1920s was apparent in the use of the words negro and nigger and there was a reference to a “gone coon” whatever that was. (A dead duck according to Wikipedia.)

At one point another character says to Dick, “But remember what George the Third said, that if Grant was drunk he wished he would bite the other generals.” Wouldn’t it have been Lincoln who said that? Fitzgerald has also given a band with a Scottish pianist the name The Ragtime College Jazzes of Edinboro. I think not. The repetition in the sentence, “Their fortunes had something to do with a bank in Milan that had something to do with the Warren fortunes,” struck me as clumsy. There was also filagree for filigree.

I did not read the (46 page!) introduction till after the novel and am glad of that as it gave away much of the novel’s driving force. It was also very Marxist in its interpretation, stating that the book was actually about a shift in economic structure from accumulation to reproduction.

Wiki says the Modern Library ranked Tender is the Night as 28th in its hundred best English language novels of the early twentieth century. Evidently there’s something in there but I’m afraid it passed me by.

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirowsky

Chatto & Windus, 2013, 216 p. Translated from the French Les Chiens et les Loups by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, 1940.

The Dogs and the Wolves cover

Of the four Némirowsky novels I have now read this is the one that most engages with the Jewish experience. As in The Wine of Solitude the narrative starts in Ukraine (once again the text has “the” Ukraine) and later shifts to France but the parallels of the main character here, Ada Sinner, with Némirowsky’s own life are less close.

Ada is born into that stratum of Ukrainian society not quite in the ghetto but not elevated from it. Her father is a trader and moves between the milieu. As a girl she catches sight one day of her rich relative Harry and is instantly fascinated. When the inevitable pogrom comes she flees with her cousin Ben and ends up in the richer part of town where the pair temporarily throw themselves on the mercy of their richer cousins, who are horrified by this sudden arrival disrupting their cosy existence.

Years later, in Paris, Ada, now an artist, sketching a party at Harry’s house from afar, mislays the payment for seamstressing work she is taking back to her Aunt Raissa, who throws her out. Ben, besotted with her since childhood, proposes that they marry. Despite her lack of love for him, Ada agrees. On the eve of Harry’s wedding Ada contrives to give him a book in which she knows he’s interested. He in turn is intrigued by her paintings in the book shop window. Eventually they meet as adults and the consequences unfold.

While life in Paris is less on the edge than in Ukraine the sense all the Jewish characters have of never being more than one step away from disaster is brought across firmly. In Ukraine a refrain when any adverse event – drought, famine, disease, political rumblings – occurred the adults would say, “We’re in for it this summer…. or this month, this year, tomorrow,” which I must say is also a very Calvinist, and therefore Scottish, sentiment.

The writing contains the usual bon mots. In one of her father’s trading conversations Ada overhears a nice variation on “fell off the back of a lorry,” in, “What would you say to a batch of ladies’ hats from Paris, just a tiny bit damaged from a railway accident?” Musings during a child’s invented game included, “The grown-ups would be only too happy to be free of all the children! Well didn’t they hear their parents moaning endlessly?” The text also contained aperçus such as, “With that knowing feminine instinct that can aim straight at the vulnerable place in a man’s heart she had sought, and found, the worst insult,” and, of Aunt Raissa’s style in argument, we learn, “Unfortunately she had one fault that was common in women: she loved winning.”

Némirowsky, it seems, never disappoints.

In addition it was again pleasing to see Sandra Smith’s translation, which never felt awkward, utilising the grammatically correct use of whom. “Whom could she turn to? Whom could she beg for help?”

Murder by the Book by Eric Brown

Crème de la Crime, 2013, 218 p.

After a myriad of SF books and stories this is the author’s first foray into straight detective fiction. I don’t read very much in the crime genre but this one worked for me. Partly that was the result of the old-fashioned, and welcome, feel of the story, which can be read as an homage to the golden age of detective fiction.

We are in the 1950s. Donald Langham is a writer of detective stories with a good relationship with his patrician agent, the florid of speech Charles Elder, and an unstated affection for Elder’s more than competent secretary Maria Dupré, the daughter of a French diplomat. The murders of the title have started before the narrative does but we do not learn this till later. The first crime we read about is the blackmailing of Elder for gross indecency with a rent boy. Before he settled down to writing Langham had previous experience of detecting so he offers to investigate and find the blackmailer. Things do not go easily and it is not long before Maria has to make a contribution to the endeavour. Meanwhile it emerges that writers of detective stories are dying or being murdered in ways that nag at Langham’s mind. The plot bowls along, with plenty twists and turns and the narrative incorporates both the camaraderie and the resentments of crime writers.

Keen observers of Brown’s previous works will notice certain resonances in the text, especially in the nascent and building relationship between Langham and Maria, which at times has more than a feel of Brown’s “Starship Seasons” quartet of novellas, among others.

In an article in the Guardian Review on Saturday 8th March John Banville identified an “unacknowledged but vital ingredient of a really satisfying whodunnit: cosiness.” In setting his book in the 1950s Brown has caught that cosiness perfectly. It is, after all, the function of the detective story to set the world to rights.

There is at least one more Langham and Dupré novel to come. I’m looking forward to it.

Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz

Black Swan, 2013, 309 p. Translated from the Arabic Al-Sukkariyya by William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan.

Sugar Street cover

Originally published in 1957, this third part of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy has al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad entering old age and so dwells more on the younger members of his family. His children reflect that their youngsters seem to know it all and do not listen to their words of wisdom. ’Twas ever thus. The book takes place in the run up to and during the Second World War so mirrors the First World War setting of Book 1, Palace Walk.

While political events of the times tend to happen in the background, it seems that in this respect Egypt doesn’t change much; indeed one character reflects that tyranny is the nation’s most deeply entrenched malady. Here, hope is raised when King Faruq takes over from his father Fuad, but disillusionment soon sets in. Politicians sell out their principles for power and inspire contempt. The group named herein as the Muslim Brethren (nowadays that “Brethren” is translated as Brotherhood) have become active in the political arena. According to them all answers are to be found in the Qu’ran. “We attempt to understand Islam as God intended it to be: a religion, a way of life, a code of law and a political system.” This is immediately subject to the rejoinder, “Is talk like this appropriate for the twentieth century?” – which is a good question; and more so in the twenty-first. There is also mention of girls in the family not being educated beyond the elementary certificate – not that that was a specifically Egyptian failing in those times.

To illustrate the darker undercurrents at play Mahfouz has a Copt say, “in spite of everything we’re living in our golden age. At one time Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Jawish suggested that Muslims should make shoes of our hides.”

al-Jawad’s grandson Abd al-Muni’m Ibrahim Shawkat is a firm believer while his brother Ahmad Ibrahim Shawkat is a communist. Towards the end both are detained for sedition. The first claims it is because he believes in God, the second asks what, then, his own offence could possibly be, as he doesn’t. Ahmad’s earlier declaration of affection for a female classmate founders on his relative lack of means. “It was amazing that in this country where people allowed emotion to guide their politics they approached love with the precision of accountants.”

Other perceptions include, “Politics is the most significant career open to a person in a society,” “When we’re in love we may resent it, but we certainly miss love once it’s gone,” and, “Life is full of prostitutes of various types. Some are cabinet ministers and others authors.”

Once again the USian translation was prominent, with piasters for piastres, “darn it” as an imprecation, soccer and diapers all intruding on my suspension of disbelief.

Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz

Black Swan, 1997, 423 p. Translated from the Arabic Qasr al-Shawq by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M Kenny and Olive E Kenny

Palace of Desire cover

Originally published in 1957, this, the second part of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, follows on from Palace Walk and takes up the story of al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad’s family some five years after the death of his son Fahmy in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. His wife Amina remains grief stricken, his daughters are now both married into the Shawkat family, where Khadija is at odds with her mother-in-law, but the story focuses mainly on his first son (by a previous marriage) Yasin and his youngest son Kamal, on the cusp of adulthood. One curiosity:- in Palace Walk the standard of feminine beauty lay towards the ample, in Palace of Desire the more upper class Egyptians – though Mahfouz doesn’t really give us any below what might be called middle class – are beginning to lean towards a thinner ideal.

While Yasin now lives in Palace of Desire Alley the title of this second novel in the trilogy is indicative, since sexual longing threads the book. Ahmad himself returns to his extra-marital dalliances after a period of abstinence due to his mourning and sets up the lute player Zanuba on a houseboat as his mistress. Yasin is enamoured of women generally but serially disappointed by marriage. His second one, to next door neighbour Maryam, is as unfulfilling as was his first to Zaynab. At one point he tells Kamal that, “nothing works with women except beating them with a shoe.” A chance encounter with Zanuba (with whom he had an association as a bachelor) leads to her separation from Ahmad and marriage to Yasin. Neither Zanuba nor Ahmad were aware of their mutual connections.

Kamal also falls under the spell of love. He is smitten by Aïda Shaddad, the sister of one of his friends. She gets engaged and married to another, though. As a result Kamal loses his hitherto strong Muslim faith and begins to indulge in alcohol and women. He muses, “Love’s an illness, even though it resembles cancer in having kept its secrets from medical science,” and on a forced visit to the mosque to give thanks for his father’s recovery from serious illness thinks, “The most ancient remaining human structures are temples. Even today no area is free of them.”

As with Palace Walk the book takes a long time to get going. The prose is dense with the characters’ reflections and can seem long-winded. Whether this is due to the translation is impossible to tell but once again USianisms fail to ring true. Calling someone “buster” as a form of put down struck me as not very Egyptian, at any rate.

The third volume, Sugar Street (where the Shawkat families reside) awaits.

The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard

Alma Books, 2013.

I saw this one’s front cover staring out at me from the shelves of my local Library. I couldn’t resist a story featuring an Art Deco hotel, now could I?

The titular hotel is in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Our young female narrator, who is never named, has travelled there incognito from London for the wake of her mother Lily, who abandoned her to the care of her father when she was just three years old and Lily herself only seventeen. That Lily must have given birth to her daughter at only fourteen years of age is mentioned only in passing and, astonishingly, is only referred to once more – at about page 160.

Lily has died in a motorcycle accident aged thirty two (so fifteen years later, in which time she has had two more husbands, August and Richard.) At the wake, the narrator glides through the proceedings all but unnoticed – she has a talent for being inconspicuous – bathes in Lily’s scummy bath, witnesses a man remove a photograph from Lily’s room and herself takes a suitcase full of things belonging to Lily away with her, but is briefly noticed by a Richard almost comatose with drugs.

Resting on a bench near the hotel she is spoken to by David, the man who stole the photograph. She tells him she is twenty two – though it transpires later she is indeed only seventeen. It turns out David is a photographer who photoshot Lily when she was working as a model, hence stealing the photo.

Living out of Lily’s suitcase and investigating her mother’s life she encounters August and has sex with him. Though omitting to tell him who she really is she strikes up a relationship with David as she drifts through the seamier side of life in LA trying to avoid having to give the suitcase back to Richard, who has sent a heavy to recover it.

Beyond trying to establish some sort of connection with her mother the motivation of the narrator is obscure. None of the characters is sympathetic – even the narrator’s father whom she left for LA with no warning, having stolen his wife’s credit card. The relationship of the US characters with the events of Lily’s life and death there are all tied up too tightly to be convincing.

Stothard is a British writer who spent some time in the USA. The text is peppered with Usianisms which initially failed to ring true for a seventeen year old narrator from England though we deduce some way into the book that she stayed on in the States.

This was okay, easy enough to read but inconsequential.

“Sunk” count 5, “shrunk” 1, tie-die 1, a newsagents – missing the apostrophe before the “s” and there was a remerged for “re-emerged.”

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Best of the Year

It’s traditional at this season of the year to list what has most impressed over the past twelve or so months. Except I’ve only done it once before. Twelve months ago.

Once again I find ten books stood out over the year.

In order of reading they were:-

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Empty Space by M John Harrison
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Spin by Nina Allan
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

4 are translations, 4 are SF*, 3 are by women. Make of that what you will.

*If you count the last section of Girl Reading, that would be 4 and a bit.

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