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Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2010, 199 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. © Éditions Albin Michel 1940. First published in English as The Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt and Company 1937.

Jezebel cover

I hadn’t intended reading a Némirovsky again for a while but the good lady picked this up in one of our local libraries – there are five within easy distance; one walkable (but not as walkable as Kirkcaldy Central was when we lived there) – so I took the opportunity to delve once more into her œuvre.

At the start of the book Gloria Eysenach is on trial for the murder of a young man whom she visited frequently in the weeks before the shooting. The trial is described along with Gloria’s inadequate efforts to explain her actions. Thereafter the novel tracks back to her earlier life and follows the train of events that led to her being in the dock.

For a while I felt that this wasn’t Némirovsky at her best; things seemed to drag, the set-up felt almost banal. However with the circumstances leading up to the death of Gloria’s daughter, Marie-Therèse, my interest was regained; though by that point the exact identity of the murder victim wasn’t too difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the most affecting sentence in the book is, “Life is sad when all is said and done, don’t you think? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion…”

Jezebel ends up as a fine portrait of a selfish woman, too vain even to be aware – still less take care – of the interests of her own children. This is something of a theme for Némirovsky and she is perhaps better when she avoids it. Jezebel is still a fine novel though.

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Vintage, 2013, unpaginated. Translated from the French HHhH (© Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle 2009) by Sam Taylor.

 HHhH cover

HHhH is a strange book, claiming to be a novel, but which is also a historical account of Operation Anthropoid, the British-backed mission to assassinate the head of both the Gestapo and the SD and architect of the Nazis “Final Solution” to what they called “the Jewish Problem,” Reinhard(t) Heydrich, (he removed the final “t” of his forename to make it sound harder) in Prague in 1942. The narrator makes much of his attempts to be true to his characters’ actual lives, saying he will eschew invention of dialogue where possible, commenting on occasions where he does so. He asserts his heroes are the assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš (one Czech, one Slovak at the insistence of President-in-exile Beneš) and other members of the resistance, yet they and the assassination itself take up only a small portion of the novel which is really the story of Heydrich’s life and an examination of the insanities of the Nazi belief system and organisation. Along the way we delve deep into the roots of the Czech-German dispute – in mediæval times a Bohemian king invited miners from Germany to exploit the silver deposits found in his kingdom – we digress into the origins of the Reformation in the Hussite heresy and, solely because Heydrich visited Ukraine, the heroism of the Ukrainian footballers who took on the previously undefeated Luftwaffe team with ten men and despite being warned to lose at half-time, triumphed 5-1. A few days later they also won the return against a team bolstered by “professional” players from Berlin. [I put that “professional” in quotes because I’m sure I read somewhere else – probably in Inverting the Pyramid - that the pre-war German game was amateur and the Nazis believed only amateur sport was true sport. Professional football only developed in Germany after the war.] The Ukrainians also won the hastily arranged return match and all but three players, who escaped in the confusion of a pitch invasion at the end, were executed.

The narrator mentions the many books and films featuring Heydrich and/or the assassination which he has sought out or encountered – mainly to emphasise their historical inaccuracies – and puts in a good word for Conspiracy where Kenneth Branagh portrayed Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference but scorns most other representations. Despite his apparently encyclopædic knowledge of Heydrich’s afterlife in book and film he makes no mention of the only other I have seen bar Conspiracy, a film called Operation: Daybreak starring Anthony Andrews as Gabčík, but he does dwell on the novel on which the film was based, Seven Men at Daybreak by Alan Burgess.

The first person narration is a piece of authorial trickery. We are invited to believe it is by Binet himself but the narrator does his military service teaching French at an academy in Slovakia, Prague is the city he loves most in the world, yet the author is French – HHhH won the first-novel Prix Goncourt in 2010 – and the constant references to his attempts to establish facts (for example he dithers over whether Heydrich’s Mercedes was black or green; his memory has it as black but the museum exhibit he saw may have been a substitute, an otherwise reliable book has it as green) subtly undermine reliability. In a sly aside he mentions that – contrary to the perennial defence trotted out by ex-Nazis to defray blame for their actions – Heydrich was not averse to disobeying orders when the opportunity to be lenient was available. Heydrich was never lenient.

It seems Heydrich was also supremely arrogant, usually travelling round Prague with no escort, a fact which troubled Albert Speer on his visit to the city and to whom Heydrich says in the novel, “Why should my Czechs shoot me?” Heydrich had previously been shot down on the Eastern Front after a reckless chase of a Soviet plane in an attempt to make himself a war hero, causing great apprehension in Berlin till he got himself back to German lines. Hitler banned any further such adventures. Yet Heydrich didn’t learn. His only companion on the day of the assassination was his driver. After his death the book has Hitler berating his carelessness, saying, “Men as important as Heydrich should always know that they are like targets at a fairground.”

Except for those parts dealing with the narrator’s research and primary readers’ comments the book is for the most part written in the historic present. (John Humphrys would not like it, then.) Its unusual title is from the German Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.) The original title Operation Anthropoid was apparently “too SF” – !!!! – “too Robert Ludlum.”

The climax of the German hunt for the assassins and their comrades, fruitless until they were betrayed by a fellow parachutist for the reward of twenty thousand crowns, is dealt with in a few pages. Of course, there are no eye witness accounts of the final moments in the crypt at the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, as the group held out till their ammunition was about to be exhausted and killed themselves with their last bullets.

The narrator quotes George Sand – “Struggle against those who tell you: ‘Work hard to live badly’” – which he says is “not an invitation to digress – it’s a demand.” One of the Nazis is stated as thinking, “Scapegoats at all costs – that could be the Reich’s motto.”

Notwithstanding the lack of tension – surely any interested reader will already know the outcome – and the digressive nature of the treatment the book is immensely readable. It’s easy to see why it won the praise it has received.

The translation was excellent (except for its unfortunate forays into USian – ass for arse, jerked off.)

Hotel World by Ali Smith

Penguin, 2002, 238 p.

 Hotel World cover

I picked this up in a local library as I hadn’t read it. The author was born in Inverness and so counts for the Read Scotland Challenge; but see below.

Hotel World is not so much a novel as six novellas linked by the accidental death of Sara Wilby, a young woman worker in a hotel. She packed herself into the dumb waiter and its cables broke, plunging her to her death. The novellas each have titles relating to a verb tense; past, present historic, future conditional, perfect, future in the past, present. The first is narrated by the dead woman (after the death,) the second from the viewpoint of Else, a woman begging on the streets outside the hotel where the accident took place, the third is Lise’s, one of the hotel’s receptionists, whose mother is composing a poem cycle called ‘Hotel World,’ the fourth tells of the strange evening esperienced by Penny, a later female guest, the fifth is an unpunctuated stream of consciousness of Clare, the dead girl’s sister, the paragraphs of which are connected by and – with the single exception of an I – all start with &, the sixth is an overview of what various minor characters observed earlier are doing in the present moment.

As in all of Smith’s novels which I have so far read the text’s right hand margin isn’t justified. This didn’t, though, seem so distracting in this volume.

The only hints of Scottishness here are the use of the word skirl, one mention each of the inscription on the rim of pound coins of the motto “nemo me impune lacessit” which was that of the Scottish monarchy (English pound coins have “Decus et tutamen” there,) of the “run-rig system of farming in Scottish History III,” and a town in the misty cold-bound Highlands. This is more than in subsequent Smith novels, though.

Several times Smith uses the archaic sounding phrase “back and fore,” where “back and forth” is perhaps more heard, we had pigmy instead of pygmy and foetid spelt in the USian manner as fetid.

I’m really not sure what to make of Smith. She can clearly write well, with insights into the human condition, but is it too much to ask for a plot?

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2012, 166 p. Translated from the Italian L’ultimo dei vostiachi by Judith Landry.

 The Last of the Vostyachs cover

Marani wrote one of the best novels I read last year – any year – New Finnish Grammar. His interest in Finland and its language is again in evidence here. In many ways this novel is the one which the title of New Finnish Grammar promised it would be. It may in fact be unique in having a plot which depends on comparative philology for its motor.

The titular last of the Vostyachs is Ivan, survivor of a gulag in which, twenty years before, his father was killed trying to escape. For all those years, until the guards quit due to lack of pay and left the gates open for the inmates to wander off, Ivan did not speak. He is a misfit in the locality, communes with animals and believes the wolves are other Vostyachs who changed form to evade the world and cannot get back. Olga, a Russian linguist studying the Samoyedic languages thereabouts is asked to help understand what he says. She recognises his speech as Vostyach, the long thought extinct oldest language of the Proto-Uralic family, a kind of linguistic missing link between Eskimo-Aleut and Finno-Ugric.

Trusting to his scientific curiosity, she writes to tell Professor Jarmo Aurtova, organiser of an imminent Finno-Ugric conference in Helsinki, of her discovery, making great play of Ivan’s velar fricatives and retroflex palatals, his use of the fricative lateral and labiovelar appendix. (Somewhat improbably, given the time scale involved, she suggests to Aurtova, “Perhaps your ancestors included some Sioux chief who fought at Little Big Horn!”) She tells him Ivan has problems with the modern world, does not like aeroplanes in particular, so while she attends a meeting in St Petersburg she will despatch him by train to Helsinki, and asks Aurtova to meet him at the station.

Aurtova has a portrait of Finnish wartime leader Marshal Mannerheim on his wall and thinks Finland and Finnish the pinnacle of human development, that Finns were the first Europeans, connected to neither Mongols nor Eskimos. As a result he does not take kindly to the prospect of a living rebuke to his beliefs. The scene is set for a tragedy, played out in the coldest night in Helsinki for fifty years and involving the release of animals from Helsinki zoo.

This may seem forbidding but the novel flows extremely smoothly and, despite the instances of linguistic vocabulary, is very easy to read. Marani creates compelling characters, can structure and tell a story and the translation (with a couple of exceptions*) serves him very well.

Marani has Olga express the preciousness of a language. During their encounter within the book she tells Aurtova that Vostyach has a word, powakaluta, for “something grey glimpsed vaguely running through the snow,” a word which will vanish if Vostyach does – though the thing it describes will not. And that disappearance would be terrible. She also reminds him that Finnish doesn’t have a future tense. (Something which is apparently common. English hasn’t, but can utilise an auxiliary verb to enable one.)

If I have any criticisms it is that the book may be romanticising slightly both Ivan’s relationship with nature and that of native North Americans and that Aurtova’s actions are perhaps a little unbelievable.

The Last of the Vostyachs was a delight to read just the same.

*The issues with the translation were firstly that ice hockey isn’t played on a pitch and its scoring system does not have points, “a few points short of victory,” plus the sentence, “One of the six thousand languages still spoken on this earth die out every two weeks.” Dies, surely? In a book dealing with philology, it’s perhaps as well to nail down the grammar. And that “ancestors” isn’t the correct word; “many times removed cousin” is nearer the mark.

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.

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