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The New Life by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 1998 (according to the publication page but post 2006 as the cover and author blurb both mention Pamuk’s Nobel Prize,) 300 p. Translated from the Turkish Yeni Hayat (Ilepşim Yaymarlı, 1994,) by Güneli Gün.

 The New Life cover

One day narrator Osman Akif read a book and his whole life changed. He had glimpsed the book in the hand of Janan, a girl at the same college as him, stumbled on a copy in a second-hand bookstall that afternoon and immediately bought it. His obsession with the book spilled over into one with the girl, whom he befriended along with her boyfriend Mehmet (later also known as Nahit, and later still Osman – there are reasons for these name shifts.) Mehmet was apparently shot during a student demonstration but Osman knew he survived and walked away so set out to find him, taking Janan along with him. This involved many bus journeys through the heart of Turkey, many videos of films watched while travelling, and several bus crashes. (There is something of that fixation of J G Ballard about this aspect of the book.)

A flavour of the text is given by Osman’s thought that “it was not right for Janan even to imagine the land of perdition, heartbreak and bloodshed because in that twilight land illuminated by the book, Death, Love, and Terror wandered like hapless ghosts in the guise of downtrodden, heartbroken men with frozen faces who packed guns.”

Reading The New Life is an odd experience at times. Osman addresses some sentences to ‘Angel’ but it is never entirely clear (at least, not to me) who Angel is meant to be. Turkish life is illuminated in the margins; the family who moved in across from Osman the day he first read the book, once more in a Pamuk novel the salience of football (sadly always named soccer by the translator,) the statues of Atatürk in seemingly every town square, the endless cafés and bus stations, the past of Osman’s Uncle Rıfkı, a railwayman who wrote children’s stories which starred Turkish children as the heroes of US Western tales, the redolence of New Life brand caramels, defunct in the narrator’s present. Uncle Rıfkı also wrote an adult book, which was banned, with only a few copies surviving in the wild. That book was also titled The New Life and is that same book which obsessed Osman.

In their final meeting Mehmet tells Osman, “‘A good book is something that reminds us of the whole world ….. a piece of writing that implies things that don’t exist, a kind of absence, or death …. But it is futile to look outside the book for a realm that is located beyond the words.’” As if to underline the literary nature of this endeavour, the niceties of its twists and turns, the narrator at one point asks, has the reader “extended enough attention and intellect at every turn of this book?” and describes himself in these terms; “In people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself off as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.”

The New Life may be clever, but it’s not clever clever. And it’s not spoiled by any of this philosophising.

Pedant’s corner:- In the “by the same author” list, Instanbul (Istanbul,) on the publication page, “Orhan Pumuk” (Pamuk.) Otherwise; “the lay of the land” (it’s ‘lie of the land’,) “there were an odd number of bottle caps” (there was an odd number,) maws (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “life’s mystery will become manifested to me” (‘manifest’ would be more forceful,) djins (djinns,) “Andre Maurois’ novel” (Maurois’s. This must be the correct formulation since the final ‘s’ in Maurois is unsounded and so, in order to make a possessive, the extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe must be added,) exploitive (exploitative,) “had really waked me up” (woken.)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Book Three of The Neapolitan Novels. Middle Time.

Europa Editions, 2015, 411 p, including vii p Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of the Earlier Volumes. Translated from the Italian Storia di chi fugge e di di chi resta, (Edizioni E/O, 2013,) by Ann Goldstein.

This book carries on the tale of the life of Elena Greco, friend to Lila Cerullo, here following Elena into marriage and motherhood and illuminating Italian life in the late sixties/early seventies. Her husband is Pietro Airota, from a relatively well to do and influential family. The contrast between his background and hers, his atheism (which Elena shares) and her family’s traditionalism is illustrated when they visit Naples pre-marriage. On this visit, an acquaintance in Naples makes references to the dirty pages in her novel, whose publication came in the previous book, as being brave (but also true.) The novel itself, even the fact she left, would be enough to make her different but those pages mark her out, stamp her in the eyes of some of those she left behind as unworthy, tainted, all but a whore. Then a piece on industrial conditions in the sausage factory where Lila works is accepted by the newspaper L’Unità and brings her more attention/notoriety.

Married sex is a revelation for Elena. Though not a virgin, she had not had sex with her husband before the wedding and he is, to say the least, an unsympathetic lover. The birth of her first daughter, Adele, later pet-named Dede, brings the crushing responsibility of motherhood; the baby is unable to feed properly, her husband retreats into his work. Elena’s inability, and his reluctance, to cope requires the employment of a housekeeper/nanny. The novel Elena cobbles together in these circumstances is unpublishable, the lifeless articles she submits to L’Unità rejected. A second baby, another daughter, Elisa, is less trouble.

This was a turbulent time in Italy, with political violence referenced many times here. (As it also was in Europe; Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit are given a mention.) I did wonder how the political discussions and attitudes here (not to mention the atheism though that is more skated over) went down with Ferrante’s US readers as the left-wing leanings of most of Elena’s circle are fairly pronounced. Perhaps it is outdone by the feminism she comes to feel – both practical in her marriage situation and theoretical in the discussions she has with other women – especially in her writing, “no-one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men: I had done it, I was doing it,” which would certainly strike a chord.

Ferrrante’s Neapolitan Quartet has been widely discussed as a dissection of female friendship yet for many pages at the start of this instalment Lila is all but unmentioned. However, Elena is called to her side when Lila becomes ill (worn down by working at the sausage factory) and immediately goes to succour her and the blanks in Lila’s life in the interim are filled in. From then on, apart from a crucial incident where a decision by Lila reveals her in her complexity as almost unknowable, certainly unpredictable, they communicate mainly by telephone. Lila and Enzo, the man she lives with, teach themselves computing and begin to make a niche for themselves in the nascent computer industry. The dissolving margins which Lila once mentioned to Elena, when she feels people round her becoming insubstantial (and which may be the key to her personality) are here referred to only once.

As in the foregoing Neapolitan novels there is a density here of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction, a layering of a life apparently recollected. As if to comment on this Lila tells Elena after her confusion over that decision of Lila’s, “But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another.”

The ambiguity of the friendship (of all friendships?) is addressed when Elena herself tells us at the book’s crux, “I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind ….. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.” The relevance of Nino Sattore – with whom Elena has been besotted since her teenage years but who had an affair with Lila in Book Two – to this epiphany is not unravelled by the book’s ending which mercifully has less of the cliffhanger element the first two instalments had but which still leaves Elena’s life situation unresolved.

Pedant’s corner:- Marirosa (elsewhere always Mariarosa,) legitimatized (legitimised,) “and thought, She was once a pretty girl” (context suggests ‘and I thought, She was once a pretty girl’,) missing question marks at the end of sentences which are questions, “rather than aiming Stefano and his money” (aiming at Stefano.) “And at least Enzo in front of him, in the factory, women worn out by the work, by humiliations, by domestic obligations no less than Lila was.” (as a sentence that is missing something which would make it clear what it was meant to be saying,) “secretary of the union local” (in English ‘of the local union’ is more idiomatic,) “as if” three times in four lines, Vesuvio (x 2, usually ‘Vesuvius’,) waked (woken,) insured (ensured,) “men with drooping mustaches [sic] and a cloth cap on their head” (and cloth caps on their heads,) parallelopipeds (my dictionary categorises this variant spelling of parallelepipeds as ‘improper’.)

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez

Picador, 1983, 126 p. Translated from the Spanish, Crónica de una muerte anunciada (La Oveja Negra, Colombia, 1981,) by Gregory Rabasa.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold cover

“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on,” is the arresting first sentence of this novel. However, I was immediately struck by its resemblance to the first sentence of the same author’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; a sentence I discussed here, as being a form of authorial cheating.

The corresponding cheat in this book, if in fact it is a cheat, is not so pronounced. We already know someone is to die, the title has told us as much, and that the death is inevitable. (Meanwhile I note that Colonel Aureliano Buendía, presumably the same one from One Hundred Years of Solitude, is mentioned some pages later.) This (short, 122 page, large print) book is an account of the events leading up to that death as related by our unnamed narrator – but there are two textual hints that we are intended to believe that it is the author himself – from recollections he solicited from the witnesses many years after.

It was the day after the wedding of Angelo Vicario and Bayardo San Román and the morning after he had returned her to her parent’s house saying she had not been a virgin. Angelo Vicario had not been impressed with him on their first meeting but the advances of Bayardo San Román, son of an influential family, and a charmer of her parents and brothers Pedro and Pablo had not been easy to refuse. On her furnishing the name of Santiago Nasar as her deflowerer (though the narrator expresses doubts as to the truth of this) Pedro and Pablo resolved to kill him. They lay in wait in the store over the road from his house for him to return from seeing the bishop passing by in his boat.

Most of the people in the town seemed to be aware of their intentions but variously passed them off as drunken boasting, thought they would not carry it through, or that Nasar must already know about it and had taken steps to avoid his fate, or else were unable to see how to prevent it.

The catalogue of happenstance and accident by which the chronicle unfolds is like an inexorable, grinding, avalanche, terrible and tragic in its certainty, but bathetic in detail. Márquez delineates it masterfully.

Pedant’s corner:- proprietess (the usual word to denote a female owner is proprietrix,) organdy (organdie,) Cervantes’ (Cervantes’s.)

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1981, 459 p. First published 1814.

 Mansfield Park cover

Well, this started out well enough: with one of those pithy Austenisms on page one, “But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them,” but I think it is safe to say that had Austen’s literary reputation rested on Mansfield Park alone it would not be so high as is usually asserted. The main man of large fortune here is Sir Thomas Bertram (owner of a plantation in Antigua) who married a Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon. Her two sisters married less well, one to Rev Mr Norris, who then was able to secure the living in the gift of his brother-in-law and was therefore reasonably situated financially, but the other “disobliged” her family by marrying a Lieutenant of Marines without education, fortune or connections and so ensured a breach with her sisters.

The Rev Norris having died, his wife moved into Mansfield Park – and fancied herself as running the place. She took it into her head one day to relieve her poorer sister of the care of one of her children and, with the assent of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, Fanny Price came to stay at Mansfield Park. There she is treated very much as the poor relation, receiving her cousins’ cast-off toys, the room she is given to use having no fire laid, and treated as a dogsbody by Mrs Norris – though less so by Lady Bertram – a dogsbody who should nevertheless be grateful for her condition. Sir Thomas she finds scary and aloof. The only one of the family who treats her with any consideration is the younger Bertram son, Edmond. The older son, Tom, is a bit of a wastrel (as was the wont of older sons with the prospect of inheritance.) Mrs Norris is always complaining about Fanny’s habits and supposed deficiencies and similarly misguidedly sagacious-seeming about what is right and proper. We all know a Mrs Norris. The local clerical living has been taken over by a Rev Grant whose wife’s sister and brother, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to stay and so enter the social circle of Mansfield Park.

Sir Thomas’s fortunes go up and down and he is forced to make a voyage to Antigua. In his absence the Bertram children and their friends hit on the idea of putting on a play. There follow several utterly tedious chapters on which play should be chosen (one called Lovers’ Vows is eventually selected,) who should play whom, and what alterations to the house are required to stage it. Fanny is mostly a bystander in all this but agrees to help with rehearsals.

Okay, this all has a plot function since it illustrates Henry Crawford as not to be trusted – he uses his part to try to suborn Fanny’s elder female cousin, by now engaged to the wealthy (but dull) Mr Rushworth, away from her fiancé – and so forms Fanny’s opinion of him. At the same time she has become friends of a sort to Mary Crawford. In one of their conversations there appears another Austenism as Mary tells her, “there is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry …… it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”

The play is destined never to be performed as Sir Thomas’s early return – and high disapproval – puts an end to it. Henry Crawford later sets his sights on Fanny, whose refusal of his proposal mystifies all and sundry. A return to her family in Portsmouth for a period of reflection is settled on and while she is there the later unfoldings of the plot take place, off-stage in London.

As a novel this has severe limitations. Fanny is not a very active protagonist, almost an absence in fact. She has to be self-effacing due to her station in life but as a result becomes all but invisible as a character. The omniscient third person narrator (who only twice interpolates an “I” into the text as a sort of commentary on what we are being told) more often relates events and characteristics rather than illustrating them. This may though be to attribute twenty-first century expectations of a novel on to one two hundred years old. The whole is of course as long-winded and circumlocutious as any other early nineteenth century novel but that cannot really be held against it.

From a modern perspective it is signal that the text directly mentions slavery only once, but that institution was of course the foundation of all that the denizens of houses like Mansfield Park, and their frivolous pursuits, depended on. It was not Austen’s main focus in any case, which as is customary were the vagaries of the marriage market and the gradations of social class. The sections set in Portsmouth do bring out the contrast between the hustle and bustle of life in more constrained circumstances and that in a supposedly sedate house like Mansfield Park.

Pedant’s corner:- Some Austenish spellings – everybody, everywhere, everything, anybody, nowhere, anywhere, background, akin, are all written as two words – staid (stayed,) stopt (stopped,) stampt (stamped,) chuse (choose, but ‘choose’ itself did appear once,) headach (headache; though ache itself was spelled in the usual manner, as was heart-ache, albeit with the hyphen,) buz (buzz,) cruize (cruise,) birth (berth,) or early nineteenth century usages, fulness (fullness,) intreat (entreat,) cloathe (clothe,) sunk (sank,) sprung (sprang,) shrunk (shrank,) etc. Otherwise; “the Miss Bertrams” (the Misses Bertram,) “the Miss Bertrams’” (the Misses Bertram’s,) “the Mr Bertrams (the Mrs Bertrams would be misconstrued; so ‘the Misters Bertram,’ or ‘the Messrs Bertram,’) “the two Miss Sneyds” (the two Misses Sneyd,) “the Miss Maddoxes” (the Misses Maddox.) “‘How many Miss Owens are there?’” (Misses Owen.) “Mrs Grant has has been” (only one ‘has’.) Mr Yates’ (Mr Yates’s,) Beachey Head (Beachy Head,) “a last look at the five or six determined couple” (couples,) some commas missing before pieces of direct speech. “‘- So many months acquaintance’” (months’ acquaintance,) “to stay dinner” (to stay to dinner,) similies (similes,) “by the bye” (later expressed as ‘by the by’, which I prefer anyway,) “‘I did not use to think’” (did not used to think,) “better that Maria” ( better than,) “heir apparents” (heirs apparent.)

When I Whistle by Shūsaku Endō

Quartet, 1979, 275 p, including iv p Preface. Translated from the Japanese, 口笛をふく時, (Kuchibue wo Fuku Toki,) by Van C Gessel.

 When I Whistle cover

A chance encounter on a train with a former schoolmate forces a man called Ozu (I can’t remember being told his first name) to think about a boy at school who was dubbed Flatfish. Flatfish, a new arrival in Ozu’s class (not the top set by any means,) unfortunately had an odour but, because he was seated next to Ozu, by default became his best friend. Ozu had to explain to him all the unwritten rules but Flatfish continually managed to get himself in trouble both by accident and by being himself. The defining moment of Flatfish’s life was an encounter the pair had with two girls from the local girls’ school – with whom they ought not to have had any contact by the strict rules of the time – on the way home one day. Flatfish formed a lasting but doomed attraction to Aiko, the girl who, in an act of compassion, bandaged his injured hand. These schooldays were in the 1930s, Japan was embroiled in China and militaristic attitudes abounded but the nature of schooling (harsh) and the trials of dealing with the opposite sex come over as being not too dissimilar to Western experiences of the time.

In the novel’s present day, Ozu’s son Eiichi is a practitioner at the dispensary of the local hospital and eager to climb the greasy pole of the medical profession so does not demur from the outmoded prescribing and treatment practices of his superiors. He notes, in particular, the habit of telling soothing platitudes to patients. Despite his liaison with a nurse, Keiko, he sets his designs on his boss’s daughter, but has a rival in Doctor Kurihara who also has a nurse on a string. Relations between the sexes in Japan had clearly also undergone a more liberal change post-war. Eiichi then is complicit in administering a new, otherwise untried, cancer treatment devised by a firm owned by Kurihara’s father.

Flatfish not being academic quit school and got a poorly paid job but when war with the Western powers came (the feeling was that Japan would easily defeat them, of course, and at first it seemed so) was swiftly drafted into the miltary and sent to Korea. Nevertheless, he inveigled Ozu to seek out Aiko and give her a pen as a token of his esteem. She in the meantime had married a young naval officer. The reader suspects, rightly, that none of this will come out well. This thread between Aiko, Flatfish and Ozu is what binds the book together.

When I Whistle isn’t one of Endo’s better novels even if it is one of his later ones. There is something about the writing that is sketchy or ill-considered (which doesn’t seem to be because of translation) and more than once information or characters’ thoughts are repeated that have no need to be.

Still, the reflection, “People often wonder when they will die but they rarely wonder where they will die,” is original but, “Now, when all was lost, he felt he understood the meaning they had given to his life,” is a novelistic thought if there ever was one.

The Preface tells us that the author was himself in hospital for a considerable time with various complaints and during one operation his heart stopped. But he survived and continued smoking. It is noticeable that the doctors in this novel all smoke. Then again, it was first published in 1974.

Pedant’s corner:- “if worse came to worst” (if the worst came to the worst,) “None … were” (several times. ‘None …was’.) Opthamology (x 3, Ophthalmology,) knit (knitted, please. Okay the translation is into USian, but still,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (to a climax; the crescendo is the rise.)

Best Reading of 2020

I don’t usually do this till after Christmas even though others seem to do it well before. However, my reading for the rest of the year is planned out and I don’t think I’ll be adding to this list. 14 this year; 9 written by men, 5 by women, 1 non-fiction, 3 in translation, 7 Scottish, no SF or Fantasy.

Listed in order of reading. The links are to my reviews.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
The Apple (Crimson Petal Stories) by Michel Faber
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, 1996, 211 p.

 Mrs Dalloway cover

This tells the events of one day leading up to the throwing of a party by the titular Mrs (Clarissa) Dalloway which may, or may not, be being attended by the Prime Minister. That title might lead you to believe that the book’s main focus will be Clarissa but it is not. It is written in the stream of consciousness style but that too is a misnomer as what we have here is really streams of consciousnesses since the narration flits from one character to another like a gadfly, rarely settling down for long. This is immensely irritating to begin with but in time, with familiarity, becomes less so.

As well as Mrs Dalloway we enter the thoughts of Peter Walsh, recently returned from India and a failed marriage but declaring himself to be in love for the first time, and Rezia and Septimus Smith, wife and husband. Walsh it seems had a thing for Clarissa in their youths, later musing he had been so in love with her then. (So what was that “first time” declaration all about?) Septimus has not recovered from his experiences in the Great War and his disturbed state has tragically not been recognised by various medical practitioners, nor by his wife.

I know Woolf has received praise for her writing and was an early user of stream of consciousness (a pioneer, indeed) but there is something detached about her style which I find difficult to engage with. My reaction to this book is the same as it was with To The Lighthouse.

This copy was loaned to us by a friend who has written in the margin that Woolf was trying to erase the narrator as a persona. On this evidence, replacing a narrator with many personas isn’t much of an improvement. I’ll not be in a hurry to read any more Woolf.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung (sprang, which was used later,) waggons (wagons,) Hatchards’ (either Hatchard’s or Hatchards’s,) Jorrocks’ (Jorrocks’s,) plaguy (plaguey?) a missing full stop, missing commas before pieces of direct speech (too numerous to count,) Kinloch Jones’s (this was a plural, hence Kinloch Joneses,) “They rose .And Richard” (They rose. And Richard”,) “Mrs Peters’ hat” (Mrs Peters’s,) campare (compare,) “did not use to rouge” (did not used to rouge.)

The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos

Abacus, 2009, 476 p. Translated from the Hungarian, Apák könyve, by Peter Sherwood

 The Book of Fathers cover

Tinged with a dash of magic realism and told episodically this is a chronicle of the first born sons of the Csillag family (later Sternovszky, later still Stern and then Csillag once more,) beginning with Kornél Csillag in 1705, who starts writing down his experiences in a notebook which his descendants refer to as the Book of Fathers and to which each makes his own additions in due time. More uncommonly, since Kornél took possession of a small globe which enclosed a watch, each of them – bar the penultimate Csillag, after the device has been discarded in a latrine – has access to the memories of his forebears and can seem preternaturally mature and knowledgeable. The title is a slight misnomer – the novel could be entitled “The Book of Sons” after all – as there is not just one notebook since the first becomes filled relatively quickly and others are purchased to continue the tradition.

Each descendant has his own chapter in The Book of Fathers we are reading, relating the significant events of the life of its subject, but too often we are told of them more than shown them. Sometimes too we see the same event from a different viewpoint in succeeding chapters – the father’s (sometimes the grandfather’s) and the son’s. It would be unkind to call the novel a family saga but it shares that enterprise’s lineaments. However, while the bulk of a chapter may be full of incident it sometimes seems as if Vámos lost interest in that particular life as there can be what seems an unseemly rush to its finish and the character is dispatched within a sentence or three.

All of life is here, though; along with those perennial concerns of the novel as a form – love, sex and death – but love is never a main focus here (and relationships between the generations are frequently strained) while there is no emphasis on sex. Death, though, is a necessary component of a book with this one’s premise. One of the family line converts to Judaism in order to marry (thereby upsetting both families involved) but the lives of his descendants allow Vámos to throw light on the status of middle-European Jewry as the years unfold. Then of course, as it approaches the mid-point of the twentieth century, the reader’s sense of foreboding heightens, but arbitrary deaths were no stranger earlier and occur later too.

That early convert is taught by Rabbi Ben Loew of Prague and expresses his confusion about Jewish teachings and his new co-religionists’ place in the world. “‘Everyone is a stranger in this world,’ said the Rabbi. ‘Above all the Jews. The pharaohs drove them from their ancient homeland,* they dispersed to all points of the compass. They are to this day not allowed to buy land in many places.’” Yet for most of the time the family members live lives undisturbed by prejudiced undercurrents, only subject to those political incidents endemic to any country’s history. As such the book is a kind of primer on Hungarian identity and the country’s struggle for independence.

The peculiar nature of the Csillag/Sternovszky/Stern/Csillag line is alluded to when one reflects, “He to whom is given the gift of seeing into the past does not choose what he sees.” As well as the past, some of them can see into the future – but only indistinctly, on occasion Delphically, often with tragical outcomes. A later thought that “whatever happens in this world it all ends in the crying of women” is of universal resonance.

The writing has a similar sensibility to that evident in Czech literature or from the former Yugoslavia: an exercise of imagination, a kind of heightened realism or exaggeration largely absent from Anglophone literature.

Pedant’s corner:- caftan (usually kaftan.) *It was the Romans, not the pharaohs, who were the dominant power when the Jewish diaspora began, “the Book of the Fathers” (usually written as ‘the Book of Fathers’, three times that extra ‘the’ is inserted,) “horses’ hoofs” (in my time they were always hooves,) extra points for ‘stanch’, “only his father’s and grandfather’s exact moment of birth was known to him” (…. moments of birth were known to him.) “‘In Budapest the best streets have had electric light since 1873’” (electricity first came to Humgary in 1884.) “The Csillag side of the family were not in the least happy with Ilse” (the … side …. was not in the least,) churns (churns,) sunk (sank,) “he had simply sawed a hole” (sawn a hole,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “preserved on the black and white snapshots” (‘preserved in’ sounds more natural,) Csilla (Csillag,) “suspecting nought” (nought = the number 0; ‘suspecting naught’.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – William Boyd

Another entry for the meme started by Judith and now collated by Katrina. The weekend comes around so fast.

This week I’m featuring books by William Boyd. His Wiki page describes him as a Scottish writer (but Fantastic Fiction has him as British. By parentage (and part of his education) he is Scottish but his writing is more akin to that from south of the border so I have always had a slight reservation. I do have his books shelved on my “Scottish” bookcase, though, but only after the “W”s and Kurt Wittig‘s critical work.

Books Written by William Boyd

Standouts here are The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach, Any Human Heart, and the spoof biography Nat Tate, an American Artist.

The Sin of Father Amaro by Eça de Queiroz

Black Swan, 1985, 430 p. Translated from the Portuguese, O Crime do Padre Amaro, by Nan Flanagan.

 The Sin of Father Amaro  cover

Like The Sealwoman’s Gift this is a story about the conflict between duty and conscience on the one hand and human urges on the other. As I noted before, the cover of this book is something of a spoiler, leaving little doubt as to the nature of Father Amaro’s fall from grace. And the title is inaccurate in that, though it is rather skated over and only mentioned in two short passages, he had already fallen in his previous parish, Feirão, before he met the Amelia Joanneira who is the other focus of the novel – and there is a further crime to add to his debit account by the story’s end. Set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, The Sin of Father Amaro is, however, about more than a single priest’s misdeeds, dealing as it also does with the privileged position the Portuguese Roman Catholic clergy enjoyed and the hypocrisy it encouraged.

The titular sinner is Amaro Vieira, a junior priest (paroco,) more or less forced into the priesthood by circumstance, who comes to the parish of Lieira after finding existence in Feirão too spartan for him. The senior priest, Canon Dias, arranges for him to lodge with Senhora Joanneira (a woman with whom we find later he himself is having relations) and whose daughter Amelia is profoundly religious. Nevertheless, the proximity between the paroco and her will tend to its natural conclusion. No matter how religions attempt them (usually by blaming women) efforts to curb human sexuality will always founder, as is true in any other societal arrangement.

The pair’s attachment grows despite Amelia also being subject to the attentions of a young clerk, João Eduardo. He is a potential firebrand who finds the strictures of religion claustrophobic and is agitated by the connection between Amaro and Amelia. To try to allay suspicion she agrees to marry Eduardo (a temporary rift between Amaro and Amelia ensues) but a tract he writes anonymously for a periodical called The District excoriating the cosy hypocrisy of clerical impunity and hinting heavily at Amaro’s failings, causes a minor scandal. On being exposed and confronted he strikes Amaro and is excommunicated. As a religious woman cannot be associated with an excommunicant Amelia withdraws her consent to marriage and Eduardo leaves the town. The coast is then clear for the liaison between Amaro and Amelia to come to fruition.

The newpaper editor, Dr Godinho, tells Eduardo when he bemoans his fate, “a good Catholic; his thoughts, his ideas, his feelings, his conversations, the employment of his days and nights, his relations towards his family and his neighbours, the food he eats, the clothes he wears, his diversions – all is regulated by the ecclesiastical authority (abbot, bishop or canon) approved or censured by his confessor, counselled and ordered by him as the director of his conscience. The good Catholic, such as your little girl, doesn’t belong to herself; she has no judgement, no wishes, no free will, nor individual feeling; her priest thinks, wishes, determines, feels for her. Her only work in this world is to accept this direction; accept it without discussion, obey it, no matter what its demands.” When Eduardo argues that’s all very well except when love is devouring someone, Godinho says, “Love is one of the greatest forces of civilisation,” but adds a warning, “the heart is a term which usually serves us, for decency’s sake, to designate another organ. It is precisely this other organ which is the only one interested, in the majority of cases, in affairs of sentiment. In those cases the grief doesn’t last.”

Whether it truly reflects de Queiroz’s attitudes or only those of the time (and of later it must be said) there is a strong course of misogyny running through the book. The master of moral at Amaro’s seminary had “explained the anathema of the saints against women, who were, according to the expressions of the Church, Serpents, Darts, Children of Lies, Doors of Hell, Sources of Crime, Scorpions ….. Paths of Iniquity, iniquitas via.” This leads Amaro to ruminate on the conflict between this and the fact that one of these pariahs was enthroned over the altar as Queen of Grace. In another instance Abbot Ferrão opines to Canon Dias that being possessed by the devil only happens to women, never to respectable notaries nor dignified judges. A character called Pinheiro compares a woman to a shadow, “if we run after her she runs away from us; if we run away from her she runs after us.”

In situations such as occur in this book it was always of course, the woman who paid the price of sin, in novels, as in life. In his depiction of Amaro, de Queiroz does not let him off the hook of culpability, but his position ensures he does not incur a penalty for it.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Make you mind easy’” (your mind,) waggon (wagon,) shrunk (x 3, shrank,) sprung (sprang,) Sanches’ (Sanches’s,) Novaes’ (Novaes’s,) St Carlos’ (St Carlos’s,) Fernandos’ (Fernandos’s,) Nunes’ (Nunes’s,) “all was not lost” (not all was lost,) strategem (x 3, stratagem,) “a whole series of caresses were necessary to calm her” (a whole series … was necessary.)

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