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David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2007, 159 p plus xii p Introduction. Translated from the French (Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1929) by Sandra Smith.

David Golder cover

This was Némirovsky’s second novel and in it she was to some extent finding her feet but it still exhibits some of the concerns and influences which were to dominate her work.

David Golder is a financier born into poverty in the Russian Empire but who now lives in France. He has a wife, Gloria, who, despite him lifting her out of the same poverty as his, wants his money but nothing else, indeed is unsatisfied with all he has provided for her. They have an indulged flibbertigibbet of a daughter, Joyce, who also only sees Golder as a source of funds. The crisis of the book begins when his business partner Simon Marcus – whom Golder is tired of bailing out – commits suicide after Golder refuses to help him out of financial trouble again. There was something about this that somehow brought to mind the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Némirovsky’s intent is very different to that of Dickens, though.

There are some similarities to the work of F Scott Fitzgerald as the book is set in a milieu which presents a far from attractive face. Némirovsky demonstrates well the unthinking lack of proportion which comes with affluence apparently easily gained. Both Gloria and Joyce seem to think Golder has not had to make any effort to garner the largesse they squander so profligately on their gold-digging boyfriends and vacuous pursuits.

For against appearances Golder’s financial times are hard. When he suffers a heart attack his wife conspires with the doctor who attends to conceal it from him so as he will not stop work and the money will continue to flow. His crash comes anyway and wife and daughter both leave him.

In one sense it is not surprising that Némirovsky makes Golder Jewish. It was her inheritance after all and Golder’s family bears some resemblance to hers – though we can assume not the vacuous daughter. In another author’s hands it might have tended only to reinforce the stereotype that many French held of Jews. At the time of writing the Dreyfus Affair, though partially obscured by the legacy of the Great War, still hung over Némirovsky’s adopted country. But Golder has a weak spot, Joyce, whom he continues to indulge even at the risk of his life. We find his driving force towards the end of the book, the crushing poverty and anti-Semitism he had endured in his childhood on the shores of the Black Sea.

David Golder isn’t Némirovsky at her peak but it is still worth reading Once again it is best to leave the introduction (by Patrick Markham) to the end as it discusses features of the plot and of Golder’s character.

Pedant’s corner:- predelictions (the word is spelled predilections,) “now there’s one enemy less” (“one enemy fewer” sounds more natural to me,) “his entire body felt wracked” (racked, it felt crushed, not wrecked,) “‘Once he’d paid for something, he watches over it,’” (either, “once he’s paid for something”, or else, “he’d watch over it”,) “a newspaper that was laying on the table,” (how can a newspaper lay anything? It was lying on the table,) “in the Ukraine” (in dialogue, but the speaker came from there so most likely would have said “in Ukraine.”)

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 233 p. Translated from the Spanish El Otoño del Patriarca, 1975, by Gregory Rabassa.

 The Autumn of the Patriarch cover

It would be difficult to review this book without considering its form and structure, which are not for the faint-hearted, demanding concentration from the reader. There are six sections in all and each one consists of but a single long paragraph containing meandering sentences ranging up to several pages or more in length. Indeed the last section had just one sentence stretching over 45 pages. Within these digressive sentences the narrative viewpoint frequently switches back and forth, neither is there dialogue in the conventional sense, only reports of speech – perhaps interspersed with a “general sir”, or other vocative interpolation, to indicate that the preceding phrase is supposed to have been spoken. But for those viewpoint changes (some of which are in the plural) the prose could almost be described as stream of consciousness – or even stream of unconsciousness as one interpretation is that it represents the patriarch’s last thoughts; his life flashing past him as it ebbs away, “he was condemned not to know life except in reverse,” imagining again the events that brought him to his lonely end.

The autumn of the title is the long period of decay during which the (unnamed and, reportedly, absurdly long-lived,) patriarch retreated into solitude and his power rested on his reputation. The litany of atrocities and sexual peccadillos is what you might expect from a man of this sort, though he is portrayed as having an affection for both his mother, Bendicíon Alvarado, and the woman, Leticia Nazareno, he plucked from being a novitiate to share his bed.

The hall of mirrors that is living under a dictatorship is illustrated by lines such as, “We knew no evidence of his death was final, because there was always another truth behind the truth,” and “a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth,” and “the belief that the less people understand the more afraid they’ll be.” These are lessons always needing to be learned it would seem. There is also an odd passage where we are told the patriarch had had “brought from Scotland eighty-two new born bulldogs …evilly taught to kill by a Scottish trainer.” I wondered why Márquez had chosen Scotland; it’s not particularly known for bulldogs.

The Autumn of the Patriarch is an exercise in form and experiment bearing few of the easy consolations of a conventional novel. It’s a tour-de-force certainly, but it’s not one for the casual reader.

A word for the translator, Gregory Rabassa. This must have been a particularly tricky book to translate and he has done a magnificent job. Rabassa was credited by Márquez of making the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude superior to the original Spanish. Sadly, he died in June 2016. So it goes.

And a warning for those who wish to avoid the n-word, in which case don’t read the next sentence. The phrase “nigger whorehouse” appears in the text.

Pedant’s corner:- nowthat (now that,) bureaus (I prefer bureaux,) convenience’ sake (convenience’s sake,) insignias (insignia. Is insignias USian?)

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 300 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Also in the Scotsman’s 20 Best Scottish Books.

 Under the Skin cover

Well this is an odd tale. A woman named Isserley trawls up and down the A9 between Tain and Dunkeld searching for male – and only male, well-muscled at that – hitchhikers to pick up. The narrative is mostly from Isserley’s viewpoint but small interludes are given to the thoughts of her various pick-ups. She calls their species vodsels and it soon turns out she has been surgically modified – apparently to make her more attractive to these males – and has the intent to drug them via a concealed apparatus under the front passenger seat of her battered looking car. She then takes them back to a farm where members of her own species (which she of course knows as human) “process” them. Her backstory as a beautiful young woman betrayed by richer young men and plucked from a miserable existence in “the Estates” to undergo the mutilations which have rendered her acceptable to vodsel eyes (at least on brief scrutiny) is given a lot of space. However, other than the unsavoury nature of the job Isserley would have had to perform there (to produce oxygen from filth) no more detail is given about these Estates than that they are to be avoided at almost any cost.

Granted, the book is set in Scotland and Faber lives in the Highlands but apart from occasional descriptions of scenery (which, admittedly is a pronounced trait in Scottish literature) there isn’t anything particularly Scottish about it. The book’s other flaws also lead me to wonder why it should appear on that list of 100 “best” Scottish books. Apart from their sexual and economic dynamics, portrayed as more or less the same as that of us vodsels, we learn almost nothing about the species to which Isserley belongs to except that their planet is short of oxygen, water and living space, they have a fondness for vodsel meat, a reverence for creatures who walk on all fours, and their general appearance. Their ships are apparently capable of moving into and out of what is in effect a barn without anyone in the wider world noticing. The attractiveness of Earth as a planet to her species, broad skies, open water, water falling from the sky, is made plain though.

Isserley has learned English mostly from television programmes but lately she reflects, “there was no point trying to orient yourself to reality with television. It only made things worse.” She avoids contact with the Police by always travelling well below the speed limit and avoiding flashing blue lights but, even if she is careful to determine the (lack of) marital and employment status of her victims before drugging them, it does stretch credulity that she can pick up and remove from their everyday lives so many people from such a relatively small area in such a short time – she sometimes picks up two a day – without causing some sort of official concern.

Despite its Science-fictional scenario, like Faber’s later The Book of Strange New Things, this, his first published novel, fails to hit the SF buttons square on. It does contain some fine writing at the level of the sentence and garnered a lot of praise when it came out but I found myself unable to discern what purpose Faber had in mind when conceiving it. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that there is less to Under the Skin than meets the eye.

Pedant’s corner:- “as if her perfectly sculpted little nose had indeed been sculpted” (two “sculpted”s in close proximity,) “cruising safely off the bridge at the far end” (cruising safely off the far end of the bridge,) “All was not necessarily lost though.” (Not all was necessarily lost,) “it was no place for a claustrophobic” (the noun is claustrophobe,) hingeing (makes sense for a Scottish writer to spell it this way as hinging is Scots for hanging.)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Fourth Estate, 2001, 646 p, plus iii p Author’s Note.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay cover

I was immediately struck by this book’s opening sentence, “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of fans at a comic book convention …. Sam Clay liked to declare … that back when he was a boy … that he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.” In its essential form this has similarities to the first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Not a bad model to aspire to. Chabon’s opening sentence is, however, less stark, more elaborate than Marquez’s, being replete with subclauses and apparent asides. In this it is at one with many of the ones that follow, exquisite, information packed, beautifully constructed sentences unfolding over several lines yet seeming almost effortless, not a word out of place nor too much. Yet other sentences are admirably short. This is a book that has some very good writing indeed. At the same time it is also a compelling story. And it has occasional footnotes. What’s not to like?

The Kavalier and Clay of the title are respectively Joe and Sammy, cousins, both artists, who invent a comic book hero known as The Escapist, inspired by Kavalier’s training as an escapologist in Prague in the 1930s. They meet when Joe Kavalier turns up at the Klayman household in New York after his fraught journey from Czechoslovakia (via Lithuania and Japan) the setting up of which required almost all the money his family could scrape together to save at least one of their number. There are echoes of Márquez’s magical realism in Joe’s escape from Nazi occupation; inside a coffin which also contains the (disguised) Golem of Prague. The Escapist character is a great success – punching Hitler on the nose and otherwise bashing Nazis speaking to a latent emotion – as are other creations of theirs such as Luna Moth, riding the boom in comic books of the time. Despite exploitation by their publisher (the standard contract handed over the rights to their characters) they still manage to make a fair bit of money. Joe is continually worried about his family in Prague and his cash mostly goes to finding out their well-being or otherwise and to bringing his younger brother Thomas and other Jewish children to the US. In amongst details of their personal lives – Joe’s affair with Rosa Luxemburg Sax and Sammy’s incipient homosexuality laying the ground for later developments – Chabon also delivers to us a history of the comic book.

Given my interest in Art Deco and Moderne architecture I was particularly delighted by the scene set in the abandoned remains of “that outburst of gaudy hopefulness”, the New York World’s Fair 1939-40.

In a sentence that has striking echoes for the world in which I was reading the book Chabon says, “One of the sturdiest precepts of the human delusion is that every golden age is either in the past or the offing.” Arguably the real delusion is that there ever was, or will be, a golden age.

The shadow of the wider world never lifts from Joe, even if on joining up on the final entry of the US into World War 2 the navy sends him to the Antarctic rather than to kill Germans. A novel of folk caught up in “interesting times” may be a shortcut to wider significance but, “The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed at all,” is as true of more settled eras. And the events in Europe and elsewhere are backdrop to the human stories here. For all that, as well as a story of love and loss, tragedy and redemption (or a kind of catharsis,) at its heart The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a pæan to the comic book. And Chabon has made art out of its history.

Pedant’s corner:- the local Gestapo bureau (this was on the border between Poland and Lithuania, hence before the German invasion of Poland; so no Gestapo. Even if after the German invasion the border would have been between the Soviet controlled area of Poland and Lithuania so still no Gestapo,) beltoids (deltoids?) from which dangle … an array (an array dangles,) Longchamps’ (Longchamps’s,) “a Brooklyn Dodgers football game” (the Brooklyn Dodgers were a baseball team; still are, though they moved to LA,) lists of dramatis personae (dramatis personae plural would be dramatum personae,) “there were a fair number of moths” (x 2, there was a fair number,) aetataureate (an invention by Chabon meaning “of the golden age”,) missing start quote on a piece of dialogue at a chapter start (probably the publisher’s house-style, but annoying just the same,) a number of orders were issued (a number was issued,) maw (for an entrance. A maw is a stomach,) “‘Oh much more than see him’” (seen him makes more sense,) chile con carne (not spelled chile.)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Phoenix, 2005, 506 p, plus i p summary, i p about the author, ii p “For discussion”, x p “A walk in the footsteps of The Shadow in the Wind” including ii p maps. Translated by Lucia Graves from the Spanish La sombra del viento, Editorial Planeta, 2002.

The Shadow of the Wind cover

Well, this all started out promisingly enough with ten year old Daniel Sempere being taken by his father to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books to pick one out for himself, to keep it alive. This conceit hinted that the novel would be one of those books about books and the importance of the word like The Name of the Rose, especially since Daniel is told, “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens,” but the novel soon veers off into more conventional unravelling a mystery territory.

The book Daniel picks is titled The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax. Daniel reads it and is enthralled, wishing to find out more about its author and any other books he may have written. But Carax is an elusive creature. Very few of his books (most of which sold in pitifully small numbers) survive. In addition a mysterious man going under the name Lain Coubert, a character in Carax’s Shadow of the Wind, is going around buying them up – in order to burn them. Already we are in a recursive situation, a loop which is in essence claustrophobic. Too many of the characters in the book are bound up either with Daniel, Carax or both.

Daniel’s first infatuation is with the blind Clara, quite a few years his senior. Their (necessarily) chaste relationship – and her entanglement with her piano teacher – is somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but as if off-key, though paradoxically, given Marquez’s magic realism, none of this aspect of Zafón’s novel feels natural. It appears forced, occurring only at Zafón’s will. Other backstories read like information dumping and there are too many parallels between Carax’s life and Daniel’s; between his friend Tomás Aguilar and Carax’s, Jorge Aldaya, between his first lover Beatriz Aguilar and Carax’s, Penélope Aldaya.

As an example of an authorial misstep Zafón has Daniel tell Bea about Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind that, “This was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life,” inviting us to draw a parallel that had been obvious long before. Yes, Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, is a memorable character but the villain of the piece, Inspector Francisco Javier Fumero, tends to the cartoonish, his obsession with Carax insufficiently founded – at least to me. There are, too, frequent recapitulations of the story to other characters. The Aldaya mansion on the Avenida del Tibidabo, though, is a gothic enough creation, along with the statues in its grounds.

Attempts at background verisimilitude also fall down at times. An old quack’s “sole remaining wish was for Barcelona’s football team to win the league, once and for all, so that he could die in peace.” This is an odd observation for someone to make in 1954 as Barcelona had most recently won La Liga in season 1952-3 and also the one before. Again in 1954 a restaurant manager apologises for poor service by saying, “‘But s’afternoon, it being the European Cup semi-final, we’ve had a lot of customers. Great game.’” The first European Cup semi-finals did not take place till 1956. Similarly there is a mention of the League Cup – but the La Liga Cup did not start till 1984 (and only lasted four years.) Did Zafón perhaps have the Copa del Rey in mind?

Still, “‘Mysteries must be solved, one must find out what they hide,’” and I suppose this is what keeps us reading but while it may be true that, “People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t complicated enough,” I’m not sure I agree with the assertion, “‘When we stand in front of a coffin, we only see what is good, or what we want to see.’”

Set where and when it is The Shadow of the Wind could not avoid touching on the fallout of the Spanish Civil War but it does so only tangentially. It is eminently readable but in the end it doesn’t manage to achieve the stature that the author is clearly striving for. Quite simply in this book Zafón is trying too hard.

Pedant’s corner:- “a couple of nuns …. mumbling under their breath” (ought really to be breaths,) polanaises (polonaises; this correct form is used later in the book,) “froze the blood in my veins” (really? Especially when followed on the next page by “my blood froze,”) the Barcelós apartment (Barceló’s,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s,) automatons (okay it’s acceptable in English – as well as automata, the plural from the Greek,) “none of the drawings were more than rough sketches” (none was more than a rough sketch,) faggotry (a USianism,) “‘It’s my fault,’ I said. I should have said something…’” (missing open quote mark after “I said.”) “An act of charity or friendship on behalf of an ailing lady” (‘on the part of’ is meant,) “which violated at least five of six recognized mortal sins,” (shouldn’t that be “five or six”? – and violated here seems to mean committed,) morgue (mortuary,) with sudden heartfelt hug (with a sudden,) catlike smile the smile of a mischievous child (a missing comma after the first smile,) garoted (garrotted,) Jacintaʻs vision (has a backward, and upside down, apostrophe,) “so that he can have a brain scan” (a brain scan? In 1954?) Barnarda (her name everywhere else in the novel is Bernarda,) passion (passion,) a benzine lighter (the term used in English is cigarette lighter,) “and whose specialty was Latin, trigonometry, and gymnastics, in that order,” (that’s three specialties.)
Plus points for “not all was lost”.

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

Immortality by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1991, 391 p. Translated from the Czech Nesmrtelnost by Peter Kussi.

Immortality cover

In the first chapter the narrator tells of seeing a gesture by a woman who was just leaving a swimming pool and which inspired him to write the novel. I was struck by the ageist perspective with which Kundera treats this incident. Be that as it may, gestures and their meanings, their particularity or otherwise, are a feature of the book.

Set mainly in Paris (where Kundera settled after leaving Czechoslovakia) the meat of the book lies in the relationships between Agnes, her husband Paul, and her sister Laura. There are similarities here to the writing of Irène Némirovsky, also an exile in Paris, but at an earlier time. Unlike Némirovsky though, Kundera delves into the deeper past in order to interrogate the means of achieving immortality, in the sense of remaining famous after death, by examining the relationship between Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim) and Goethe, which has mostly been seen through the lens of Brentano’s accounts. Ernest Hemingway too makes appearances – notably in discussions with Goethe in the afterlife – as does Beethoven, and there is a disquisition on Don Quixote. The author himself also features as a character. (Perhaps it was this book which gave Orhan Pamuk that idea.)

The narration comments on itself at various points, and at times does not so much foreshadow as give the later game away. We are told of the death of one character and explore its consequences long before being shown it and that in Part Six a new character will appear and then vanish without trace – as indeed he does; but only to present us with a connection to another that had hitherto not been mentioned (or deliberately hidden.)

The narrator/Kundera notes a historical transition in the toppling of Richard Nixon not by arms nor intrigues but the mere force of questioning, the power of the Eleventh Commandment “Tell the truth.” (Sadly that power no longer seems to work.) He also tells us that nineteenth century writers ended their novels with a marriage not to protect their readers from marital boredom but to save them from intercourse. “All the great European love stories take place in an extra-coital setting…. there was no great love after pre-coital love, and there couldn’t be…. Extra-coital love: a pot on the fire, in which feeling boils to a passion, and makes the lid shake and dance like a soul possessed.” How much of this is an echo of Kundera’s own attitude to intercourse is a matter for conjecture. (Compare “The Unbelievable Prevalence of Bonking” as Iain Banks, in The Crow Road, characterised another of Kundera’s works.)

In amongst all the narrator’s philosophising are sprinkled some bons mots, “A person is nothing but his image” and “I think therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid.”

While at times the prose had the feel of a history book and of the literary work in general – one incident in particular reminded me of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterImmortality was never difficult to read – a tribute to the translator, Peter Kussi, perhaps.

Pedant’s corner:- Saint Vitus’ dance (Vitus’s,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) assininity (asininity,) Avenarius’ (Avenarius’s,) Hals’ (Hals’s.)

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Pushkin Press, 2014, 345 p. Translated from the Finnish Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta by Atena Kustannus.

 The Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

After a diagnosis of defective ovaries and a broken engagement Ella Milana has returned to her childhood home of Rabbit Back to take up a post as a substitute teacher. On reading a pupil’s essay where his description of the contents does not match her recollections she discovers on inspecting his copy that odd things are happening to the contents of books in the town. They are becoming plastic, events occur in them that ought not to be there. The local librarian, Ingrid Katz, takes the offending items to destroy them.

Rabbit Back is the home of Finnish literature, author Laura White many years ago having used her fame to recruit a group of talented children – all of whom are now successful in their own right – into the Rabbit Back Literature Society whose membership is one short of its maximum number. Ella’s own literary efforts are rewarded by publication in Rabbit Tracks, a local publication, and attract Laura White’s attention. She is offered that tenth position.

On the night of her inauguration White – in full view of the assembled guests – disappears from her own living room in a whirl of snow never to be seen again and Ella discovers there was an earlier tenth member, which intrigues her – especially when she finds he died in an accident. Membership of the Society is accompanied by a system of challenge known as The Game whereby each member can demand the truth of any question about another member; a reciprocal process known as spilling and the source of many of their stories. Through The Game Ella tries to find out about the original tenth member and what happened to him.

During one of these sessions a fellow member says to her, “‘Where would we be if anything at all could turn up in books?’” that under one reality there’s always another, “And another one under that.” In addition, “Sometimes reality shrivels up and blisters around Laura White” who, incidentally, believed that bacteria on books could alter their contents. Another tells her that everybody knows that “no healthy person would take up writing novels… literature… is mental derangement run through a printing press.”

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a sideways look at the whodunnit, with the aura of fantasy and more than a whiff of literary game-playing to it. Enjoyable stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- tasteless (distasteful, x 2,) she tried to smile broader than before (more broadly,) as an Laura White-trained author (a Laura White-trained,) “‘I had a true natural talent in handling the ball’” (in football it’s playing the ball – unless you’re a goalkeeper; the speaker wasn’t,) out of bounds (similarly, the term is out of play,) spread out broader (again; more broadly,) the jackets on your novels (of your novels is a more natural phrase,) it didn’t even phase me (faze,) overtime (over time.)

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Flamingo, 2001, 508 p, plus vii p Introduction and iv p Appendix of Works by Gao Xingjian. Translated from the Chinese, 灵山 (Língshān,) by Mabel Lee.

Soul Mountain cover

Xingjian is China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (though he has for a long time lived in France) and Soul Mountain his most well-known work. In it there is certainly a literary knowingness at work. At first it seems as if alternating chapters are being narrated in the second person, a notoriously unusual, and brave, strategy – with the intervening chapters apparently a more conventional first person – but it isn’t quite so, as the treatment is subtler than that. In fact the “you” of the “second person” chapters is an unnamed character in the novel – as are the “I” and “she” we also find within its covers. His portrait of historical China makes it seem a harsh, lawless place. The book contains an astonishing number of casually reported rapes and abductions of women.

Interspersed with innumerable tales and occasional poems or folk song transcriptions the novel is on the surface the story of a writer, unable to be published after being labelled a rightist, wandering around China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title, and the various encounters he has on the way, many of which are enigmatic. A blurb on the back describes it as “a picaresque novel on an epic scale” which “bristles with narratives in miniature”, and it certainly is picaresque in the dictionary definition. However, another word for it might be “bitty”.

The trouble is that the “you” and “I” are barely distinguishable and there is little in the way of forward thrust. In the writer’s voice Xingjian tells us, “I never speak of we or us. I believe that this is much more concrete than the sham we which is totally meaningless. Even if you and she and he and masculine they and feminine they are images of the imagination, for me they are all more substantial than what is known as we…. How many of we are in fact implicated? There is nothing more false than this we,” – an extract which conveys some of the flavour of the book’s reflective passages.

Xingjian’s purpose is, perhaps, laid out in Chapter 72 where a critic complains, “‘This isn’t a novel!’” and when asked what, then, it is, says, “‘A novel must have a complete story.’” Our narrator says he has told many stories some with endings, some without, and the critic responds, “‘They’re all fragments without any sequence, the author doesn’t know how to organise connected episodes.’” As to how the critic thinks a novel ought to be organised, foreshadowing, climax then conclusion are cited. Our author then asks “if fiction can be written without conforming to (that) method …. with ‘parts told from beginning to end and parts from end to beginning, parts with a beginning and no ending and others which are only conclusions or fragments which aren’t followed up, parts which are developed but aren’t completed or which can’t be completed or which can be left out or which don’t need to be told any further or about which there’s nothing more to say. And all of these would also be considered stories.’” He retorts to the suggestion that there are no characters, “‘But surely the I, you and she in the book are characters?’” The critic claims, “‘These are just different pronouns to change the point of view of the narrative. This can’t replace the portrayal of characters,’” and also, “‘This is modernist, it’s imitating the West but falling short….. You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!’” (This last could easily stand as a critique of the book.) In a less ambitious work the chapter’s ending, “Reading this chapter is optional but as you’ve read it, you’ve read it,” might feel like a slap in the face to a reader. As it is we’ve known for a long time the book is not straightforward.

In the guise of his writer Xingjian also says, “in the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences, the dregs left from linguistic structures.” It is as if he is saying the practice of writing is useless. “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.” Not a sentiment I would have expected to read in a Nobel Prize winner’s book.

Pedant’s corner:- “it was annoying there was a place you’ve never even heard of” (past tense so “you’d”?) Peddlers (USian for pedlars,) eying (eyeing,) undefinable (indefinable?) “there are a series of courtyards” (there is a series,) bungers (these seem to be fireworks; so, bangers?) “this his how fights often start” (is,) “I didn’t seen anything clearly” (see,) “with no-one is sight” (in sight.) “Outside the upstairs widow” (window, I think,) “the band of shining feathers puff out” (the band puffs out,) wreathes (wreaths,) “none of the people sell tops” (none sells tops,) a fire burnt for days (burned is more usual as the past tense, burnt as the past participle,) mucous (as a noun; so, mucus,) an inscriptions (inscription.) “It is only when I stop the recorder to change the tape that, panting, that he too comes to a stop” (one “that” too many,) “came from an other” (is there a different meaning when “another” is used?) “of what consequence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written” (one book fewer?) “the totality of my misfortunes also exist within you” (the totality exists,) cockscombs (cocks’ combs,) “and you stop there and to look” (and look, or omit and,) “A unfriendly voice answers.” (An unfriendly voice,) stomaches (stomachs,) “I immediately open the rice wine right away” (immediately or right away; not both,) high-pitch voice (usually high-pitched.) “Where else can we find these songs which we should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found?” (“can we find”, or, “be found”, not both,) “Aren’t I welcome?” (Do the Chinese phrase this so ungrammatically?) “is that job?” (your job,) “‘But where is the criteria?’” (are,) “the lens were so worn they were like frosted glass” (lenses.) “The Immortal Cliffs slowly recedes” (recede,) artemesia (artemisia.) “Fragments of that hoary old voice sings” (fragments sing,) “his eyes have sunken deep” (sunk,) “striking it everywhere from its centre to their sides” (its sides,) “we… put our thumb print to it” (we; so, prints.)

The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2013, 162 p, plus iii p Translator’s Note and iv p Preface to the French Edition. Translated from the French Le Malentendu by Sandra Smith.

 The Misunderstanding cover

This short novel, originally published in 1924, when the author was 21, examines the love affair between Yves Harteloup and Denise Jessaint. Yves is a former soldier, a veteran of Verdun, but his family’s fortunes have been ruined by the war and he has been forced to work for a poor living. Denise is married (more out of a sense of duty than love) but she is still sexually ingenuous when they meet. Crucially though, her husband is well off. The mismatch in her circumstances and Yves’s is not so apparent at the holiday resort where in Denise’s husband’s absence on business they first spend time together but comes to dominate their relationship when they return to Paris. Denise is frustrated by Yves’s failure to say he loves her, Yves by her inability to act as submissively and devotedly as he would wish. Their mutual misunderstandings lead to a dissatisfaction on both their parts. A piece of advice from her mother precipitates their relationship’s crisis.

Even at this stage of her writing career Némirovsky had a firm grip on her subject matter. There are parallels with Madame Bovary here of which Némirovsky was undoubtedly conscious. Despite this being a first novel, her insights into character and attitudes are already well developed. Quite how much force there is in Denise’s cousin’s assertion that, “In the end, there’s no woman on Earth you can’t get over ….. We men know that from birth,” is debatable, though probably true in the vast majority of cases.

Once again (though see below) Sandra Smith’s translation flows smoothly but she is working with the best of materials. Any Némirovsky novel it would seem is well worth reading.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung up (sprang up,) “and white peacocks roamed the grounds were planted with” (seems to be missing a which.)

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