‘Sextet: Six Essays’ by Henry Miller (1977 Club)

As the title suggests this book contains six essays, which were individually published by Capra Press in the 1970s when Henry Miller was then into his eighties. The collection includes On Turning Eighty, originally published in 1972; Reflections on the Death of Mishima, originally published in 1972; First Impressions of Greece, originally published in 1973; The Waters Reglitterized, Miller on the subject of water-colours, originally published in 1973 but looks like it was written in 1939; Reflections on the Maurizius Case, Miller’s thoughts on Jakob Wassermann’s book, originally published in 1974; Mother, China, and the World Beyond, originally published in 1977. The collection was originally published in 1977 by Capra Press. My version was published by John Calder in 1980.

Sextet, it has to be said, is a book for the Miller afficionado only. They are essays on a variety of subjects and each one was written with a friend in mind. I originally bought and read this book back in the early nineties (I think) and although the essays are of variable quality there are two parts of the book that I really liked: the first is the cover of the octogenarian Miller enjoying a pint and the other is the opening paragraph of the opening essay, On Turning Eighty:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on your way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss – under your breath, of course – “Fuck you, Jack! you don’t own me.” If you can whistle up your ass, if you can be turned on by a fetching bottom or a lovely pair of teats, if you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from going sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.

Unfortunately the rest of the essay, and the rest of the book also, is not up to the standard of this opening paragraph. Miller goes on to give a bit of a rambling old man’s monologue on what is good and what is bad with modern life and growing old. Miller covers love, friendship, idealogies, reading and euthanasia amongst other subjects.

I thought that the essay titled First Impressions of Greece was going to be quite interesting but it seemed to be little more than random notes from his visit to Greece and Corfu in the late 1930s. In The Waters Reglitterized Miller writes about his enthusiasm for painting water-colours. I thought this would be a bit dull but Miller’s enthusiasm comes through and makes it quite an interesting read. In the essay, Reflections on the Death of Mishima, Miller tries to explain his loss, confusion and exasperation over Mishima’s suicide in 1970. It’s interesting to read because Miller, usually sure of his own beliefs and opinions, is here confused with Mishima as man and artist. One of the main problems that Miller had with Mishima was his total lack of humour.

His utter seriousness, it seems to me, stood in Mishima’s way.

Mishima’s cult of the perfect body was an example, for Miller, of Mishima’s extreme seriousness. He struggles to come to terms with Mishima’s life as well as his death.

The other literary essay (Reflections on the Maurizius Case) is Miller’s thoughts on one of his favourite books, The Maurizius Case by Jakob Wassermann, which was originally published in 1929. The book, which is the first part of a trilogy, concerns a miscarriage of justice. Miller initially makes the book sound quite interesting:

The book offers no balm, no solutions. All the characters involved in the affair suffer tragic fates with the exception of Anna Jahn who had committed the murder for which Maurizius was unjustly punished.

However, by the end of the essay I wasn’t sure if I would be prepared to read a trilogy with such hyper-Dostoyevskian characters. In trying to hype the book I felt that Miller made it feel a little annoying and may have unwittingly done it a disservice.

In the last essay, Mother, China, and the World Beyond, Miller, rather unusually for him, imagines meeting his mother in the afterworld following his own death. He had never really liked his austere mother in real life, but in this essay she seems to have softened enough for him to like and respect her. Writing this essay must have been a cathartic experience for Miller, especially when we read the last lines:

   When I looked up I perceived my mother some distance away. She appeared to be on her way out. Looking more carefully, I observed that she was waving to me, waving good-bye.
   With that I stood up, my eyes wet with tears, and giving a mighty shout, I cried: “Mother, I love you. I love you! Do you hear me?”
   I imagined that I saw a faint smile illumine her face and then suddenly she was no more.
   I was alone, but more alone than I had ever felt on Earth. And I would be alone, perhaps, for centuries or, who knows, perhaps through all eternity.

OK, this is one for the Miller purists only and not the general reader. This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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‘Fluke’ by James Herbert (1977 Club)

James Herbert is a famous British horror writer; his first novel Rats quickly became a bestseller, as did many of his subsequent books. I got in to Herbert’s books, along with other horror and gothic writers, when I was in my teens in the 1980s. I read a fair amount of his books that had been published at the time, including Fluke. Although he became famous with the ‘Rat’ books (there were two sequels to RatsThe Lair and Domain) and other gory horror books he didn’t totally restrict himself to this sub-genre; although most of his books would be classed as horror some were more supernatural stories, ghost stories or thrillers. Fluke is one of the more untypical books by Herbert as it is the story of a dog from the dog’s viewpoint—well, the dog is actually a man that’s been reincarnated as a dog. I originally read this nearly thirty years ago and I vaguely remember not liking it as much as his other books but I felt like including it in my reading for the ‘1977 Club’ as I wondered what I’d make of it today. I also felt like reading something a little less highbrow than a lot of my current reading so it ticked all the boxes.

The novel begins with Fluke being born, or reborn, as a dog. His first memories are of the warmth and comfort of his mother and siblings and also of being handled by humans. As Fluke is adopted by his new owner we get to see the world from Fluke’s point of view. The taste of human skin is particularly delightful but the noise and smells of a London street take some getting used to, especially the huge metal monsters that race about at incredible speeds. Fluke’s experience with his first owners doesn’t work out and he finds himself back in a dog’s home where he feels unloved and becomes a bit of a troublemaker by howling and snarling a lot and tormenting some of the other dogs. But it is during this period that Fluke begins to have dreams or memories of a previous life as a human; as a husband and a father.

   Reborn.
   I screamed and the scream woke me.
   My head felt as if it would explode with the new knowledge. I wasn’t a dog; I was a man. I had existed before as a man and somehow I had become trapped inside an animal’s body. A dog’s body. How? And why? Mercifully the answers evaded me; if they hadn’t, if they had come roaring through at that point, I think I should have become insane.

Overhearing two workers talking about him having to be put down Fluke decides to escape and ends up roaming the streets of London. Fluke’s experiences with humans is mixed but he never manages to settle into a happy co-existence with them though he is always drawn back to them. Fluke’s experiences are sometimes brutal but there is also kindness and joy; as Fluke often tells us—dogs are optimistic creatures.

Things change when he meets another dog, Rumbo, with whom Fluke can communicate. Rumbo takes Fluke under his wing and shows him how to survive in the city by both begging and stealing. Fluke is also accepted by Rumbo’s owner, a scrap-metal merchant, who only feeds them occasionally so they have to fend for themselves most of the time. We follow the two dogs as they steal meat from butchers shops, play in the parks, catch rats and get to know each other. Fluke is inquisitive about their ability to communicate with each other and when he tries to talk about his previous life as a human Rumbo refuses to discuss it. It’s not until later in the novel that he is able to discuss this aspect of his existence with a wise badger. Events mean that Fluke has to leave the scrap-metal yard and the urge to find out about his previous life becomes overpowering so he tries to find the town where he used to live, however, he only has vague memories of his life as a human.

Although there are some violent scenes in this book, such as a fight between Rumbo and a large rat, there are also many comical passages. In one chapter Fluke arrives in a town, hungry as usual, and endears himself with a little old lady, called Miss Birdle, who makes a big fuss of him. She takes him home and pampers him. But she also owns a cat, a spiteful, vicious thing called Victoria, who tries her best to get Fluke into trouble with their owner. There are chases and fights between cat and dog that end up with all the crockery getting broken, Victoria making her escape through a glass window and Fluke doing the same in another instance. On top of this Miss Birdle has a bit of a viscious streak and occasionally metes out a swift kick at Fluke for no apparent reason or locks him in a room for days.

Round and round that kitchen we ran, knocking chairs over, crashing against cupboards, shouting and screaming at each other, too far gone with animal rage to concern ourselves with the noise we were making and the damage we were doing.

After another similar incident Miss Birdle deliberately sets the fire going after Victoria has raced up the chimney; soot and a smoking cat end up coming down and Victoria escapes for good. Fluke tries to carry on living there after Victoria has gone but after further incidents he decides it’s just not worth it as the woman is clearly nuts.

I won’t reveal what happens at the end but Fluke now is determined to complete his odyssey back to his human family even though the badger he meets tries to dissuade him from doing so. Herbert manages to wrap everything up neatly leaving nothing ambiguous at the end, although it’s pretty clear what is going to happen Herbert does have a little twist at the end. I wonder if this was Herbert’s response to that other anthropomorphic novel from the seventies, Watership Down.

I shall end with an amusing quote that appears near the end of the book where Fluke is looking back on his life as a dog.

I’ve talked with, eaten with, and played with so many different species my head aches trying to remember them all. I’ve been amazed at and chuckled over the neuroses in the animal world: I’ve met a pig who thought he was a horse; a cow who stuttered; a bull who was bullied by a shrew he shared a field with; a duckling who thought he was ugly (and he was); a goat who thought he was Jesus; a woodpigeon who was afraid of flying (he preferred to walk everywhere); a toad who could croak Shakespeare sonnets (and little else); an adder who kept trying to stand up; a fox who was vegetarian; and a grouse who never stopped.

This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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‘A Flat Man’ by Ivor Cutler (1977 Club)

When I started to look for some books to choose for the ‘1977 Club’ I was pleased to see that Ivor Cutler had a book published that year. Unfortunately I didn’t have a copy even though I had several of his other books, records and CDs. When I began to look for copies the prices were very high, too high for me. But in the end I found an ex-library copy at about the price of a new book. What luck!

If you have never heard of Ivor Cutler then the Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘a Scottish poet, songwriter and humorist’ which is a fair description. I discovered him through John Peel’s radio show where Cutler’s poems and stories would often be incongruously placed between the likes of The Fall and Napalm Death. Many of us fell in love with his whimsical, surreal and sometimes just completely baffling poems, songs and stories. His poems were often set in a domestic or natural environment and often involve talking birds, cows or even bacteria—Ivor used to hand out stickers that said ‘befriend a bacterium’. His style is often childish or naive but will sometimes take a turn towards the dark side. He also wrote short stories mostly about his early life growing up in a poor Glaswegian neighbourhood in the 1920s/30s; these have been collected in books and records as Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 and Glasgow Dreamer. He also wrote several children’s books.

A main part of the appeal of Cutler’s work, at least it is for me, is in his delivery; he is quietly spoken, has a soft Scottish accent and is usually accompanied with his harmonium which gives his readings a dreamy quality. Many of the poems in this little book are also included on the CD, released in 1998, which is also called A Flat Man. I would have included audio files from that CD in this post but I would have to upgrade my WordPress account to do so, so we shall have to make do with just the text. Anyone who is familiar with Ivor Cutler will no doubt be able to imagine him reading these poems. If you have never heard Cutler here’s a YouTube link to an episode of Life in a Scotch Sitting Room.

Let’s kick off with a couple of the more whimsical poems.

I Ate a Lady’s Bun

I got taken to gaol.
I ate a lady’s bun.
On her head.
She got a fright.
It was a surprise.
Do not worry I said.
I am eating your bun.
I am hungry for a bun.
Police she cried a good
neighbour heard her
and phoned the
police.

You must not eat a lady’s bun even
if you are hungry.
And I am in jail.

Irk

Hello Mr Robinson.
Hello Mr Cutler
have a cup of tea
then
we’ll look at Mrs Robinson
who’s lying dead
next door.

(the next day)

Hello Mrs Robinson.
Hello Mr Cutler
have a cup of tea —
sorry about yesterday.

I don’t know why Cutler uses ‘gaol’ and then ‘jail’ in the same poem, maybe it was just for the hell of it. Irk, for some strange reason, isn’t included on the CD version; I don’t know why as it’s one of my favourites in the book. It’s Cutler at his silliest best. Next up is one of the longer poems from the book. I can only imagine that this really happened.

Birdswing

Got a letter
from a thrush.
Come and see
me compose.
So I went.
She stuck
her beak
into the ink
and sputtered
on to the manuscript.
Then sang it.
Tra la la
tweet tweet
warble warble
ptui ptui.
When she finished
I was asked
for an opinion.
With a grave look
I opined:
Well
it’s very good.
Regular thrush music
good range
plenty of variety
nice timbre.
Look Cutler
said thrush
do you think
it’s worth
making a demodisc
or a tape
and
going round the agents?
I think
it’s chart material.
Look thrush
I replied
it could only succeed
as a gimmick.
Yea, I suppose,
she tweeted
and flew
into a stump.

Ok, here are a few of his shorter pieces.

Fistyman

A man with a hand
like a hammer
was hanging
a portrait
of his wife.

The Long Way

Do not walk
through a tree.
Walk round
without losing
face.

And pity
those whose
security
is
superior
physical strength.

Unexpected Join

The
earth
meets the
sky over
the
hill.

I was
told
by
a sparrow with
a lump on
its head.

I can’t resist including another one so here’s some wise advice from Mr Cutler.

5 Wise Saws

1. Do not kick a grocer
on the leg.

2. If you kick a grocer
on the leg, make sure
it’s not a green grocer.

3. If you throw a ball,
it moves in the air.

4. You can not erase a
love letter with a
nipple, no matter how
rubbery.

5. If you empty your bowels
at night, a shepherd
will have a red face
in the morning.

Ok, that’s enough for now. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed entering the wacky world of Ivor Cutler. By the way, I was lucky enough to see Ivor Cutler perform live at the Hackney Empire back in the late ’80s or early ’90s (I can’t remember the actual date) which was a wonderful experience.

This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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‘Baudolino’ by Umberto Eco (Italian Lit Month)

I’m not entirely sure now why I chose to read Baudolino: It’s true that I’d read and loved Eco’s more famous works, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum and I was looking for something else to read from my TBR pile, possibly an Italian one so I could include it in Stu’s Italian Lit Month, but then I wasn’t in the mood for anything remotely fantastic, I was more in the mood for straightforward modern realism. So, I was only partially prepared for Eco’s story of Baudolino, an adopted son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and his tales of intrigue, deception and journeys to mythological places. Although I nearly abandoned the book at least twice I felt that it was an enjoyable read and the craziness of it won me over in the end. I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I had been more in the mood for it. But Eco, although loquacious, is still an entertaining writer and one who is remarkably easy to read even if we get lost in some of the twists and turns of the plot. Part of the attraction of Eco’s works is that he mixes real historical people and events with his own fictional accounts filling in missing details with whatever he feels like.

Baudolino tells Niketas Choniates, a Byzantine scholar, the story of his life and how he has ended up in Constantinople whilst it’s being ransacked by Western troops during the Fourth Crusade. Baudolino, the son of a peasant, has a natural skill for languages, being able to work out a language just from hearing people speak together. A chance meeting with Frederick I results in him being sold to and adopted by the emperor. Before long Frederick takes a new wife, Beatrice of Burgundy, whom Baudolino finds so beautiful that he can barely speak in her presence. Meanwhile Baudolino gets used to court life and is then sent to study in Paris. Many of the characters he meets in Paris play a significant part in the rest of the novel, such as The Poet, a man who aspires to be a poet even though he hasn’t ever written a poem in his life, or Abdul, a red-headed Moor who has access to his uncle’s prodigious library.

Frederick is in constant conflict with different Italian cities and values Baudolino’s honest advice even if he doesn’t always follow it. When Frederick besieges Baudolino’s old birthplace, Alessandria, now a fledgling city, he is sent to try to broker an agreement but instead gets mixed up in all sorts of shenaningans. During the ransacking of Milan Baudolino comes across the purported bodies of the Magi and manages to smuggle them out. He is then involved in trying to concoct a story that can be used to validate the Magi. Baudolino suggests that they could have come from a mythical land to the east ruled by Prester John.

   “Baudolino,” he [Rainald, Frederick’s chancellor] said at once, “I’ll deal with the Magi now; you must think about Prester John. From what you tell me, for the moment we have only rumours, and that’s not enough. We need a document that will attest to his existence, that says who he is, where he is, how he lives.”
   “And where will I find that?”
   “If you can’t find it, make it. The emperor has allowed you to study, and this is the moment to put your talents to use.”

And this is what Baudolino does, eventually; he writes a letter, purportedly from Prester John, offering the Holy Grail (or Grasal) to Frederick. But circumstances change and the letter is not used, not until he is tricked by a monk, called Zosimos, to show it to him and he somehow makes a copy of it whilst Baudolino is in a drunken stupor.

If you are planning to read Baudolino then it may be best to stop reading at this point

And then things get even more crazy. During the Third Crusade Baudolino bumps into Zosimos in Constantinople, Zosimos claims to have a map showing the way to Prester John and Baudolino fabricates the Grasal from an old wooden bowl—events have changed as they are now going to take the Grasal to Prester John as a gift. Frederick dies whilst in a locked room during a visit in a castle. It looks like it could have been murder and then it’s discovered that both Zosimos and the Grasal have disappeared. They assume he’s heading towards the lands of Prester John and so they aim for the same destination, even though they haven’t a clue where they are going. They venture on further east and end up in Pndapetzim, a land populated with many mythological creatures such as skiapods, blemmyae, ponces, pygmies, giants, panotians, nubians, satyrs and hypatias. At Pndapetzim the road to Prester John is still about a year’s march away and is guarded by a group of eunuchs.

As the novel became more fantastical I almost grew to like it more, possibly because I’d realised that it was going to get stranger as it progressed and I thought I’d just go with the flow. A lot of the reviews that I read suggests that many readers disliked this change of direction of the novel into the mythical. Eco certainly seems to enjoy pulling the reader one way and then another. My favourite part of this novel was during this period where Baudolino and his comrades were training all these strange creatures how to fight in a war, something they hadn’t had to do until then but had to now that there was an imminent threat from an invasion of White Huns. After all their effort their attempt at warfare is a complete shambles and they are overrun by the Huns. Baudolino flees and eventually gets back to Constantinople….on a roc, a large mythical bird of prey.

So, my experience of Baudolino was mixed: at times I found it a bit annoying, a bit too long, but then I enjoyed the playfulness of it and would probably have enjoyed it more if I had been in the right mood for it when I started it. I liked the mix of fact and fiction and often found myself checking things on Wikipedia or elsewhere and was surprised how much was either true or had existed as stories or mythologies. Eco did a great job of weaving them all into an incredible story and I found myself laughing quite often at the absurdity of the tale.

I read this as part of Stu’s Italian Literature Month.

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‘Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel’ by William Trevor

I make no apologies for reading and reviewing another William Trevor novel as one of my aims this year is to read as many books by William Trevor, Brian Moore and H.E. Bates as I feel like. I also hope to read at least one book by John Cowper Powys, an author I’ve been meaning to read for years now. I am concentrating on Trevor’s earlier books initially but I am not going to be a slave to chronology. Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was originally published in 1969, four years after The Boarding House (The Love Department was published inbetween these two) with which it shares some similarities. Although both books centre around a group of characters and a single building each book has a different set of characters and the situations that develop are quite unique.

The novel begins with Mrs Ivy Eckdorf, a professional photographer, originally from England and who now lives in Munich, brazenly and intrusively engage a man in conversation whilst on a flight to Dublin. She explains, despite the fact that the man doesn’t care, about her life:

   ‘The one who was my husband last,’ said Mrs Eckdorf, ‘gave me a taste for cognac. Hans-Otto Eckdorf.’
   ‘Oh yes?’
 ‘Indeed.’ She paused, and then she said: ‘That has been my life. A mother, a father who walked away. And then Miss Tample. And then two German businessmen. The only light in my life is my camera.’
   ‘I see.’
   ‘We are the victims of other people.’
   ‘It’s often so—’

It’s difficult to know where to stop the quotation as the flow of words from Mrs Eckdorf is constant. She intends to visit O’Neill’s Hotel in Thadeus Street, Dublin after hearing about it from a bartender on a ship. O’Neill’s is owned by a deaf ninety-one year-old called Mrs Sinnott who has offered lodging and employment to a number of orphans over the years. The hotel, once grand, has now fallen into disrepair and is suspected of being little more than a brothel. Mrs Eckdorf believes that something terrible happened in the past and that she can help uncover the source of their problems.

There are too many characters, brilliant characters, to cover them all but it is useful to get to know some of them. Mrs Sinnott’s fifty-eight year-old son, Eugene, basically lives off the hotel but does little to help in the running of it, instead he spends his time drinking and gambling. He spends his time analysing his dreams for racing tips. O’Shea is the hotel porter and is mainly responsible for the actual running of the hotel; he dreams of the days when the hotel was elegant and hopes that the current decay can be reversed. When Mrs Eckdorf arrives he mistakenly believes that this elegantly dressed woman intends to purchase the hotel in order to renovate it. He sees himself as Mrs Sinnott’s protector, from all the others, who are trying to take advantage of her. The worst of these people, in O’Shea’s eyes, is Morrissey; he’s a shady character who doesn’t actually live in the hotel but has somehow got a key and sneaks in at night to sleep in the hallway, and occasionally pass water in the backyard. Worse, he uses the hotel to pimp out Agnes Quinn to interested men. I always love a vivid character description, so here’s a description of Morrissey.

Morrissey was singularly small, a man in his mid-thirties who had once been compared to a ferret. He had a thin trap of a mouth and greased black hair that he perpetually attended, directing it back from his forehead with a clogged comb. He was dressed now, as invariably he was, in flannel trousers and the jacket of a blue striped suit over a blue pullover, and a shirt that was buttoned to the neck but did not have a tie in its collar.

Other characters include Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, who now lives elsewhere with their son, Timothy John. Timothy John is in love with a girl called Daisy Tulip and he works in an insurance agency under Mr Desmond Gregan, the husband of Enid Gregan, née Sinnott, Eugene’s sister. Desmond Gregan dreams of growing and selling tomatoes for a living instead of working in an insurance agency. If that’s complicated enough we have a travelling cardboard salesman called Mr Smedley who plays a significant part later on, Mrs Dargan a large prostitute who virtually lives at the Excelsior pub along with Eugene and others.

Ivy Eckdorf knowingly arrives at the hotel on the eve of Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday and the chaos ensues. If her actions at the beginning of the novel seemed erratic and confrontational then what follows is even more so. She knows how to win over O’Shea by telling him what he wants to hear but Eugene, for all his faults, has a keener eye and suspects something. Mrs Eckdorf wheedles her way into Mrs Sinnott’s room and communicates with her, as all the others do, by writing in one of her notebooks. Trevor allows us periodically into the thoughts of all the characters. Mrs Eckdorf believes it is her mission to uncover and photograph Mrs Sinnott’s birthday party and uncover the truth of past events in O’Neill’s hotel. In fact, we get to know more and more about Mrs Eckdorf’s life and as the novel continues we start to see that her erratic and obviously manipulative behaviour starts to show cracks in her mental wellbeing. She manages to unburden herself to Father Hennessey but he is unable to help her as she jumps from confession to messianic visions to contrition. It’s a glorious book with a host of crazy characters and with a ‘car-crash’ of an ending.

‘Extraordinary things have happened to me in this city,’ said Mrs Eckdorf in the bar of her hotel at half-past one on the morning of August 11th. ‘You would scarce believe,’ she said.

This was read as part of Reading Ireland Month 2018.

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‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ by Giorgio Bassani (Italian Lit Month)

For many years I have wanted to write about the Finzi-Continis — about Micòl and Alberto, Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga — and about the many others who lived at, or like me frequented, the house in Corso Ercole I d’Este, Ferrara, just before the last war broke out. But the impulse, the prompt, really to do so only occurred for me a year ago, one April Sunday in 1957.

So begins the prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The event that prompted the narrator was a visit to some Etruscan tombs and an innocent remark from a little girl about why the old tombs are considered less sad than modern tombs. This makes the narrator think about the Finzi-Continis’ tomb, built about a hundred years before but now nearly completely overgrown with weeds. A tomb that does not hold the more recent Finzi-Continis as most of them were taken to German concentration camps in 1943. The house is now occupied by refugees and is in a decrepit state.

After an enticing prologue the narrator gives us a bit of background history of the Finzi-Continis, which is mostly learnt from his father: it was Moisè Finzi-Contini who had amassed the fortune to build the estate in the mid-nineteenth century and it is his son, Professor Ermanno and his Venetian wife Olga who are owners at the time of the novel’s events. The Finzi-Continis are rather aloof, not only from the local populace but also from other Jews. The only time anyone sees them is when they visit the Temple; occasionally the narrator sees the children, Alberto and Micòl, during school exams. It is a meeting between Micòl and the narrator following the release of exam results in June 1929 that forms the pivot of the novel. The narrator has, unusually, failed one of his exams and will have to retake it: embarrased about this failure and in a orgy of self-pity he goes off in a sulk and ends up face down on some grass next to the wall to the Finzi-Contini’s estate. Whilst bemoaning his fate Micòl calls to him from on top of the wall; this is the first time that they have actually talked to each other. The narrator looks back at this event wistfully many years later.

How many years have passed since that far-off June afternoon? More than thirty. And yet, if I close my eyes, Micòl Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over her garden wall, looking at me and talking to me. In 1929 Micòl was little more than a child, a thin, blond thirteen-year old with large, clear, magnetic eyes. And I was a boy in short trousers, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a small academic setback was sufficient to cast down into the most childish desperation. We both fixed our eyes on each other. Above her head the sky was a compact blue, a warm already summer sky without the slightest cloud. Nothing, it seemed, would be able to alter it, and nothing indeed has altered it, at least in memory.

Micòl urges the narrator to climb the wall but he is scared about the height and forestalls climbing by claiming that he needs to find somewhere to hide his bicycle. Micòl, however, readily climbs down the wall and helps him find an underground chamber in which to hide his bike. Whilst down in this chamber he fantasises about living there, relying on Micòl to bring him food, they would live there as man and wife, he only leaving the chamber at night to wander about and to spy on those he had left behind. When he finally leaves the chamber he just gets to see Micòl’s face disappearing over the wall with a smile and a wink for him.

The rest of the novel covers a later period when the narrator is a student. It is 1938, the war is approaching, and racial laws have been passed which restrict the actions of the Jewish population. Following the ban of Jews from the local tennis club Alberto invites them, including the narrator, to play tennis on the Finzi-Contini’s private court. The narrator befriends Alberto and Micòl and enters their social circle. The narrator is still besotted by Micòl and to a certain extent she is with him. One time, to escape the rain, they take cover in an old coach-house and then take refuge in a little-used carriage. Later, the narrator rues the fact that nothing happened in that carriage, that he didn’t let her know of his feelings, that he didn’t try to kiss her.

If on that rainy afternoon, in which the luminous Indian summer of 1938 had suddenly come to an end, I had at the very least managed to say what I was feeling — I thought with bitterness — perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they did. To have spoken to her, to have kissed her: it was then — I couldn’t stop telling myself — then, when everything was still possible, that I should have done it!

Regrets, missed opportunities due to an inability to act on impulse and, as Micòl later tells him, an inability to live in the present but instead a penchant for the past means that nothing comes of their love. When the narrator tries later to act on impulse he just makes a hash of it.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis takes its place alongside such books such as In Search of Lost Time, Brideshead Revisited and Le Grand Meaulnes. It has a wistful, doomed quality about it, especially as the events take place with the backdrop of imminent war and rising anti-semitism. Though slow and at times and a little boring it is one of those books that mature for a while after we’ve finished reading it. I found it helpful re-reading the prologue and early chapters again after completing the book.

I read this as part of Stu’s Italian Lit Month and hope to read at least another one for this event.

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‘The Wanderer’ by Knut Hamsun

The Wanderer consists of two related novellas, Under the Autumn Star and On Muted Strings. Both share the same narrator and contain the same characters so they can easily be thought of as two sections of the same novel. Under the Autumn Star was originally published in Norwegian in 1906 as Under Høststjærnen. En Vandrers Fortælling and On Muted Strings was first published in 1909 as En Vandrer spiller med Sordin.

Under the Autumn Star begins with the narrator, Knut Pederson (Hamsun’s real name), explaining that he had fled the city to the country to find some peace and solitude.

It is years since I knew such peace, perhaps twenty or thirty years; or perhaps it was in a previous life. Whenever it was, I must surely have tasted before now this peace that I feel as I walk around in ecstasies, humming to myself, caring for every stone and every straw, and sensing that they care for me once more. We are friends.

Pederson meets an old workmate called Grindhusen, who paints but is not exactly a painter, who does stonework but is not exactly a stonemason. Pederson joins Grindhusen in his travels to find work.

They turn up at a parsonage where Grindhusen has been employed to dig a well. Pederson suggests to the priest that it would be possible to install pipes from the well to the house. So they busy themselves with work and on his time off Pederson wanders about the forest and churchyard. He finds the priest’s daughter, Elizabeth, attractive but a bit too young for him; he nonetheless falls in love with her. But it is the girl’s mother that seduces Pederson when the priest and Elizabeth are out of the house and she asks Pederson to help her move her bed. When the work is complete Pederson and Grindhusen move on to dig up potatoes; Pederson is especially reluctant to settle down despite having offers.

One evening the priest came over and offered me work on the parsonage farm. The offer was a good one, and I considered it for a while before finally turning it down. I preferred to rove around as a free agent, picking up such work as I could, sleeping out, taking myself a little by surprise.

Once the work is done Pederson goes wandering again, this time with someone called Lars Falkenberg, a very different character than Grindhusen. Falkenberg is a bit of a con-artist in that he pretends to be a piano tuner; he has some piano-tuning equipment and twiddles about with the piano for a bit before leaving the piano in the same state it was when he arrived—no-one ever notices that nothing has been improved.

It is not long before they end up at Øvrebø, home of Captain and Madame Falkenberg (no relation to Lars), where they get jobs felling trees. Much of the remainder of the novel centres around events at Øvrebø. Meanwhile Pederson and Falkenberg vie for the attentions of the maid Emma. Pederson develops a machine for sawing trees and receives help and support from the Captain. It turns out that Elizabeth is a friend of Madame’s and so she visits frequently. One day Pederson is asked to drive Elizabeth back to the parsonage and Madame goes along as well. They stop for a picnic beside the road.

The pair of them plied me with food and feared I wasn’t getting enough; and When I had opened the bottles, I got my full share of beer, too; it was a regular roadside banquet, a small fairy tale in my life. Madame I hardly dared look at, lest she should have occasion to feel hurt.

But something happens between Pederson and Madame on this trip; both feel that there is an attraction between them. Later on Pederson virtually stalks her when she goes on a visit into town. Meanwhile, Falkenberg gets taken on permanently at Øvrebø and marries Emma whilst Pederson sets out on his wanderings again.

The events of On Muted Strings takes place six years later with Pederson returning to Øvrebø. The story is dominated with the marital affairs of the Captain and Madame. They have no children and it appears that the Captain is carrying on an affair with Elizabeth and hosts never-ending parties. Madame is jealous and tries to get her revenge on her husband by having an affair with an engineer. Domestic fights and squabbles continue throughout the book with the servants and Pederson caught in the middle. It is a different book to Under the Autumn Star but a very interesting sequel. Although not quite on the scale of Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil I was very impressed with the The Wanderer and hope to continue with more books by Hamsun.

Since writing the above I have also read Hamsuns Victoria which was originally published in 1898. It is a novella and the full translated title would be Victoria: A Love Story. And that is what we get, a pretty standard nineteenth century love story with the usual themes; love across a class divide, unrequited love, an impoverished poet writing about his beloved, the death of his beloved. Hamsun’s style though is unfussy and modern and I’m guessing that he was trying to update the tired themes of the nineteenth century love story fit for the approaching twentieth century; but to our eyes it just really melts in with the rest of them. Or maybe he was just trying to write a more old-fashioned story. It’s not a bad read though and the two lovers Victoria and Johannes are well sketched.

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