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‘Natura Morta’ by Josef Winkler (GLM VIII)

I was trying to avoid Austrian authors for this year’s German Literature Month but here I am with my second Austrian contribution already. Josef Winkler is an author I hadn’t heard of before but when I inadvertently came across his books, whilst trying to decide what to read this year, they piqued my interest, especially this one, Natura Morta: A Roman Novella. It was first published in German in 1998 as Natura morta: Eine römische Novelle. This translation was published in 2014 by Contra Mundum Press and was translated by Adrian West.

‘Natura Morta’ means ‘still life’ in Italian or ‘by death’ in Latin — or at least according to Google Translate — both phrases are relevant to this novella. There is little plot, instead Winkler uses a succession of images or descriptive vignettes of daily life set around a modern-day Roman market-place and Saint Peter’s Square. Winkler concentrates his highly cinematic eye on the mundane, such as advertisements or t-shirt messages, and the muckier aspects of life, such as filthy fingernails or offal discarded in the street. Instead of a plot we get recurring images and characters that help give the work some structure. The book is split into six parts with the first centering around a market-place. Winkler depicts the scenes in close-up, concentrating on specific details: we see gypsy girls selling underwear, people carrying meat in plastic shopping bags, butchers butchering sheeps’ heads, the dirty fingernails of fishmongers etc. Here are a couple of examples from the first part:

A black-veiled nun, holding plastic bags full of cucumbers, apricots, and onions in one hand and pressing two tall blonde Barbie dolls wrapped in plastic to her breast with the other, stopped before the tomato vendor, whose vegetable knife hung from a lanyard around his neck, laid the dolls on a wooden crate, and asked for a few kilos of tomatoes on the vine.

Another gypsy girl — two gold upper teeth shone in the void of her harelip — lifted her right breast slightly and placed her nipple in the mouth of her child, whose eyelids were sealed shut with pus.

One of the characters we are introduced to is Piccoletto, a sixteen-year-old son of a fig vendor, who works at the Damino fish-stand in the market-place. Whenever Piccoletto appears in the narrative it is mentioned that he has ‘long black eyelashes nearly grazing his cheeks’.

The second part takes place in Saint Peter’s Square. Piccoletto is sitting around watching the girls nearby whilst we, via the narrator, watch him closely, intimately, concentrating on the spittle on his lips as he drinks some water or on his testicles seen through the leg-hole of his shorts. There are people selling plastic Jesuses, tourists, children, policemen all passing in front of Winkler’s lens. Here’s a description of a man from this section.

A little humpbacked man with a waxen face, his cadaverous skin covered in black blotches, crossed himself and kissed the black fingertips of his emaciated hand, while a group of nodding bishops dressed in red, wiping the sweat from their chins with kerchiefs embroidered with yellow mitres, walked past him through Saint Peter’s Square. His eyelids and eyelashes were painted black with mascara, his eyes were yellowish and blood-spotted, his sparse hair was dyed black, his moustache flecked with gray. Wheezing, he pulled his mouth open and closed and grasped his throat with a hand covered in golden rings.

Although we have this onslaught of descriptive text, little plot developments do begin to occur, and they are sometimes a bit sinister. A ten-year-old girl had been ogling Piccoletto’s testicles earlier on this section and at the end we are told that he leaves the square accompanied by the girl; we have no idea who she is or whether they are related or know each other or where her parents are.

N.b. I reveal in this paragraph a significant detail of one of the characters. if you don’t wish to find out then you may wish to skip to the next paragraph.
The narrative returns to the market-place and the images of butchered meat, offal, gypsy-girls selling underwear, babies with pus-encrusted eyes, neo-Nazis, Moroccan rent boys, nuns with Barbie dolls, rotting fish. Unexpectedly Piccoletto gets hit by a fire-engine and dies, his distraught employer brings his body into the shop, whilst Winkler’s descriptions of the event is merged in with the continuing descriptions of other events; Piccoletto’s body is described in the same, meticulous, dispassionate manner as the meat that was being butchered and sold. The recurring description of Piccoletto’s eyelashes continues, only now they are those of a dead boy:

The long, damp eyelash hairs of his open left eye grazed his eyebrow, the long, blood-caked eyelash hairs of his closed right eye grazed his freckle-dotted cheek.

This short novella will not be to everyone’s taste; the squeamish may wish to avoid it, as will die-hard fans of plot-driven novels, but if you liked the quotes above and like the sound of a novella with descriptive prose and a cinematic feel then you might enjoy this book. Contra Mundum Press have also published When the Time Comes and Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, both of which sound like interesting reads.

This is my third contribution to German Literature Month VIII.

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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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An Update of Sorts

Well, the weekend is usually the only time that I get to post any reviews—but another one has passed where I’ve been unable to post anything. What with work commitments, the European Championships and the EU Referendum (and its aftermath) it’s been nigh impossible to find the time. But, I have been reading, and reading some good books as well. I’ve currently started Volume 7 of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, The Valley of Bones, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. This series of twelve novels has really impressed me and made me wonder how it was that I hadn’t even heard of it until relatively recently. It was only when I was reading Proust that I first became aware of this novel.

I had initially hoped that 2016 was going to be a year in which I read a lot of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages; one such book is Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle which I have read recently; I don’t know where I first heard of it but I just loved the sound of it—a political feud in a French village over the installation of a public urinal. I still hope to post on it soon but as time passes the likelihood of this diminishes. It wasn’t quite as good as I though it would be but it was still an enjoyable read. A T.V. series was produced in the 1970s which was scripted by Galton & Simpson; I now have a copy on DVD and can’t wait to watch it. There were also another couple of Clochemerle sequels that I plan to read soon.

I had intended to post a review of the Penguin collection of two of Thomas Ligotti’s short story collections, which combined Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe: His Life and Works. I read this as part of a GoodReads group for Gothic Literature, but very few people were interested enough to read along, which was a shame because the stories were generally good. Ligotti’s style was influenced by Lovecraft and Poe but he introduced his own take on these themes of cosmic horror. Some of them were just damn weird. Take, for instance, the story called The Glamour, a Lynchian story, where the narrator describes his nighttime wanderings where he ends up in a seedy, derelict movie theatre where everything seems to be covered in a net of writhing hair.

I continued to stare at the empty seat because my sensation of a vibrant presence there was unrelieved. And in my staring I perceived that the fabric of the seat, the inner webbing of swirling fibers, had composed a pattern in the image of a face—an old woman’s face with an expression of avid malignance—floating amidst wild shocks of twisting hair.

And the film they show at this cinema is some weird abstract impressionist film vaguely resembling a microscopic close-up of some fleshy substance—the film guides the viewer ‘through a catacomb of putrid chambers and cloisters’. All the while hairs from the chairs are seething and tugging at the narrator. Some of the stories are stranger still. The quality varies but Ligotti is worth checking out.

I finished Tomás González’s In the Beginning Was the Sea last week, and although I enjoyed the book, I doubt I’ll end up posting a review. It’s worth checking out Guy’s review, which is where I first heard of the book. Basically, set in Columbia, a couple decide to leave the city and live in the country but neither are particularly suitable people for such a challenge.

I’ve tried reading more of Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre but it’s too depressing a read, so I may have to abandon it. I have read about 40% of the book which is probably enough.

I had made some half-arsed plans to read a whole load of social history books on Great Britain. I had hoped to concentrate on late 18th Century and post WWII but my interest in this project hit the buffers when I started to read Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars 1793-1815, a book that had greatly appealed to me, but which actually just bored me stiff. I had hoped to understand what Britons thought of events that were going on in France, and Europe, but it was just a dull collection of articles on aspects of life in Britain with each chapter concentrating in detail on a particular subject with no real attempt at synthesis. There was so much emphasis on first-hand records that it just seemed like a collection of quotes and descriptions of a random collection of people’s lives. Other reviewers on GoodReads seem to love it but I just found it incredibly dull. Oh well. I now have little interest to read more, despite having many books earmarked for future reads.

As mentioned earlier, I’m still hoping to concentrate more on books that have been on my TBR for a while and to read more non-fiction, especially on topics that I’ve been meaning to read about for ages; I feel that I have been too easily distracted in the past and hope to change that in the future, but before that there’s another Euro match to watch….more distractions…

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‘The Green Face’ by Gustav Meyrink

GLM-V 2015The Green Face (Das grüne Gesicht) was written by Austrian author Gustav Meyrink and first published in 1916. Curiously, the events in the book take place in Amsterdam following World War One.

The book opens with Fortunas Hauberrisser entering a shop to escape the crowds. The sign on the shop says ‘Chidher Green’s Hall of Riddles’. The shop sells a mixture of practical jokes, occult material and pornographic material. Hauberrisser is followed into the shop by a Zulu carrying a spear and who is known by the staff. Both the Zulu and Hauberrisser are allowed to enter the back of the shop where there are other customers and staff. One of the staff members appears to be an old Jewish man who is making entries into a ledger—his face is in shadows. Hauberrisser makes himself comfortable and after a while starts to nod off. He awakes to see the Jewish man before him:

…the face before him was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was smooth, with a black strip of cloth tied over its forehead, and yet it was deeply furrowed, like the sea, that can have tall waves but not a wrinkle on the surface. The eyes were like dark chasms and yet they were the eyes of a human being and not empty sockets. The skin was a greenish olive colour and looked as if it were made of bronze…

The man speaks cryptically which confuses Hauberrisser. A salesgirl takes advantage of his confusion to sell him a papier mache skull that tells fortunes. Before leaving he glances round at the Jewish man to see he is seated as he was when he entered.

We are subsequently faced with a whole number of strange characters with strange names; such as Baron Pfeill, Professor Arpád Zitter (a.k.a Count Ciechonski), Anselm Klinkherbogk the cobbler, Eva van Druysen, Dr Sephardi, Lazarus Egyolk, Usibepu the Zulu, Jan Swammerdam and more. After conversing with his friend, Baron Pfeil, Meyrink The Green FaceHauberrisser finds out that the ‘Wandering Jew’ is also known as Chidher Green, ‘the Green One’. When Hauberrisser returns home and goes to bed some previously concealed documents fall on to him. When he looks at these documents he keeps seeing the name ‘Chidher Green’. When he returns to the shop to see if he can find the Jewish man he finds that no-one knows him and that the shop is called ‘Arpád Zitter’s Hall of Riddles’. Intrigued with Hauberrisser’s experiences with the Green Face Baron Pfeill enquires with Dr Sephardi about the connection between the Wandering Jew and Chidher Green. When he had been talking to Hauberrisser he had recalled seeing a painting of this Chidher Green but now, in conversation with Sepahardi he is unsure whether it was a painting, a dream or a vision. They then end up going to a ‘spiritual circle’ headed by the elderly Jan Swammerdam where things begin to get increasingly bizarre. The group are invited, by Klinkherbogk’s granddaughter Kaatje, to attend Klinkherbogk’s ‘second birth’ in the room above. He believes that he is Abraham reborn and as the evening progresses ends up in a trance. In this state Klinkherbogk sees the green-gold face of a man take up the whole sky. When he regains consciousness all the others have left and he discovers that he has stabbed his granddaughter in the heart. If that’s not enough, when Klinkherbogk turns towards the window, still half-ecstatic from his vision, he sees the Zulu Usibepu who comes in, kills Klinkherbogk and leaves with his money.

Trying to make sense of this crazy novel is probably a waste of time; instead I think the reader should just enjoy the general weirdness of it all. It’s like trying to follow one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s more madcap stories where any attempt to work out what’s happening just ties oneself in knots. This novel is populated by people seeking all sorts of spiritual help from wherever they can find it. That most of these attempts end in failure and death probably says something about the time in which it was written.

One of my favourite scenes from this novel is in chapter eight when Eva, Hauberrisser’s beloved, is walking through the city at night, and as she walks there are fewer people about and the sense of malevolence begins to grow:

The very earth gave off a dark malevolence which was directed against her; the icy, pitiless fury of nature towards any man who tries to cast off the bonds of his servitude.

She comes across the Zulu in a sort of trance. She ‘felt that it was from him that the demonic power emanated’. The Zulu comes around and tries to abduct Eva. Eva screams and they are chased by a crowd from a local tavern. As some of the attackers are in reach of the Zulu, Eva manages to get clear. They’re in a churchyard and she’s watching the Zulu protect himself against his assailants:

Then, for a sudden moment, she thought she must have gone mad, for there, in the middle of the garden, with a calm smile on her face, stood her own double.
    The negro must have seen it as well; he halted in astonishment and then went over to it. She thought she could hear him talking to the apparition; she could not understand what was said, but his voice suddenly changed to that of a man paralysed by horror and hardly able to stammer a few words.

Still, he regains his composure as the image fades, and makes his escape. Eva goes missing and events get even stranger from here on.

This novel has a suitably surreal, cataclysmic ending. I’ve re-read parts of it since and realised that there were so many bits that I missed on my first reading that I may have to schedule in a second reading soon. I think I’ve concentrated on some of the more horrific episodes but there is also a lot of humour in this book. Have you read anything by Meyrink? The Golem perhaps?

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‘The Wild Cherry Tree’ by H.E. Bates

Bates_Cherry-Tree-fcXC-700pxA little while ago I picked up a few books by H.E. Bates from my local Oxfam bookshop, which has since closed; I hadn’t read anything by him before, not even his Darling Buds of May books, but after skimming through some of them they really interested me. I’ve been in a bit of a short story mood recently, I’ve read stories by Chekhov, Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield etc., so I thought I’d read one of the volumes of short stories that I bought, The Wild Cherry Tree, and boy, am I glad I did as this collection of stories was excellent and, in my opinion, deserves to be mentioned along with Chekhov et al.

The collection contains ten stories; there are about three stories that are below ten pages and these are generally the weaker ones but the others, which are about twenty pages long are excellent. I was expecting stories with predominantly rural settings but there is a varied mixture of settings as well as a mixture of character types. The collection kicks off with Halibut Jones, which is set in a rural village. Halibut, whose real name is Albert but as a child couldn’t pronounce his name correctly, is a bit of a loveable slacker. The story begins:

Halibut Jones lay stretched at full length on top of a dry ditch, staring through the breathless August air at great sprays of blackberries gleaming on the hedgerow above. It had been a very good season for blackberries, a very hot season, and some of the berries were as fat and bloomed as grapes.

Halibut decides to see if he can earn some money by selling the blackberries to some local housewives. When he visits Mrs Parkinson she tries to get Halibut to do some other chores such as trimming her privet hedge or cutting down some thistles but he finds reasons why he shouldn’t embark on such tasks at that moment. When she wonders if he could catch some trout for her, Halibut claims that he has no hooks and that he’ll need to get some fishing line. Mrs Parkinson takes pity on him when she hears him cough and starts supplying him with homemade bread, beer and cheese. He eventually leaves with some apples and an advance on supplying the trout – but it’s too hot to go fishing at the moment so he goes off for a bit of a sleep.

The title story has a less idyllic setting than Halibut Jones though it is still semi-rural. Mrs Boorman is married to a pig farmer and spends most of her time knee-deep in mud. When her husband and sons are off drinking in the evening she likes to secretly pamper herself and dress up in fine clothes in an attempt to escape her squalid life. One day she attracts the attention of a car driver who is visiting neighbours of the Boormans. She is wary at first but soon finds the attention appealing.

In The World Upside-down Bates gets even more playful. The story concerns Miss Olive Stratton who has taken to wearing odd-coloured stockings to work in an attempt to get men to notice her legs – but with no effect. One day she notices a man in her train carriage who is reading his newspaper upside-down. It turns out that he’s been doing it for years and doesn’t even notice himself doing it anymore. Anyway, the rest of the story is about the relationship between these two slightly odd characters; it’s funny and a little sad.

One of my favourite stories in this book was How Vainly Men Themselves Amaze; it’s set in a French holiday resort where a young man called Franklin is hanging around an attractive woman, Mrs Palgrave, who is sunbathing on the beach. She has a couple of children who are being cared for by Heidi, a young German maid, whom she loathes. Mrs Palgrave seems to like the attention of the young man and she flirts with him. Franklin is a budding photographer and convinces both the mother and Heidi to pose for photographs and then he arranges trysts with Mrs Palgrave and then Heidi. I won’t reveal how it ends.

The Black Magnolia is a very funny story. Poor Hartley Spencer, a bachelor of fifty, who has no known vices and spends most of his free-time raising money for various charities gets involved with Vanessa La Farge and her friend Kitty O’Connor. They claim that they want him to help them raise some money for a charity but they spend most of their time amusing themselves at his expense by teasing him mercifully. The women just can’t believe that someone like Spencer exists:

   For some long time after Hartley Spencer had left the two women sat on the terrace of the house, drinking glasses of cool white Alsatian wine. Now and then Kitty O’Connor’s mischievous laughter floated, very like scales of rippling water, into the darkening summer air.

   ‘Nobody,’ she said once, ‘can be that good. No one man can have that amount of goodness in him. It isn’t human. Even virgins have some vices.’

   ‘I’ve a deep suspicion that virginity is more painful in the male.’

   ‘Really? And would you care to remove it?’

Though less funny than The Black Magnolia the stories Same Time, Same Place and The Middle of Nowhere are just as good. Same Time, Same Place is about the elderly Miss Treadwell who is living off a very small income and having to resort to wearing newspapers underneath her coat to keep warm – but she must ‘keep up appearances’. The Middle of Nowhere is about the rise and fall of a roadside café.

The stories in this collection are as near to perfection as is possible. There’s a mixture of sad and funny stories; Bates has a brilliant ear for dialogue as well, and unlike many British writers of the period it doesn’t grate for the modern reader. Bates doesn’t seem interested in class at all so, although the characters can be identified as farmers, middle-class, workers, maids etc. they aren’t defined by it and this makes the stories flow quite naturally. He is also very interested in flowers; references and descriptions of flowers crop up in nearly every story, sometimes it’s the colours, other times it’s the scents whilst in some of the stories characters discuss how to grow them. Bates wrote a hell of a lot of stories, novellas and novels so I’m going to enjoy working my way through his back catalogue and I’ll probably read some of the ‘Larkin’ stories as well.

By the way, my copy was a Penguin edition from 1977 and it literally crumbled apart as I read it; it appeared in good condition when I started reading it but the glue was as dry as anything and it split down the spine with the pages detaching from the cover and into three sections. I’ve had books come apart before but never so drastically.

A well-read copy

A well-read copy

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‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola

Zola_Therese-Raquin_Penguin1-fcX-700pxThérèse Raquin by Émile Zola was first published in 1867 and was Zola’s first real success. The story is quite simple and was based on a newspaper article, though F.W.J. Hemmings, in his book The Life and Times of Emile Zola, suggests that Zola took the story from a novel by an acquaitance who had used the original news story as source material. However, Zola changed many aspects of the original story to create his novel.

I’m not going to concentrate too much on the plot itself in this post but I shall give a quick outline for anyone unfamiliar with the book. There are four main characters; Madame Raquin, her sickly son Camille, Camille’s friend Laurent and of course Thérèse Raquin who was adopted by her aunt Madame Raquin. Early on in the novel it is decided that Camille and Thérèse will marry and that the family will move to Paris to open a haberdashery whilst Camille works as a clerk for a railway company. Everything runs along smoothly for a while with the shop and Camille bringing in steady money, the Raquins make some friends and hold a weekly ‘get together’ where they chat and play dominoes. One week Camille comes home with an old schoolfriend, Laurent. In no time at all Laurent and Thérèse are having a passionate affair. No one suspects anything but Laurent and Thérèse soon decide that they are fed up with having to sneak around and that the only solution is to kill Camille. They do this with relative ease whilst out boating on the Seine although in the scuffle Laurent is bitten on the neck by Camille. This is about a third of the way through the novel, the rest of the novel is a fascinating and tortuous account of the mental anguish that Laurent and Thérèse go through following their crime.

I read a Penguin edition translated by Leonard Tancock in 1962. This edition also included Zola’s highly entertaining preface to the second edition in which he defends his book from the cries of disgust from ‘certain virtuous people’. It is believed that Zola himself helped to whip up this storm of moral indignation to help sales. Here’s a quote from the preface to give a flavour of Zola’s style:

The critics greeted this book with a churlish and horrified outcry. Certain virtuous people, in newspapers no less virtuous, made a grimace of disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it into the fire. Even the minor literary reviews, the ones that retail nightly the tittle-tattle from alcoves and private rooms, held their noses and talked of filth and stench. I am not complaining about this reception; on the contrary I am delighted to observe that my colleagues have such maidenly susceptibilities.

In this preface Zola also lays out his intentions both for this book and naturalism itself. He states that in

Thérèse Raquin my aim has been to study temperaments and not characters…Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more…There is a complete absence of soul.

He then makes the claim that his novel is a scientific study of the psychology of the characters, or rather that character type. When people wish to criticise Zola they often concentrate on his claims that his novels were scientific studies and it must be admitted that Zola’s claims are quite absurd. In this preface he states that while he was writing the book he was just ‘copying life exactly and meticulously’ implying that Zola, the artist, had no involvement in the process whatsoever. I can’t really believe that Zola actually believed in this himself and I largely dismiss it from my mind when reading Zola’s works as the modern reader doesn’t need this pseudo-scientific baggage to justify them as works of art.

I really would urge anyone who has read anything by Zola to read this preface as it’s entertaining, funny and instructive and shows how Zola could write great polemical journalism as well as literature. I find it amusing that Edward Vizetelly, in his preface to the 1901 English translation, calls Zola’s preface ‘a long and rather tedious reply to the reviewers of the day’. Vizetelly is completely wrong, it is only seven pages in my edition and it is highly entertaining. I suspect that by 1901 both Zola and Vizetelly may have been a bit embarrassed by it and probably considered it no longer relevant as it had already served its purpose.

Zola_T-Raquin-illustration-XBW-800pxFollowing the murder of Camille the novel is concerned with the mental anguish of the two lovers, Laurent and Thérèse. It was whilst reading this section that I realised that Zola can be very sadistic towards his characters; he doesn’t let them off the hook but just keeps cranking up the pain and misery for all. He also does this with many of his other characters in other novels, such as L’assommoir for example, or The Masterpiece. When it works, as it does with Thérèse Raquin and L’assommoir it can be fascinating but when it doesn’t it can just be depressing; I would probably put The Masterpiece in this group.

Zola said that Laurent and Thérèse are just ‘human animals’ without a soul, and it’s true that at no point in the book do they ever express any regret or moral scruples over their murderous crime even though they are plagued with nightmares and hallucinations and they are witnesses to the pain that Camille’s mother experiences over the loss of her son. Laurent’s condition is described by Zola:

His remorse was purely physical. Only his body, strained nerves, and cowering flesh were afraid of the drowned man. Conscience played no part in his terrors, and he had not the slightest regret about killing Camille; in his moments of calm, when the spectre was not present, he would have committed the murder over again had he thought his interests required it.

So, the murderers have no qualms about their crime and at no point does anyone suspect them of murdering Camille but they still come to a sticky end. After the murder Laurent and Thérèse are bound to each other, they can’t escape through fear that the other will reveal the crime to the police and they can’t enjoy being together. In the end Madame Raquin becomes aware of their crime but she is unable to do anything about it – you’ll just have to read the book to find out more.

As always with Zola there are many brilliant scenes in this novel. The visits that Laurent makes to the morgue are particularly gruesome (see Dagny’s Exceptional Excerpt) as well as the honeymoon scene involving Camille’s portrait. The final page was excellent as well; after all the misery of the last two-thirds of the novel it ends with a bang! All wrapped up neatly! I actually laughed at the end as I thought it a very comedic ending, specifically when Laurent and Thérèse turn round and look at each other. Did anyone else find it funny?

Finally, I had no intention to get involvced with translation comparisons when I started reading Thérèse Raquin but when I was at the end of chapter 12 something made me look at the Vizetelly translation as well and I was astounded at the difference. Here is Leonard Tancock’s translation of the last paragraph of chapter 12. Laurent has returned home following the murder of Camille:

He was really a little stupified, for his limbs and mind were heavy with fatigue. He went home and slept soundly, but during his sleep slight nervous twitchings passed across his face.

And the Vizetelly translation:

At the bottom of his heart, he was a trifle hebetated. Fatigue had rendered his limbs and thoughts heavy. He went in to bed and slept soundly. During his slumber slight nervous crispations coursed over his face.

Er…what!? Apparently hebetate means ‘to make dull or blunt’ and crispations means ‘any slight muscular spasm or contraction that gives a creeping sensation’.

To be fair I read a few paragraphs of chapter 13 and noticed that the Tancock version had this sentence:

The authorities had not been able to take official cognizance of Camille’s decease.

Whereas the Vizetelly version seems more readable to me:

The decease of Camille had not been formally proved.

This has been cross-posted on the The Books of Emile Zola blog.

Please note that Lisa’s review can also be found here.

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Filed under Fiction, Uncategorized, Zola, Émile

‘The Bridge Over the Drina’ by Ivo Andrić

Andric_Bridge-on-Drina3-fcX-700pxThe Bridge Over the Drina has long been a favourite of mine and one that I’ve been meaning to re-read for quite a while now. So when Stu at WinstonsDad’s Blog decided to host a Eastern European Lit Month I decided to use that as an excuse to re-read it.

The Bridge Over the Drina was written during the Second World War and published in 1945 as Na Drini cuprija. The whole book takes place on and around the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge which is in the city of Višegrad in Bosnia. The book spans the period from the building of the bridge in the 16th Century up to the First World War. My edition was published in 1994 and I originally read it in either 1994 or 1995 when the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was still in progress. One of the reasons that I liked the book was that it helped me understand the war that was being fought at the time. It helped me understand why the fighting was going on and why there were so many different religions and nationalities in such a small area. In the introduction to my edition William H. McNeill states that ‘No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists…’

Although the story can get a little confusing at times, especially when it jumps forward in time, only a minimal amount of prior historical knowledge is needed before reading it and this is supplied in the introduction: Bosnia was conquered by the Turks between 1386 and 1463 and became part of the Ottomon Empire. There followed many conversions to Islam after this period and only Muslims could hold important positions. However, Bosnia also comprised of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews. Bosnia & Herzegovina was placed under an Austrian protectorate in 1878 and was annexed by Austria in 1908. There were by this time rising nationalist interests just to complicate things further.

After a short descriptive chapter the book goes back to a time before the bridge existed and Andrić explains when the idea for the bridge originated:

The first idea of the bridge, which was destined to be realized, flashed, at first naturally confused and foggy, across the imagination of a ten year old boy from the nearby village of Sokolovići, one morning in 1516 when he was being taken along the road from his village to far-off, shining and terrible Stambul.

The ten year old boy was destined to become the Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović and to order the building of the bridge over the Drina.

The book really kicks off when Abidaga arrives with a team of people in order to start building the bridge. Abidaga has a reputation for being ‘harsh and pitliess beyond measure’ and he soon shows that the reputation is well-earned. The local workers are treated like slaves by Abidaga and the whole town is held responsible for any damage that occurs to the bridgeworks. After three years of this virtual slavery a small band of townsmen decide to sabotage the bridge at night. When the sabotage starts to hinder the work Abidaga puts intense pressure on his subordinate to discover the saboteurs. They eventually catch Radisav and we then get to witness some gruesome tortures as Radisav has red hot chains wrapped around him and his toenails pulled out. But Radisav does not reveal any more information so Abidaga decides to have him impaled alive so that the whole town can see what happens to saboteurs. The gypsy, who is given the task of impaling Radisav, is told he will get paid more the longer that Radisav stays alive. This is grisly stuff:

At every second blow the gipsy went over to the stretched-out body and leant over it to see whether the stake was going in the right direction and when he had satisfied himself that it had not touched any of the more important internal organs, he returned and went on with his work.

When Radisav finally dies Abidaga tells his subordinates to throw the corpse to the dogs. Some local Christians however manage to bribe the gypsy to let them have the body so that they can give Radisav a decent burial.

"Visegrad bridge by Klackalica". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Visegrad_bridge_by_Klackalica.jpg#/media/File:Visegrad_bridge_by_Klackalica.jpg

“Visegrad bridge by Klackalica”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – Visegrad Bridge


After a winter break in the construction of the bridge it is discovered that Abidaga had been embezzling funds and had since been banished from the Empire. The construction work was now supervised by Arif Beg who was a totally different man than Abidaga and he gets the townspeople on his side and completes the bridge. Once completed, Arif Beg calls for a great feast to celebrate. Not long after the completion of the bridge the Grand Vezier, Mehmed Pasha, is assassinated.

With each chapter the narrative jumps forward, sometimes a hundred years, sometimes just a few years and we experience these little vignettes of the lives of the inhabitants of Višegrad with the bridge at the centre of it all. There is a great flood that covers the whole of the bridge, there are revolts and conflicts, there’s the tale of Fata and Nail, where Fata commits suicide from the bridge on her wedding day rather than marry her husband-to-be.

About two-thirds of the book covers the period from the Austrian protectorate in 1878 up until the First World War and there’s a bit more continuity between the chapters as we come across the same characters or relations of earlier characters. The Austrians now classify, monitor and improve many aspects of the city which many of the older inhabitants find amusing. The city gets a railway link, a water supply and repairs are made to the bridge. The Austrians always seem to be busy. Hotels and brothels appear and there’s money to be made.

The novel ends in the year 1914. Andrić calls it that ‘strange year’ as he describes how it started well but was to end so badly:

The summer of 1914 will remain in the memory of those who lived through it as the most beautiful summer they ever remembered, for in their consciousness it shone and flamed over a gigantic and dark horizon of suffering and misfortune which stretched into infinity.

News of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife interrupts a Serbian celebration and from that day things have changed for good. Everyone has to decide what to do as the city splinters along religious and ethnic lines; some of the young Serbians flee to Serbia, the Turks have to decide whether to fight with Austria or not, people are hanged as spies, others are lynched. Meanwhile the fighting gets closer and closer to Višegrad and the bridge.

If you’ve never read this book then I thoroughly recommend finding a copy and reading it. I always have a bit of a thing for books (and films) that span large time periods but this is especially good. I would have preferred it if Andrić had included more material during the Ottoman Empire as he seems to be in a rush to get to the more modern period, but hey, this was no doubt where his main interest lay.

As a final note: My copy, which is only twenty years old, has an amazing amount of deterioration – see picture. I was shocked when I pulled it out of the box it was in. It was surrounded by other books that weren’t in such a bad condition so it couldn’t just be the way it was stored. The paper does have a bit of a ‘newspaper feel’ to it but the cover also has a lot of spots on it as well. I’ve seen copies of old manuscripts that look in better condition than this book.
Andric-Drina-foxing-800px

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Filed under Andrić, Ivo, Fiction, Uncategorized