‘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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‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik

Love by Hanne Ørstavik was published by Archipelago Books this year and was originally published in Norwegian in 1997 as Kjærlighet. It was translated by Martin Aitken. As far as I know it is only the second book by Ørstavik to be translated into English; the first was The Blue Room which I read last year. Hopefully more of her books will be published in the future.

Love follows the nocturnal wanderings of mother and son, Vibeke and Jon, over one night in their lives. Vibeke is a single mother who has recently moved to town with her eight year old son, Jon. Vibeke works as an Arts and Culture Officer in a local authority and she likes reading, getting through at least three books a week. The whole book is told from both Vibeke’s and Jon’s perspective, flitting back and forth, so that we get to experience their thoughts and actions concurrently. Ørstavik is not using this technique to trip the reader up as it’s clear in the text whenever the switch between the two characters is made from the context of the story. It’s an highly effective technique.

The story begins with Vibeke returning from work on the eve of Jon’s ninth birthday. Here’s an example of Jon’s thoughts as he waits for his mother to return from work:

The sound of the car. When he’s waiting he can never quite recall it. I’ve forgotten, he tells himself. But then it comes back to him, often in pauses between the waiting, after he’s stopped thinking about it. And then she comes, and he recognizes the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself. And no sooner has he heard the car than he sees it too, from the corner of the window, her blue car coming round the bend behind the banks of snow, and she turns in at the house and drives up the little slope to the front door.

We realise early on that Jon is used to being by himself, he’s introspective and has an active imagination and curiosity about the world around him. Jon also has trouble with blinking as his eye muscles start to spasm at random moments. It’s difficult not to feel some affection for the boy.

When Vibeke returns she is thinking of her new job and getting a meal ready for the two of them. Even when they’re eating there is little interaction between themselves, they seem to be quite isolated in their thoughts. Jon thinks of school, the neighbours, his birthday the following day whilst Vibeke thinks of work, clothes she wants to buy and books she’s reading. Even when she does show some attention to her son she is soon sidetracked by thoughts of herself.

   She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
   “Have you made any friends yet?”
   His hair is fine and soft.
   “Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
   She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.

Throughout the night covered by the novel Vibeke rarely thinks of her son and she has totally forgotten that it is his birthday the following day so it would have been easy for Ørstavik to make her into some kind of monster; but she doesn’t, Vibeke is certainly self-obsessed to some degree but she comes across as quite a naive, innocent, woman who just wants good things to happen to herself and her son.

The bulk of the novel takes place once Jon leaves the house, he has some raffle tickets for a sports club that he wants to sell to some of the neighbours. He leaves the house and soon after Vibeke leaves intending to return some books to the library, however she is unaware that Jon is no longer in the house. First off Jon knocks on the door of an old man who lives opposite him. He is invited in, the man offers to buy all the tickets then thinks of something and invites Jon down to the cellar. At this point we, the reader, are picturing that all sorts of horrible things will happen, especially when Jon notices, quite innocently, a dog collar and chain hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Ørstavik plays brilliantly with the readers’ expectations throughout the novel as Jon meanders about. He starts talking with a girl who invites him back to her house. Jon stays there after she goes to bed and her parents appear quietly menacing to us, but not to Jon. Later on he gets into a car with a woman, who Jon suspects may really be a man, whose intentions towards Jon are unclear. We fear for Jon who seems oblivious to any danger. The driver appears to know who Jon’s mother is, which is another source of concern for the reader.

Meanwhile Vibeke, finding the library shut, ends up at a fairground where she chats to one of the fairground men, called Tom, and goes back to his caravan. As with Jon we begin to wonder what will happen to Vibeke. Although she has only just met the man, she seems to be imagining them living together whilst his interest in her seems to be waning already. When they go out to find a bar or nightclub he appears to us to be almost absent, more interested in chatting up other women than Vibeke, whilst Vibeke sees little wrong with this. At one point in the novel Vibeke, in a car driven by Tom, passes by the parked car that contains Jon and the woman. At ths point the reader is fearing what will happen to both characters.

Love is an excellent book, easily comparable with the equally excellent The Blue Room. I love the way that Ørstavik plays with the expectations of the reader by placing the characters in potentially dangerous situations and throwing us false clues, or rather, clues which would be significant in a thriller of horror book but which are insignificant here. But Love is mostly about the two characters Vibeke and Jon. Both come across as innocent, introspective people but basically decent, though Vibeke is quite self-obsessed and thoughtless, illustrated by her forgetting her son’s birthday. Whether she should be vilified as a bad mother or bad person because of that is left for us to decide. The ending was suitably ambiguous though we are thrown enough clues for us to guess what happened or could have happened. The problem is, given our experience with the rest of the book, should we trust our own thoughts based on these clues?

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‘The Immoralist’ by André Gide

The Immoralist was originally published in 1902 in French as L’Immoraliste; this translation, by Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey), was first published in 1930. It begins with a preface by the author then a fictional letter to the Prime Minister explaining that the following text is what the main character, Michel, told them after asking them to visit him in a little village somewhere in Algeria. The rest of the novel is Michel’s story.

Since last seeing his friends Michel explains that he had married Marceline, even though he hadn’t particularly loved her, in order to please his father who lay on his deathbed. The thought of marriage had not previously entered his head as he had been occupied with his work on ancient cultures. On their wedding day Michel and Marceline embark on their travels, first to Paris and then on to North Africa. Whilst travelling Michel begins to pay a little attention to his new wife and realises that she is in fact very pretty, something he had never noticed before even though they had grown up together. It is only now that he really considers his recent marriage and what it means to him.

So the being to whom I had attached my life had a real and individual life of her own! The importance of this thought woke me up several times during the night; several times I sat up in my berth in order to look at Marceline, my wife, asleep in the berth below.

In Tunis Michel develops a cough and feels tired but they head further south until they get to Biskra. He starts to cough up blood and initially tries to hide it from his wife but she soon realises that he has tuberculosis and she looks after him during his illness. As a distraction Marceline brings Bachir, an Arab boy, in to Michel’s room; Michel soon starts to look forward to Bachir’s visits and develops a definite desire to live.

And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence.

With Marceline’s help and his own renewed will to live Michel recovers from his illness. He finds the presence of children both in the street and at home a great help as he enjoys watching their healthy bodies. There is one incident when he witnesses, via a reflection, one of the boys, Moktir, steal a small pair of scissors behind his back. Michel says nothing and, curiously, Moktir then becomes his favourite. Later on in the novel Michel is made aware, from the enigmatic character Ménalque, that Moktir knew that Michel saw him.

Once Michel’s health has returned they return to France via Italy. Michel returns to work and decides to spend his time between Paris and an estate he inherited in Normandy called La Morinière. Whilst at La Morinière Michel learns about the state of the tenants and the land from Bocage who has been looking after the estate during the abscence of the landowner. Michel becomes irritated with Bocage’s old-fashioned ways and becomes besotted with Bocage’s young son, Charles: ‘…a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made…‘ Charles has ideas to shake up the running of the farms and Michel helps him implement some of these ideas. Michel is uneasy being a landowner and tries to ingratiate himself with the tenants and local populace but under the influence of Charles he evicts two farmers for no real reason. There is also an episode whereby Michel encourages another boy, Alcide, who is also Bocage’s son, to poach from his own land while at the same time encouraging Bocage to catch the poachers. Michel seems to just be playing at being a landowner, he doesn’t seem to want the responsibility of owning land and instead makes an ass of himself.

In the third part of the book events mirror the first part in that they leave Paris to travel to North Africa via Italy but this time Marceline falls ill. Michel looks after Marceline but he keeps them moving on until they finally reach Biskra and the conclusion of the book.

I have missed quite a lot out of this review. In fact, it is amazing just how much is packed in to such a small book. Both the setting and style is similar to Albert Camus and so it is no surprise to discover that Camus was influenced by Gide’s work. The story and style also made me think of Paul Bowles’s work such as The Sheltering Sky et al. Michel’s illness makes him re-evaluate his life and to take control of it but he soon falters as his freedom brings confusion. Near the end of the book he tells his friends:

What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me.

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‘The Boarding-House’ by William Trevor

After reading my first book by William Trevor last year (Children of Dynmouth) I have decided to read a few more of his books this year, especially as a few of them are available at my local library. The one that really appealed to me was this one, The Boarding-House, which was first published in 1965. The blurb on the back of the new Penguin edition states: William Wagner Bird filled his boarding-house with people whom society would never miss—if it had ever noticed them at all. Now, doesn’t that just grab your attention?

The novel begins with the landlord of the London boarding-house, Mr Bird, on his death-bed. He is being attended to by one of his tenants, Nurse Clock. Mr Bird had spent the last few decades populating his house with tenants that were lonely lost-souls with neither friends nor family. The house itself had been spared the troubles of decorating or refurbishing for the whole time that Mr Bird had owned the building. It was out-of-date and a little worse for wear just like its owner and tenants.

It turns out that Mr Bird made a study of his tenants; not only did he specifically choose them but he also wrote notes on each one in a notebook titled Notes on Residents. In this book Mr Bird writes:

Well, at least I have done a good thing—I have brought them all together; and though they are solitary spirits, they have seen in my boarding-house that there are others who have been plucked from the same bush. This, I maintain, lends them some trifling solace.

It would seem that Mr Bird’s intentions are purely altruistic and recognising that he is in a position to help others, who are similar in many ways to himself, he does so by allowing them to live their lives as free from outside interference as is possible. But, as the novel progresses, it is not so clear that this was Mr Bird’s intentions at all.

There are many characters in this hugely entertaining novel. We get to know them as Trevor skillfully flits between characters, moving from the present, to the past, and back again, sometimes entering their thoughts, sometimes their dreams or from direct quotes from Mr Bird’s Notes. The novel includes other characters besides the tenants, such as the cook and the maid as well as those that the tenants come into contact with. It would take too long to introduce them all but I will give a quick outline of some of the major participants. Mr Studdy is a petty thief who loves causing mayhem; Mr Bird writes ‘Anyone can see that poor old Studdy never had a friend in his life.’ And of Nurse Clock he says ‘Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.’ Venables was the first of Mr Bird’s ‘solitary spirits’, he is a weak, lonely man who suffers from stomach cramps. He arrived after fleeing from a girl he made pregnant and fears that her parents are still seeking him. Miss Clerricot blushes at everything and is extremely self-conscious about her face; Mr Bird finds her ‘adorable’. Major Eele is full of bluster and visits strip clubs but is rather naive; he married a few years before but it only lasted days. Mr Obd came from Africa to study law but didn’t graduate; too embarrassed to return home he works as a clerk; he is deeply in love with a girl called Annabel Tonks but his love is unreciprocated. Mr Scribbin likes listening to records of trains at a thunderous volume. Rose Cave was brought up by her mother after a fling with the wallpaper man; Mr Bird notes that she cries out at night.

It is soon announced that Mr Bird, having no kin of his own, has left the house to two of the residents, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy, but with the proviso that no changes should be made to the house and that none of the tenants should be made to leave. Just prior to the reading of the will we have witnessesed Studdy trying to wheedle a drink for nothing out of a barman at his local pub, con an old bedridden woman out of some money and write an anonymous blackmail letter to the meals-on-wheels lady. It turns out that Nurse Clock likes caring for old people, especially when they’re over ninety, but it becomes clear that it’s the power that she can exert over them that appeals to her. In short, Studdy is a petty thief and swindler whilst Nurse Clock is a bully. As the novel continues Nurse Clock decides that she wants to turn the house into a nursing home for the elderly and Studdy goes along with her plans, especially as it involves more disruption and chaos but they are a totally incompatible couple; Clock just wants to boss everyone about and is frustrated when others have ideas of their own whilst Studdy has no intention to help her with her plans, instead he has to fight the overwhelming urge to stick a pin into her arm.

So, given that Mr Bird knew about these characteristics, as is apparent from his Notes on Residents, why did he leave the house to these two people? Was it his intention to cause chaos amongst his residents after his death? Or was he just naive? Trevor hints of possible malice in Mr Bird’s decisions:

When Mr Bird had written his will and had read it over he became aware that he was laughing. He heard the sound for some time, a minute or a minute and a quarter, and then he recognized its source and wondered why he was laughing like that, such a quiet, slurping sound, like the lapping of water.

But Trevor points out that Mr Bird had similarly smiled whilst writing about his residents but had murmured an apology when he had realised he was being mean, which isn’t really the action of a malicious person.

This is a brilliant book, full of grotesque but strangely likeable characters, by which I mean likeable as characters in a novel, they’d be a right pain in real life. The novel reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont but surpassed even that superb book in my opinion. I am certainly attracted to books set within a closed environment such as hotel, boarding-house, ship etc. especially if there are many characters. Trevor’s Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel looks quite similar and may well be my next book by the author.

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