The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s La confesión [The Confession]. This is another strange story from Aira, with most of the action taking place in a chair at a family reunion, where Count Orlov is seated. The Orlovs are descended from a distinguished Russian family that emigrated to Argentina. They are now quite numerous but Orlov is very much concerned that they are mixing with inferior people, particularly those of dark skin, one of whom, in fact, is sitting on the sofa next to him. The action start with an eight year old boy playing on a table on which there is an old-fashioned slide projector. As he clambers down, he knocks something on the projector and a piece of metal springs out of it and hits a young man on the sofa next to Orlov in the mouth. The man seems to be bleeding heavily so Orlov goes off to find a doctor. He does find one, who promises to return shortly but never does. Orlov returns to his chair, where he will spend the rest of the novel. Meanwhile, the man – Miguelito is his name, we later learn – seems to have fallen asleep or lost consciousness. Orlov chats to the other man on the sofa, an older man called Aniceto, whom Orlov vaguely recognises from previous family reunions. Orlov tells a fantastical tale about one of their relatives – Elena Moldova – who seems to be two people, is worried about atoms and dies but comes back to life, while Aniceto tells Orlov the story of Miguelito’s childhood with an abusive father. They talk about symmetry, Orlov watches the children playing and tries to work out the rules of the games they are playing and he ruminates on the family and his own fairly selfish life. As always with Aira, it is a story to think about, not one to try and make sense of but it is certainly original.
The latest addition to my website is José Carlos Llop‘s El mensajero de Argel [The Messenger from Algiers]. This novel, written by a writer known in Spain as much for his poetry as for his prose fiction, is something of a schizophrenic novel. It starts off by being about memory, loss of memory and recovered memory. Carlos Orfila Klein hosts a radio programme in an unnamed European coastal town. It is concerned with interviewing older people to remember the past, though not necessarily the recent present. All have interesting tales to tell, often going back to the time before their own birth. However, a casual one night stand, with a woman reminding him of his mother, and meeting one of his interviewees, a man who calls himself Jorge Baker and who very much resembles the Messenger from Algiers, who used to visit his grandparents’ house twice a year, has him try to recover both the memories of his parents and find out what happened to them, as both disappeared, his father after a prison sentence for drug smuggling in Portugal and his mother a couple of years later. Carlos had been brought up by his grandparents and Baker, after denying any knowledge of the family, gradually reveals to him a lot of unsavory truths about his grandfather and his role in World War II and Francoism. As a novel of ideas on memory and memory loss and recovery this looked to be a very promising novel. As a quasi-thriller, which, by the end, it is, it is enjoyable but less interesting than it had promised.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Una casa para siempre [A House Forever], a very inventive post-modern Spanish novel. The Great Greppi is a ventriloquist – he will go on to be very successful – and he tells his story, not in a continuous narration but with a series of vignettes of his life, some of which are life-changing, other of which just casual encounters, occasionally with real-life people such as Marguerite Duras. The key event of his childhood was when his friend Laura was raped and brutally murdered by a rich but clearly mentally disturbed old man. He and his friends found the body of the old man, hanging from a tree, covered in snow and did not realise it was him till, by throwing snowballs at it, the snow came off. As a young adult, when he is in Paris, the brother of his friend Marguerite is murdered in a similar way to the way Laura was murdered and both suspect Pedro, now living in Paris as well, but who was one of the boys throwing snowballs at the old man.
We also, naturally, see some of his relationships – his marriage to Helga (who was really called Ida) that lasts only a few days, and his relationship with Elena, which led to a son, Julio, whom he first met when Julio was seventeen years old, after Elena had died. In particular, we see his relationship with Reyes, a former singer, who had lost her voice, and whom he hires, when in Seville, to be his assistant. They instantly have a rapport, both personal and professional. However, they row all the time, with his dummy Samson, being very much involved and, eventually, he fires her. He immediately regrets this and searches for her all over the world, till he finds her on the same bill as him in Lisbon, She is now with the Barber of Triana and he asks her to leave the barber and come back to him. What happens next is left deliberately ambiguous. Unreliable narrators, both Greppi and others to whom he speaks, a narration that does always hang together and unexplained gaps all make this a post-modernist but also a highly enjoyable novel. Sadly, it is not available in English though you can read it in Romanian (and French and German).
Sadly, I have relatively few Greek writers on my site though I do have a few novels written by Greeks in my library and on my list. One of these is Menis Koumandareas. Only his short book Koula is available in English, though a few of his books have been translated into French. Sadly, he was found murdered yesterday, his body found by his nephew. He was eighty-three and lived alone. As well as being a very well-received writer, he also translated English and German works into Greek.
The latest addition to my website is Irène Némirovsky‘s Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves). This novel, unlike some of her others, is set, initially, in Kiev, where the Sinner family, a lower-middle class family, reside. Israel is a widower, bringing up a young daughter, Ada, and supporting his father-in-law. He works by making deals wherever he can. However, his brother, who had a printing firm, dies and his sister-in-law, Raissa, and her two children, Lilla and Ben, come to live with them. Ada and Ben are about the same age and become very close. There are two things the Jews in Kiev at that time really feared – cholera and pogroms – and the pogroms start to happen. During the pogroms, Ben and Ada are being helped by a maid to escape when they see some Cossacks. They run away and end up in the rich area and come across a house they have seen before, a house owned by a rich Jewish family called Sinner, to whom they may be related. They manage to gain admittance and while not fully welcomed, they are given some food and Mr Sinner later helps Israel. Ada, however, falls for their son, Harry, who is about her age. As a result of Mr Sinner’s help, the family does better, so much so that Raissa is able to persuade Israel to send them to Paris where Lilla can train as a dancer and Ada as an artist.
Unfortunately, they arrive in May 1914. When the Russian Revolution comes, they lose their funding from Israel and their Russian State bonds and Raissa becomes a seamstress, helped by Ada and with Ben delivering. Inevitably, it turns out that Harry’s family has also moved to Paris and lives nearby and inevitably they meet, though Harry marries the daughter of a rich (non-Jewish) banker and Ada and Ben marry. This only adds complications to the inevitable. It is certainly a good book, with the fierce independence of Ben and Ada, hardened by their life in Kiev, being the strong point of the book.
If you do not live the United States or did not get a chance to watch PBS’ Russia’s Open Book, I strongly urge you to do so if you have any interest in the contemporary novel. This film, funnily enough introduced by the very English (and bearded) Stephen Fry and narrated by the very English Juliet Stephenson, is about six contemporary Russian novelists: Zakhar Prilepin, Dmitry Bykov, Anna Starobinets, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Mariam Petrosyan and Vladimir Sorokin. As Stephen Fry points out in in his introduction, these are not modern Tolstoys or Dostoevskys but very much writers in their own mould, dealing with contemporary issues. Some of them are very much involved in contemporary politics, primarily anti-Putin, either directly or in their writing, though Prilepin says he remembers the Soviet Union with fondness, as he had a happy childhood and associates the Soviet Union with his happy childhood. All of them have had success in Russia (a couple of critics are interviewed). While Ulitskaya and Sorokin have a certain reputation in the West, I suspect the others are less well-known.
Mariam Petrosyan is the only who has not been published in English, though her only book has been published in Italian. She is part Armenian and, indeed, speaks Armenian at home but writes in Russian. She had written the book – Дом в котором… [The House In Which…] – over a period of years, in longhand. She had typed it out and given a copy to friends in Moscow. The singer Sasha Magerova had met a young man on the Internet and on the first date he told her that he had a very special present for her. To her surprise, he handed her a somewhat tatty typescript manuscript. She was surprised but then read it. It was, of course, Дом в котором… [The House In Which…] – and she was gripped by the story. She passed it to a friend in a publishing house who put it aside but then had a few minutes and started reading it and was also gripped. She published it and it became a big hit. Petrosyan has not written a follow-up, as her many fans have requested, nor has she even decided what she is going to write next. I have the Italian version of this book as well as at least one work by each of the others and plan to read them next year. And, yes you can see the film on YouTube.
The latest addition to my website is Irène Némirovsky‘s Jézabel (A Modern Jezebel; later: Jezebel). As the title indicates, this tells of a woman who is concerned almost exclusively with her good looks and having a good time. At the beginning of the book, Gladys Eysenach, a rich woman of Uruguayan descent, is on trial for the murder of a student, Bernard Martin. She does not deny having killed him and it seems that she is guilty. The trial reveals a certain amount of her life – her wealthy upbringing, her marriage to a rich man, now dead, the death of her daughter and her extravagant lifestyle. She is engaged to a fairly impoverished but dashing Italian count. She has met the student, seems to have spent some time with him, given him some money and then shot him in her own house. Neither her maid nor any of her friends, including the count, knew of his existence and, therefore, of her motives, which do not come out in the trial. She has been found guilty (she offers no defence) and is sentenced to five years imprisonment. The rest of the book tells of her early life. She has been brought up in wealth and has always enjoyed the bright lights. She was happily married to Richard Eysenach (her second marriage, the first ending very quickly in divorce) and was saddened when he died of a heart attack in her arms in a New York hotel. However, both of them had had affairs. Much of the rest of the book is about how she fears growing old and does what she can to preserve the pretense that she is younger than she really is, an effort that causes her, in the long run, a considerable amount of grief, including the death of Martin. This is a good book, if somewhat sexist by modern standards, but not one of her best.
The latest addition to my website is Irène Némirovsky‘s Suite française (Suite française), a novel written in 1940-41 but only published in 2004. This book is in two parts. The first part tells of a few people who live in Paris and what they do just before and just after the German invasion of France and capture of Paris in June 1940. All of them try to flee but to different parts. The Péricands, with four minor children, pack what they can and drive South to Nîmes where they have relatives whom they can stay with. The journey is difficult, as the roads are crowded, food and petrol are difficult to obtain and the Germans are attacking. They are not helped when Hubert, their seventeen-year old runs off to join the French army resisting the German invasion. Some people head off to Tours, which they find more or less abandoned, as the Germans are expected at any time. All of them have problems with transport, Germans attacking, food and petrol supplies, finding lodgings and issues with other refugees. After a while some of them return to Paris, but a very different Paris.
The second part tells the story of a small town, Bussy, after the German occupation and how the inhabitants try to adapt to their occupation. The Germans are generally fairly friendly, though they do requisition food and the soldiers are billeted on the population. Some of the French are adamantly opposed to the Germans, while others are more accommodating. Indeed, some of the French women start affairs with the German soldiers. There are the inevitable conflicts but much of the section is how both sides try to adapt to the awkward situation, with the French concerned about food and turning to the black market and outright theft to survive, while worrying about their men who are prisoners. Némmirovsky’s descriptions of these two situations are superbly done and you really feel that she was there. This book is now a classic of French literature and it makes you regret her murder by the Nazis, as she would no doubt have gone on to produce other first-class works, perhaps on the rest of the war or even Gaullist France.
The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s Sebastiano Vassalli: Le due chiese [The Two Churches]. This is set in a fictitious part of Italy but what seems to be the Valle d’Aosta. Most of the action takes place between World War I to a period soon after World War II and focusses on the inhabitants of the village of Rocca di Sasso, with no individual hero. Vassalli describes many of the inhabitants, with their aspirations, foibles and faults. Two of the main characters are Ansimino (his nickname – everybody in the village has to have a nickname, either one they acquired or one they inherit from a parent) and Luigi Prandini, later known as Black Hand, when he loses a hand in World War I and wears a black glove to conceal it. Ansimino is the smith and the bus driver, an important post as he brings up the news and gossip from elsewhere in the valley. Luigi is the schoolmaster. Initially, he is a socialist and atheist but later gives us his socialist ideals and, as World War I approaches, he favours war. He will later become a Fascist when he becomes disillusioned after the end of World War I. When World War I comes, thirteen men are called up and they hold a symbolic last supper. A small church is built for them and then another one to celebrate their return, hence the title of the book. Some of the men are killed, some wounded and one is taken prisoner and it seems likely that he will never return. Spanish flu, development and the rise of Fascism are the key events after World War I, with the book ending after accounts have been settled after the war and the churches have been knocked down to build a car park. It is an enjoyable book, even if not, perhaps, as enjoyable as some of his other ones which focus on one or two people. It has not been translated into any other language.