Ali Smith: Hotel World

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Hotel World. This tells the stories of five women all associated in some way with the Global Hotel, located in an unspecified UK city. The story starts with the ghost of a chambermaid who was killed on the second day on the job when she got into the dumb waiter, which could not hold her weight. We also meet a homeless woman begging outside the hotel, a receptionist, a guest and the younger sister of the dead woman. All have issues, none seem happy and none seem to have any friend and none seem to be in romantic relationship. Their interactions and their struggles with life, told in a fairly post-modernist manner, are superbly portrayed by Ali Smith in this novel.

Triveni: ಶರಪಂಜರ (Sharapanjara; Cage of Arrows; The Mad Woman)

The latest addition to my website is Triveni‘s ಶರಪಂಜರ (Sharapanjara; Cage of Arrows; The Mad Woman). Triveni was a feminist Indian writer, writing in Kannada. This was one of only two of her novels published in English and was written shortly before she died in childbirth. It tells the story of Kaveri, a good-looking and intelligent woman who marries Satish, a good-looking and intelligent man. Initially, they have a very happy marriage. After the birth of her second son, she has a nervous breakdown and spends two years in a mental hospital. On her return, her children barely know her and she is rejected by her husband and most other people. Anything she does that seems slightly untoward (e.g. picking up a knife to peel some fruit) is seen as evidence that she is still mad, though she feels that she has fully recovered. It is a feminist novel but also a plea for better understanding of mental illness. It was made into a successful film in India.

Nora Ikstena: Mātes piens (Soviet Milk)

The latest addition to my website is Nora Ikstena‘s Mātes piens (Soviet Milk). This is a superb novel about three generation of women in Latvia, struggling with the oppressive Soviet system. The narrator, who shares a birth date with the author, struggles with a mother who is a brilliant doctor but a depressive and less than brilliant mother (there is no father), who declines to breastfeed her daughter. We follow the stories of other women who suffer, often being persuaded to abort by their husbands or needing assistance to become pregnant (the mother essentially invents IVF) but all too many people, the mother included, come up against the Soviet system and its controls. The Latvian title translates as Mother’s Milk and both titles give some idea of what this book is about.

Catalan Literature Part 2

I have now read twenty Catalan novels in a row, by twenty different writers. I cannot say that these novels were typical of the Catalan novel but nevertheless, I shall try and draw a few conclusions from my reading.

Definitely a Civil War novel

1) Catalans are still somewhat obsessed with the Spanish Civil War and Franco. This is not surprising, not least because other Spanish writers are too. The Spanish Civil War is still being fought in the Catalan and Spanish novel, even though it ended nearly eighty years ago. Presumably all combatants in that war are dead and there are probably relatively few people alive today who were children back then. Nevertheless it has certainly not been forgotten. Given that the American Civil War is still being fought, both in literature and in the real world, over one hundred and fifty years after it ended, we can expect to have more Catalan and Spanish Civil War novels for some time to come
2) Catalan writers like looking back at their past, by which I mean before the Civil War and Franco.
3) Not all Catalan were on the pro-Republic, anti-Franco side. At least three of these novels featured Catalans that supported Franco.
4) Humour does not seen to be a big part of the Catalan novel. Most of these were deadly serious. This review and this article indicate that there is Catalan humour but I barely found it in these novels.
5) Catalans like long novels. Several of these novels were quite long.

A favourite though 1000 pages long

If I have to pick a favourite, that would not be difficult. Surprisingly, and this is entirely coincidence, the last two I read were, I thought, the best, i.e. Jaume Cabré‘s Jo confesso (Confessions) and Mercè Rodoreda‘s La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring), both available in English. However, I also enjoyed Lluís-Anton BaulenasAlfons XIV : un crim d’estat [Alfonso XIV: A Crime of State], which is not available in English. The Cabré did have some humour in it; the other two definitely did not.

So now back to the rest of the world but I am already planning next year’s marathon.

Jaume Cabré: Jo confesso (Confessions)

The latest addition to my website is Jaume Cabré‘s Jo confesso (Confessions). This is the final book in my 2018 Catalan marathon. It is also the longest (around 1000 pages) and probably the best. It tells the story of a father and son, Felix and Adrià Ardèval, both obsessed with collecting rare manuscripts and other items, a rare and very valuable 18th century violin, whose owners all too often die a violent death, and the nature of evil, illustrated by the Holocaust (specifically two of the doctors working at Auschwitz) and, to a lesser extent, the Spanish Inquisition. We follow how Felix moved from being a possible priest to to becoming a ruthless and morally challenged collector and how his son tried to avoid being his father but did not entirely succeed. We also follow numerous stories, both set in the present and past, which examine the nature of evil and the moral flaws we all have. It is a superbly written book, unfinished according to the author.

Virginia Woolf and St Ives

This weekend we eventually got round to visiting St Ives to see Virginia Woolf An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings at the Tate. Before discussing the exhibition, a few words about Virginia Woolf and St Ives.

Godrevy Lighthouse

The Stephen family (Virginia Woolf’s parents, her brother and sister and herself) spent their summer holidays there, in Talland House, from 1881 to 1895 (Virginia was born in 1882 and she spent her first summer there.) It had a profound influence on her work as well as on the work of her sister, Vanessa Bell, who was a painter. The house has long since been converted into flats (you can read about that here). The house and, in particular Godrevy Lighthouse, were to play a role in her work, particularly in To the Lighthouse. Godrevy Lighthouse was quite some distance – the not very good photo to the left, above is taken from near where Talland House was.

Another famous resident of St Ives was Barbara Hepworth and her house is now a museum. Many of her works are on display in the small garden, like the one to the right. (There is another Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, where she was born. It is just a few miles from Leeds and an easy train or bus ride from there. More of her work can be seen at the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is accessible by bus).

Getting back to the Woolf exhibition, what made this exhibition so interesting is that it was not particularly about Woolf (though, clearly, in part it was) but that all the works were inspired directly or indirectly by Woolf and all were by female artists. Some of the artists I was familiar with. For example, there were several by Laura Knight who had had an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago we very much enjoyed. There were quite a few works by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, as well as works by Gwen John, Sandra Blow, Dora Carrington and other well-known names. There were also quite a few by artists I had ever heard of, including some very modern ones.

I will particularly mention Ithell Colquhoun. She is not so well-known as her work is surrealist, which was less popular, particular as regards women surrealist artists. She is also interesting as she wrote a strange novel, called Goose of Hermogenes. (I have a copy but I do not plan to read it any time soon.) (She wrote two others, one never completed. I Saw Water was published posthumously.)

The exhibition finishes this week but will be going to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in May and then to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in October. If you can get to either, you should find it well worth your time.

Mercè Rodoreda: La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring)

The latest addition to my website is Mercè Rodoreda‘s La mort i la primavera (Death in Spring). Though Rodoreda wrote this book at around the same time as she wrote La plaça del Diamant (UK: The Pigeon Girl; US: The Time of the Doves), it was not published till after her death. It is now considered one of her best works. It tells of a remote village with strange customs, rituals and behaviours and threats both from Nature and a shadowy group of people called the Caramens. The villagers have to die (essentially, be killed) in a strange and unpleasant ritual and generally have to follow other rituals and customs which seem to us cruel and/or bizarre. Our fourteen-year old hero is a victim of these rituals. Rodoreda clearly put a lot into this work as it is thoroughly original and, at least in part, is intended to condemn totalitarianism.

Najat El Hachmi: L’últim patriarca (The Last Patriarch)

The latest addition to my website is Najat El Hachmi‘s L’últim patriarca (The Last Patriarch). Najat El Hachmi may not seem a Catalan name and it is not. El Hachmi was born in Morocco but her family moved to Catalonia when she was eight and Catalan was the language she learned to read and write in. Her first book was called I, Too, Am Catalan. This novel tells the story of Mimoun, the eponymous last patriarch, who is a violent, drunken, unfaithful, cruel, bullying and controlling man. It is narrated by his daughter. The first part is before her birth, from his birth to her birth, and tells of how he became as obnoxious as he did and how he married the narrator’s mother. The second part, set in Barcelona, tells of his continued bad behaviour but also shows how the narrator coped both with him (and her mother) and with living in a country which, in many respects, was foreign. It won the prestigious Ramon Llull Prize in 2008.

Lluïsa Forrellad: Siempre en capilla [Always In The Chapel]

The latest addition to my website is Lluïsa Forrellad‘s Siempre en capilla [Always In The Chapel]. Forrellad wrote this in Spanish in 1953 (for which she won the Nadal Prize) and then did not write another novel for fifty-three years, her three later novels all appearing in Catalan. It tells the stories of three English doctors working a in a poor, fictitious city in England called Spick, trying to cope with a diphtheria epidemic. They are developing a serum but are unsure of its effectiveness and are concerned with the morality of testing it on animals other than rats and, of course, of testing it on humans (which they finally do). We follow their stressful lives, the multiple deaths of both rich and poor in Spick and their issues with morality. It is a fine novel which, sadly, has not been translated into English.

Jordi Puntí: Maletes perdudes (Lost Luggage)

The latest addition to my website is Jordi Puntí‘s Maletes perdudes (Lost Luggage). It tells the story of four half-brothers, each from a different country, who were unaware of each other’s existence and who come together in Barcelona to learn more about their lost father and one another. We follow the story of their father, Gabriel, who worked for an international moving company and met and impregnated their respective mothers, as well as his fellow movers and partners in crime (they stole freely from the items they moved). At the beginning of the book he seems to have disappeared but left ample documentation about his colourful life, the four mothers and the four (possibly five) sons. It is a well-written and very lively story as the four learn about their father and one another.