An Italian Classic ‘The Betrothed’ by Alessandro Manzoni

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‘The Betrothed’ starts with a cowardly cleric being threaten with unnamed reprisals if he performs a marriage ceremony for a peasant couple against the wishes of the evil Don Rodrigo.  The fearful priest resolves to obey these commands, cursing his misfortune at being caught between his religious duty (he has already promised to perform the wedding ceremony) and the inescapable power of the bullying baron.

Thus begins a epic story of tyranny and love. The peasant couple are of appropriately heroic stock – poor but honest, she is of surpassing beauty, modesty and virtue.  He is slightly more human, but equally impotent against the vicissitudes of fortune.  And what vicissitudes there are.  Apart from ‘bravos’, essentially gang enforcers roving the countryside unopposed, the book will cover blackmail, abduction, riots, war, famine and plague; it’s a historical novel that depicts the best of seventeenth century chaos through the refined lens of nineteenth century melodrama.

Most enjoyable from my perspective, were the moments when the book was most reminiscent of contemporary Gothic fiction.  ‘The Monk’ by Lewis was published in 1796 and Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ came out a year later.  I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to look for similarities between these enjoyable pieces of Gothic silliness and Manzoni’s Italian classic, first published in 1827.  I certainly got my  beautiful and virtuous heroine, my dastardly aristocratic villains and the decadence and corruption of religious orders (Diderot’s ‘The Nun’ was also published in 1796).  The fact that this book is Italian and so not written with a Protestant or secular world view added a twist to the familiar themes.  While hypocrites are under attack, the Catholic Church remains a force for good in the novel.  Indeed, when a key character makes a sacred oath to forsake marriage and take holy orders, none of my previous reading could prepare me for how the plot would deal with this potentially insurmountable barrier to a final happy ending.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed the story and characters in ‘The Betrothed.’  All that prevents me from wholeheartedly recommending it to others is the thorny issue of translation.  I alternated between a heavy paperback edition of the book (trans by Archibald Colquhoun) and a weird Kindle version from project Gutenberg (which claims to be written by a Count O’Mahony).  I can’t imagine either do justice to the Italian original and only hope one of the many wonderful publishers currently specialising in literature in translation will be bringing out a more readable English edition of this classic soon.  If anyone has read a good translation please do let me know, in its absence I’m going to work on remembering the exaggerated events of the novel while trying to forget the distorted sentences of the translations.

Posted in Alessandro Manzoni, Italian Literature | 2 Comments

The Man Booker Prize and Graveyards: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

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Reading ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ really made me wish for a new book list, a specialised list, made up of English language novels premised on Buddhist philosophy.  It’s is going to have to be provided by someone else though.  I’ve never quite managed to finish ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and know so little about Buddhism in general, I couldn’t even understand the title of Saunders’ acclaimed novel.  Fortunately Google let me know what a Bardo is: ‘(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

With this definition, the novel can start to make some sense.  Only, some mind you, when your setting is so vague and liminal, ‘making sense’ is suddenly very low on the agenda.  Instead, the book provides a space for exploring ideas, public and private, around identity, motivation and American history.  It all makes for an unusual, enigmatic and extremely enjoyable read.

My last review was about Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness‘, which I found extremely ambitious, using an unconventional, fractured narrative structure to capture the complexity and recent traumatic history of Indian sub-continent.  ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is equally experimental; told entirely through inner monologues and first person narratives, it reads far more like a radio play than a novel.  Quibbles of form aside though, Saunders weaves a story based on a historical footnote (Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, died in 1862 and Lincoln visited his grave) into a powerful meditation on agency, identity and loss.

The book is divided into sections, bracketed by contemporary, often contradictory accounts of the historical events.  In between these reminders of the real world, the reader, like young Willie, is surrounded by the eccentric spirits who tenaciously stick to their liminal and unnatural ‘state of existence.’  We learn their stories and are given hints as to why they remain thus unnaturally suspended between actual life and true death.  Take one incidental character for example:

Mrs. Ellis was a stately, regal woman, always surrounded by three gelatinous orbs floating about her person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters.  At times these orbs grew to extreme size, and would bear down upon her, and crush out her blood and other fluids as she wriggled beneath their terrible weight, refusing to cry out, as this would indicate displeasure, and at other times these orbs departed from her and she was greatly tormented, and must rush about trying to find them, and when she did, would weep in relief, at which time they would once again begin bearing down upon her…

Every character in the Bardo has their own story and obsession, and their own place within American history.  This is never more evident than with the Black slave spirit community, barred by convention and racist White inhabitants from residing in the main cemetery.  For a novel entirely told through different voices, the spirit of a beautiful, mute slave girl is a terrifyingly tragic figure.  Beyond the story of personal grief the novel fully engages with the political implications of its title; the one living character to approach the Bardo is Lincoln, the president who was to issue the emancipation proclamation in 1863.

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ is poignant and meditative, but also joyfully exuberant.  The imaginative detail is bawdy as well as gruesome and the characters are delightful as they navigate their transitional existence.  Full of surprises and consistently moving, I really hope this will make it onto the Booker shortlist.  And that my next Buddhist novel will be as satisfyingly unexpected and charming.

Posted in George Saunders, Man Booker Prize 2017 | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Getting started with the 2017 Man Booker Prize: The ironically titled ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

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Having spoken to people about Roy’s new novel, I think I may have been the only reader to have utterly misunderstood the title.  In blissful ignorance I began reading, looking forward to a much needed cheerful novel.  There was nothing I would have welcomed more than a well-written tome on joy, gladness and good-will.  With this in mind, I must confess that the first chapter was a bit disconcerting:

She lived in the graveyard like a tree.  At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home.  At dusk she did the opposite.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.  She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.  She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.

After the enigmatic and mysterious beginning, the story moves back in time to explore the social position and plight of ‘hijra‘, a Hindu word readers are to discover for themselves can mean hermaphrodite, eunuch or transgender person.  This fascinating view of an outsider community is then interrupted when the ostensible protagonist gets caught up in a massacre against Hindus, and the subsequent reprisals against Muslims, when on her way to visit a shrine.  Before the reader has time to comprehend the full trauma of the events and their effects on the characters, the plot moves on yet again, into poverty, urbanisation, pollution, political corruption and the conflict in Kashmir.

My advice would be to avoid getting hung on up plot, or on remembering and keeping track of the immense cast of characters.  Not only is the phrase ‘Utmost Happiness’ in the title Orwellian in its ironic implications, the word ‘Ministry’ with its connotations of order and control is equally misleading.  The book is sprawling in the extreme, as new characters, plot-lines and tragedies intrude on each other, running off in all directions and frustrating any desire for coherence or logical progression.

And I suppose that’s the point.  This is a novel about huge regions and massive populations.  Rather than attempt to fit these within a traditional narrative structure, Roy instead invites her readers into the confusion.  Even the writing, including polemics, poetry, lyrical descriptions, mystical fairy-tale elements and a patchwork of documentary-style ‘non-fiction’ is uneven and disorienting.  Personally,  found it an admirable and ambitious, but ultimately overwhelming, reading experience.  It will certainly teach most readers quite a bit about the history, society and politics of the Indian sub-continent, though if you’re after a more straightforward account, I suspect Roy’s non-fiction over the last two decades is a better place to look.  Later on this year, we’ll see if ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ will join ‘The God of Small Things’ on the Man Booker awards list.  For the time being, it remains a challenging, brave and formidable addition to the canon of Great Indian Novels.

I received my copy of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Arundhati Roy, Man Booker Prize 2017 | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Human identity: ‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

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A couple of years ago, I read Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline,’ a book that is so delicately evocative of a fractured self it was almost impossible to review (though I tried, and you can see the result at Shiny New Books).  Here, at Shoshi’s Book Blog, all I could do to give a snapshot of the book was quote from Rilke’s Fourth Duino Elegy:

…It’s as if – in a quick sketch – all the effort
has gone to prepare a background that allows us
to see precisely and yet still we cannot grasp
the real contour of our feelings and we know
only the pressures that shape us from the outside…

 I was thrilled to see a follow up novel in book shops last year.  But then I got anxious.  ‘Outline’ did such a perfect job of presenting a heroine sublimating her own ego and identity.  She is barely a character in her own novel, merely inhabiting the spaces left around the stories others tell her about themselves.  I wasn’t sure if I needed another novel giving more of the same; on the other hand, I couldn’t quite imagine being satisfied with anything less.

‘Transit’, as the name suggests, does indeed move on from ‘Outline.’  Unlike the Athens-set first novel (surrounded by abandoned building projects), the action in ‘Transit’ takes place in London, as our narrator attempts to fix up her new property into something resembling a family home.  It’s a difficult process, grubby and painful, echoing our narrator’s own slow process away from the numb self-effacement of ‘Outline.’

Structurally, the novel is made up of isolated episodes in which Faye meets different people and hears their stories.  In the previous book, such narratives were about the nature of storytelling itself.  With ‘Transit,’ there is a new pervasive theme, from the hairdresser to the neighbours, conversations seem to circle around ideas of childhood and children.  The question of what it means to be grown up echoes the difficulties faced by our narrator as she struggles to rebuild an identity for herself following her divorce and new existence as a single parent.

Like the newly bought flat around which much of its action centres, ‘Transit’ is a novel continually on the brink of collapse.  From the ambition of the structure (in which very little actually happens) and the characterisation (in a novel which actively wrestles with the idea of identity) it is every bit a powerful as ‘Outline.’  There is a third book planned to round off this collection of books and I can’t wait to see how Cusk continues her existential exploration of modern life.  Right now, I’m most excited to see what it will be called, hoping for a hat trick of fantastic titles that encapsulate their stories far better than any written review…

Posted in Rachel Cusk, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Before ‘Wolf Hall’ there was: ‘The Man on a Donkey’ by H F M Prescott

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I’m a sucker for a good long book when it comes to providing proper escapism.  If the action in the story all takes place in a fashionable historical period, things are even more promising.  ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is presented as a chronicle of events in England between 1509 and 1537.  As fans of Hillary Mantel and Tudor history will know, this covers Henry VIII’s first marriages, the beginning of the Church of England and the dissolution of the English Monasteries and Nunneries.

At over 700 pages, Prescott’s 1952 novel sets out to do justice to the complexities of this time period.  The story follows five main characters, a prioress, a lord, a gentlewoman, a squire and a priest.  All of them will have their lives shattered by the Reformation, but their stories are nonetheless unexpected and surprising, convincingly debunking any stereotypical expectations you might have about Tudor behaviour or beliefs.

My favourite character is probably the Prioress, Christabel Cowper.  A unsentimental business woman, we trace her life and success from first entering the Marrick Priory as a child to her seemingly inevitable rise up the hierarchy.  In the twenty-first century she would have been the CEO of an international business; in this book she utterly dominates her sphere and is an argument both for and against the holy orders in pre-Reformation England.  The argument for, is the power it gave at least a few women – legal power far in excess of any wife in the realm.  As for the arguments against, well Chistabel is as secular a prioress as you could even imagine, far more concerned with increasing her Priory’s wealth than ever sharing any of it with the poor.  Countering this woman within the Catholic establishment is the priest’s narrative.  Gilbert Dawe is poor and, at heart, a revolutionary believer in the reformed church.  He is also utterly mean-spirited, abusive towards his family (the woman who bore him a child and the poor child himself) and filled with bitter hatred toward anyone with wealth or power.  The other central characters are equally well-drawn, complex and unexpected; I suspect each reader or reading will uncover a new personal favourite.

On a deeper level however, this epic is not really about these fictional or fictionalised characters at all, but about the world in which they live.  This is an England ruled by a tyrant, in which the whims of those in power can destroy the lives of thousands.  It is also a traumatised nation; the civil War of the Roses is within living memory for the older generation.  Prescott makes a convincing case that this fear of renewed bloody conflict is what cows Henry’s opponents into supporting his increasingly destabilising policies.  In today’s frightening political climate, ‘The Man on a Donkey’ is an unexpectedly timely reflection on power and fear.

In another way, this is also a book about faith.  Prescott explores what it means for a religion which preaches peace to be at the heart of conflict.  How can a single faith account for such different public faces as Christabel Cowper and Gilber Dawe?  Possibly more significantly, how could Christianity in its essence have survived the schisms and violence of the Reformation?  Her solution is spiritual, heart-felt and, whether or not you believe in her conclusion, extremely moving.  ‘The Man on a Donkey’ delivers everything you could want from a doorstop of historical escapism and it is also the most sincere book of religious struggle I have read since Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead.’  Read it for the period, for the characters, for the politics or for the theology.  Or read it because it has a beautiful cover and will keep you happy over hundreds of pages; either way, you won’t regret it.

Posted in H F M Prescott, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

A Random Russian Discovery: ‘A Russian Gentleman’ by Sergei Aksakov

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A joy of working for a London university is that I have access to the wonderful Senate House Library.  This library is not only massive, but it arranges its literature geographically and has a delightful nook which houses the Russian literature.  This may sound odd given the traumatic and depressing topics so often associated with such writings, but this small corner of the 5th floor is my happy place, filled with so many old friends.  It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have access to these shelves when I was working through my epic Russian reading challenge a couple of years ago.  It would have destroyed all the thrill of hunting down obscure authors and would have probably overwhelmed me before I got sucked in.  Now it’s perfect; I can approach with the shelves with the confidence of recognising many names, but also with the hope of discovering new and unexpected gems.

I know I’ll be relying on the Senate House Library catalogue heavily when I finally free up enough reading time to move into more Soviet-era literature, but I hadn’t really expected many new writers from the 19th century.  Imagine my delight when I came across Sergei Aksakov, an author who didn’t even show up in my 2015 research, but whose novel ‘A Russian Gentleman’ was awaiting my discovery.

According Edward Crankshaw’s introduction, ‘‘A Russian Gentleman‘ is a classic example of that essentially Russian genre, a factual record faintly disguised as fiction, or a fiction so actual , so apparently inconsequent and uncontrived, that it reads like fact.  The first master of this style however, was not Gogol but Pushkin, with his wonderfully matter-of-fact treatment of everyday affairs just as they come, without heroics and with perfect simplicity.’  It just goes to show how little I still know of Russian literature.  Not only was I completely unaware of this essential genre, I’ve always found Pushkin and Gogol gloriously over-the-top in their different ways.  ‘Heroic’ feels like the perfect adjective to describe many of Pushkin’s stories and my favourite works by Gogol combine the tragic, the sublime, the supernatural and the insane with a lot of brilliance but with little simplicity.  I clearly need to do a fair bit of re-reading and possibly hunt out some new translations …

Crankshaw is right in highlighting the ‘inconsequent’ ‘matter-of-fact’ tone of the book.  Aksakov engages with wider themes about the Russian character and unique attributes, but his narrative is personal to the extent of feeling naive.  The sections about the different generations of his family are called ‘fragments’ rather than chapters and his portraits, especially of his neurotic and beloved mother, can be so uncritical as to take you out of the story.

That’s not to say there are no points of interest.  It’s been a bit of jump back in time to read a novel published in 1846, 15 years before the emancipation of the serfs.  The book begins with the eponymous hero, our narrator’s grandfather, transplanting his peasants so they can cultivate a new and previously uninhabited estate he has purchased. ‘The carts were packed with the women and children and old people, and awnings of bast bent over them to protect them from the sun and rain … the poor settlers shed bitter tears as they parted for ever with their past life, with the church in which they had been christened and married, and with the graves of their fathers and grandfathers.’  Fortunately things all go splendidly.  ‘With unremitting care and attention my grandfather watched the labour of the people on their own land and on his; the hay was mown, the winter rye and spring corn were cut down and carried, and the right moments was chosen for each operation.  The yield of the crops was fabulous.  The peasants thought things were not so bad after all.’

Reading books from the past is a chance to see with world and its inhabitants through new eyes.  I don’t know how fair it is to be angry at Aksakov for his acceptance of the status quo and his family’s place therein.  I must confess however, that the novel did not contain enough insights to balance the unquestioning recording of his family’s thinly disguised history.  Still, with such a well-stocked library I’ve no reason to be downhearted if I don’t love every pick.  It’s always exciting to learn about new Russian authors (and whole genres!) at least this way I can try to avoid complacency of my own when I think about what I’ve read and what I think I know.

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Maybe I would have preferred the book if the library edition had boasted this racy (if somewhat inexplicable) cover.  Available to buy at Amazon.co.uk

Posted in Russian Reading, Sergei Aksakov | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Question of Style: Writing in the present tense

Phew, it’s been a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of first the Bailey’s Prize and then the Man Booker International Prize shortlists.  I’ve still got a pile of books from spring waiting to be written about, but I think the sensible thing might be to pause and catch my breath before I attempt to catch up with myself.

Or, maybe I should re-phrase that first sentence:

It is a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of the recent prize shortlists.

I’m afraid I still prefer my first version.  Even when blogging I can’t deny my bias against the past tense.  And things only get more dogmatic when it comes to my reading choices.  Writing in the first tense is one of those things that can move a book straight off the to-be-read pile.  I can’t describe how much I struggled with ‘Wolf Hall,’ but can vividly recall how I felt when I finally put my finger on what was bugging me so much about the lauded epic.

All this is by way of introduction, you see I really enjoyed my reading for the Man Booker International Prize, but I can’t quite get over the fact that three of the six books selected were written in the present tense.  ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ ‘The Unseen‘ and even my favourite ‘Fever Dream‘ all took me more or less off-guard.  I didn’t want to mention it in my reviews (because I realise not everyone gets as hung up on these issues as I do), but it has got me thinking about how I really feel about this stylistic choice.

The fact is, I find reading stories in the present tense an odd experience.  It jars me out of my comfort zone and the fact that it is uncommon for literary fiction means I end up reading more slowly as a result.  I don’t think all books can take this meditative pace, especially not compounded with the arch knowingness that seems to come with such a provocative choice on the part of the author.  On the other hand, if I’m honest with myself, some of my favourite novels use this style to magical effect.  In ‘The Night Circus‘ my favourite moments, the timeless passages in which we are invited into the circus itself, are all in the present tense.  In Italo Calvino’s ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ the present tense second person sections, all about the joys of reading, make me smile from ear to ear.  In ‘Fever Dream’ the delirious chronicling demands the immediacy of Amanda’s deeply personal present tense narration.

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I suppose the two factors here are intention and brevity.  It seems I can adore present tense narration for up to (but not over) 150 pages.  It has to be used to create a somewhat magical or out-of-body experience, with the awareness that this is an unusual literary choice and so only fit for very unusual books or topics.  The success of ‘Fever Dream’ however also shows that I should try not to be so restrictive in my acknowledged tastes.  I’m not sure I’m quite ready to try ‘Bringing up the Bodies,’ but will try to be more open-minded in the future when it comes to authors’ stylistic choices.  As a bit of honest soul-searching has shown, going beyond my comfort zone has already given me my top prize read of the year and possibly one of my favourite books from 2017.

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Posted in Erin Morgenstern, How to pick which book to read | Tagged , , | 11 Comments