Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’


(Translated from Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya)

The latest book to arrive from The Asymptote book club was Aranyak (of the forest) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. It is a partly autobiographical novel wreathed in glorious prose. Written between 1937 and 1939, the story was written out of the diary entries the author himself kept during the years he spent in the Bihar region. This new 2017 edition from Seagull books making this only English translation available to new readers.

The plot, such as it is, is simple enough. Satyacharan, a young educated man, originally from Bengal, living in Calcutta in the 1920s, finds himself out of work. Offered a job by an old friend, Satyacharan is soon heading off to an uninhabited forest land, as an administrator of land settlement. His home and office, known as the Katcheri is a small clearing, a few huts made from straw and bamboo are his world. It is a long way indeed from Calcutta.

“There is one day I shall never forget. I remember it was Dol-purnima, the full moon which marks the spring festival of colour. The katcheri guards had taken leave for the day; all day long, they had celebrated the festival to the beat of their dholak. When I found that the singing and dancing showed no signs of abating even after it was evening, I lit a lamp and sat at my table writing letters to the head office till late at night. When I was done I happened to glance at my watch and found it was almost one. Quite frozen with the cold, I lit a cigarette and went to the window for a smoke. What I saw enthralled me so much that I stood rooted to the spot. I was overwhelmed by the indescribable light of a full moon night.”

The forest land surrounding the Katcheri is dense, unchanged for centuries, it will in time become parcelled up, given over to people to live off. Satyacharan, is a city man, he loves the life he had there, the culture, the society – and at first, he hates his new surroundings, the emptiness he finds oppressive. The people he meets are wretchedly poor, and few and far between, he is concerned how long it might take to find new tenants for every bit of land he has to manage. He sees the people as barbarians, unable to appreciate the world he knows. He is frustrated by loneliness and isolation.

“Most wonderful it is to long for one’s homeland. Those who spend their entire lives in their native village, never venturing beyond the next one, would not know how intriguing is this feeling. Only one who has lived for many years without his kin in alien lands will know how the heart cries out for Bengal, for Bengalis, for one’s own village, and for one’s dear friends and relatives.”

Soon, the forest starts to work its magic on Satyacharan, he becomes enchanted by the natural world around him, the animals that live in the forest. The people, who come into the forest seeking a new existence – begin to impress him too. Their strength and vulnerability, their simple, poverty-stricken way of life. He meets a host of memorable characters, as the forest starts to shrink, bit by tiny bit, as small pieces of land are parcelled up, new tenants found, trees felled to make way for new crops. These people include: Raju Pnaare, a religious man, shy and harmless he spends the majority of his time reading religious books, and not doing much to clear the land he has been given. Dhaotal Sahu, a village money lender, he isn’t the usual kind of money lender, he is very good at lending out money – but not so good at getting it back. He is not in the least avaricious – and is himself much poorer because of it. Dhaturia, a young dancer, who comes to the Katcheri as part of a travelling group of performers, he returns a few years later and is persuaded to stay. Kunta a widow, shunned as the daughter of a prostitute, she lives a life of great hardship, and is later given a small parcel of land for nothing. We meet Venkateswar a poet, and Raja Doboru Panna a former king.

The stories of Satyacharan’s time in the forest, are told from a distance of some years, however the images of the place, and the people he knew there stay with him long after he has left.

“When evening falls in the quiet open spaces, like a parting in the hair the narrow path that cuts through the thick forests on the distant hill comes into view. And, Dhruba – poor and with her wasted youth – probably still comes down the path with a bundle of firewood on her head: I see this often enough in my imagination. As I have seen, too, my Didi, Rakhal-babu’s widow; perhaps, even now she slips like a thief into the fields at night to pick up the discarded cobs of maize, like any other old gangota peasant woman.”

The novel is episodic, written in a series of vignettes, that reveal Satyacharan’s changing relationship with the land and the people of this vanished world. Satyacharan never really becomes a true man of the forest, he remains a city boy in his heart, but one with a true appreciation of the natural world. Aranyak is an astonishing, sometimes haunting account of one man’s struggle with nature – told by the very man employed to destroy it.


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katalin street

Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (2017)

A few months ago. I said I intended to read more books in translation, I’m aiming for one book a month, that didn’t seem too ambitious. This is a book I bought a few months ago, a literary novel by an author I have read twice before, I didn’t feel it would take me too far outside my comfort zone. Having already greatly enjoyed The Door and Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó I was really looking forward to Katalin Street, recently reissued by the gorgeous nryb classics. In many ways this novel is every bit as good as both those – though it is a more nuanced, complex novel.

Moving back and forth across more than three decades, it tells the powerful story of Hungarian middle-class families before and after The Second World War. The writing is brilliant, recalling in unsentimental prose, events viewed from a position of nostalgia by those unable to free themselves of their past. The opening section of the book is rather slow, but worth sticking with – the middle section of the book quite extraordinary, beautifully written.

“In everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death.”

The novel opens to the world of a concrete apartment block, from where the residents are able to look out across the Danube to a place where they lived in former, better days.

“The apartment was on the sixth floor of a relatively new block on the left bank of the Danube, with views across the river. From its windows they could see their old house. Its façade had been covered in scaffolding for several months now, undergoing redevelopment along with its immediate neighbours. It looked like a childhood friend who, either in anger or a spirit of fun, had put on a mask and forgotten to take it off long after the party had ended.”

A Soviet style block, in a world of social and political change. Here Szabó conveys with chilling perfection the stark, depressing, hopelessness of a place with which you feel no connection. This is a novel about hauntings, the past, people and places – the memories which we are unable to shake.

Katalin Street in Budapest; a street of gracious family homes before the Second World War. Here three families lived side by side, the Elekes, Helds and Birós whose lives are naturally intertwined. The children of these families grow up together, playing games, running in and out of each other’s homes. Sisters; Irén and Blanka, vie for the attentions of Bálint the son of the Major. Henrietta Held the little daughter of the Jewish dentist is adored and petted by them all.

The war brings terrible change to these families, torn apart by the German occupation, the Elekes are the only family to survive intact. The Elekes family struggle with the new reality, and with their feelings of guilt over the deportation of the Held parents during the war, and the terrible senseless death of Henriette who they had been supposed to be caring for.

“Mrs. Held came toward them, then suddenly stopped, leaned over to inhale the scent of a crimson rose, and declared, “We shall live here till the day we die.” That was the one sentence spoken on that day that had stayed in Henriette’s memory. She had no idea what it meant. She had no idea what life was, or death.”

Henriette watches them from her place in the afterlife – that she shares with her parents, the man who killed her and others from her too brief life. Bearing witness to the changes that have taken place and the impact her death has had on those left behind.

After the war, as young adults; Blanka lives in exile, while Irén and Bálint are promised to one another, he’s a doctor now. Homeless under the new regime – he comes to live in the tiny apartment with the Elekes and he and Irén enter into a lengthy and ultimately unsatisfying engagement. Bálint is changed by the past, haunted by Henriette – his life spirals out of control and he is transported by the regime to the countryside for several years. Irén and Bálint are stuck in the past, unable to move forward with their lives, they are rooted in the past more than the older generation appear to be.

“But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement or tranquillity. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.”

Bit by bit, the truth of exactly what happened and why is revealed as the further forward in time the narrative moves, the more the characters appear to look back.

Katalin Street is a more challenging work by Szabó than either The Door or Iza’s Ballad. The opening section is a little confusing, several characters introduced across a couple of pages with no explanation of the connections they each have to one another. Two, first person narrators and a third person narrative with shifting viewpoints make for a complex structure. Still, for those who like me loved those other two novels available in English translations, Katalin Street must be essential reading.

magda szabo4

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the lime tree

This new translation by Chris Andrews 2017

The Lime Tree by César Aira is the first book I received as part of the Asymptote book club – which I subscribed to in December but which anyone can join at any time. I opted for a three-month subscription, and I am looking forward to the next two books – and who knows I may buy another subscription after that.

César Aira is a hugely prolific Argentinian writer – who in my ignorance was completely new to me. Born in 1949 in Coronel Pringles; Buenos Aires Province, where this novella takes place, he produces between two and four novella length books each year, and has previously been a Man Booker International finalist.

The Lime Tree is in some ways an ambiguous work, it could very well be a memoir of the author himself, certainly it feels very personal, the narrator is even the same age. A story of memory it also touches slightly on magical reality in a continuous narrative which Aira is sometimes hard to get a handle on.The Lime Tree is a novel which is hard to review – in that not a huge amount happens – it is highly nuanced and tenderly written.

The novel opens with a glorious image – that of ten thousand lime trees in a plaza in Coronel Pringles.

“My father, who suffered from chronic insomnia, would go to the Plaza with a bag at the beginning of summer to collect the lime’s little flowers, which he then dried and used to make tea that he drank at night, after dinner.”

One tree in particular has grown to monstrous size, and it is from this tree that the narrator remembers his father collecting fallen lime tree flowers to make tea to help with his insomnia. The monster tree is eventually cut down in a violent, political act.

The majority of this novella is a remembrance of childhood in the years just after the Peron regime ended. The father, a government electrician had been Peronist – believing in the middle-class dream it promised. After the regime was toppled the family are on the wrong side of Revolución Libertadora.

“The problem for my father was that after 1955 the march of history began, and he was left behind. Everyone remembered the good old days. What else could they do? Those good old days were all they had. But while they were remembering, things continued to happen, and next time they looked, everything had changed.”

They live simply in a single room in an enormous empty building on the edge of the town. It never occurs to them to make use of any of the other rooms – the little family stick to their small part of the world.

The portrait of both parents is quite extraordinary, the father whose dark skin is an enormous stigma in Coronel Pringles, married to a woman with a more acceptable pale skin, though her deformity makes her an outsider too. His father is quick-tempered his dramatic mother constantly talking, their son’s life is one where the boredom is relieved by gossip and unusual games.

“A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. more than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. a kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know. it’s hardly surprising that some parts don’t fit and the whole turns out to be rather mysterious. the father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are our instructions for living.”

This 106-page novella is surprisingly quite dense, there is an elegiac quality to the writing as the narrator recalls a time of social and political change in Coronel Pringles. I feel as if I must have missed some nuances in the text – though I really enjoyed the novel – it might well be a book that benefits from subsequent readings.

cesar aira

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the summer book

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

witmonth2017As August draws to a close, I am sneaking in under the wire with my final read for Women in Translation month – and reviewing very slightly out of order to do so.

“Wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they’re eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.”

The Summer Book, is a book much loved by many people, and has been chosen by my very small book group as our September read. It’s a slight book, of apparent simplicity, its charm however is in that deceptive simplicity. There is a delicious clarity to Jansson’s prose – which beautifully mirrors (I can only imagine) the clean air of the Island in the Gulf of Finland of which she is writing. It is a book full of quiet wisdom, humour and love. There is a brusqueness to Jansson’s storytelling, a subtle tenderness which is never sentimental or overblown. I can see why it is so greatly loved by people whose opinions I trust.

“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Shockingly this was my first ever experience of Tove Jansson, I didn’t even read the Moomins as a child – and only became aware of them as an adult. Thanks are due to Karen, who sent me this book an absolute age ago. Books have a tendency to disappear into the depths of the tbr bookcase never to be heard of again. So, while it might have taken a while for this book to float to the surface, it did so at a perfect moment – and I read it over one long, lazy Sunday, transported to a place of extraordinary natural beauty.

summerhouse2The Summer Book tells the story of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia as they spend a summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. Tove Jansson, wrote The Summer Book shortly after losing her mother – the character of the grandmother was based on her, the character of Sophia based on her own beloved niece, also called Sophia. In the foreword to this edition Esther Freud tells of her visit to the Island and her meeting with the now adult, real life Sophia.

It is spring as the novel opens, and little Sophia wakes up in the small, island cottage to the knowledge that she has the bed to herself because her mother has died recently. Sophia’s grandmother is never far away, who despite her advancing years is a lively, imaginative companion, full of fun, as well as the wisdom brought by great age. Sophia’s father is also present on the island, but he remains very much in the background throughout the novel. The story of their summer is told through a series of vignettes, with titles like; The Cat, The Tent and The Enormous Plastic sausage.

Over the course of the summer, Sophia and her grandmother explore the island’s flora and fauna, spending hours in the ‘magic forest.’ They discuss what heaven might be – the subject of loss and death ever present. We see Sophia unable to cope with the loss of a palace she and her grandmother have made – so her grandmother stays up all night to make a replacement.

“She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.”

Sophia is encouraged to explore the simple joy of sleeping in a tent, and must learn something about how the reality of something she wants does not always match the dream in a chapter about a cat that is given to her.

“It’s funny about love’, Sophia said. ‘The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.’
‘That’s very true,’ Grandmother observed. ‘And so what do you do?’
‘You go on loving,’ said Sophia threateningly. ‘You love harder and harder.”

There are so many lovely little stories within this book, including an episode of house breaking, that the grandmother drew Sophia into when another house on a neighbouring island shows signs of being got ready for occupation.

In grandmother and Sophia’s company we meet visitors and neighbours, suffer disappointment and delight, and experience the unpredictability of the surrounding seas.

This was a lovely little read, and I’m sure I will read more Tove Jansson now – having read The Summer book I really should go for The Winter Book next I suppose.

tove jansson


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izas ballad

 Translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

Last year for Women in translation month I read The Door by Magda Szabó – I hadn’t meant to leave it so long until I read Iza’s Ballad, which I already owned when I read The Door. I’m not sure if there are any more works by Magda Szabo available in English, though I am sure there is someone who can tell me.

witmonth2017This translation by George Szirtes is from 2014, but the novel first appeared in Hungary in 1963, and is set in around 1960. The novel opens in a traditional small town in Hungary, later moving to the rapidly changing city of Budapest. For people of the older generation, the war and earlier government oppressions live long in their memory – their world was shaped by such events. So many of these past events are shrouded in silence – and the reader only gradually pieces together the history of these characters – very ordinary people, who we find have done small extraordinary things.

The novel begins with a death, Ettie’s husband Vince dies from cancer in a clinic, the news brought to Ettie by Antal her former son-in-law. Szabó portrays Ettie’s bewildered grief with utter perfection, she expects nothing more from life now – and in her weary sadness is relieved by the arrival of Iza – her capable, doctor daughter from the city – where she moved following her divorce from Antal.

“Everything has changed,’ the old woman thought. ‘I can’t tell what is what any more, only that nothing is as it was.”

Iza is a very managing type of person, Ettie may not have any vision of her own future – but Iza does. She tells her mother that she will come and live with her in Budapest – and Ettie is overwhelmingly grateful that she won’t be alone, proud to be going to live in her doctor daughter’s city apartment. Following Vince’s funeral, Iza packs Ettie of for a week’s holiday while she organises everything. Wearily Ettie agrees to leaving the packing up of her things to Iza, and prepares to endure a week’s holiday she doesn’t want. She keeps herself from complete despair by imagining how she will look after her busy daughter’s city apartment, cook for her, place all her lovely things in the apartment to make it look like home.

Upon her arrival in Budapest, nothing is as she had imagined it, only a few possessions have made it to the city – everything else has been disposed of by Iza. The dog Captain, who had lived with Ettie and Vince for years, has stayed with Antal who has bought Ettie’s old house – and Ettie misses his reliable presence. The grief stricken old woman doesn’t want to blame Iza for anything, she feels she must be grateful, unable to speak of her grief and bewilderment.

“She sat in the armchair and tried to cry silently, afraid that Iza would hear her through the thin walls and come in and accuse her of being ungrateful. As indeed she was. The girl had told her she would sell the house and anything inessential, and it was her fault for not thinking it through, not including everything that would make a dwelling look harmonious, comfortable and attractive.”

Ettie finds herself unwittingly annoying Iza when she tries to help – poor Ettie gets everything wrong. Iza has a daily housekeeper – Teréz, and Ettie is soon made aware that her help isn’t wanted – she isn’t allowed to cook, she makes coffee the wrong way. Iza tells her mother with great patience that this is her time to rest – she hasn’t brought her to Budapest to work. So, the old woman sits in her room, looks out the window and tries not to get in Teréz’s way. In time, she starts to venture out into the city – so unrecognisable from the days of her one visit on her honeymoon – riding the trams and sitting in the park. Slowly, Ettie becomes more and more diminished with this new life she is unprepared for. Iza is enraged when in her desperate loneliness Ettie invites an ageing prostitute to tea who she meets in the park, as delighted as a child to have made a new friend. Iza’s world is a very tightly controlled one, and Ettie can’t adjust to it – married for fifty years to Vince their life in rural Hungary has been all Ettie has known, every shabby item in their home had a story – Ettie’s life had always been one of physical work and support.

In a later part of the novel we have some of Antal and Iza’s story – another story of things unsaid – shaped by Hungary’s history. It’s an extraordinary story, one of hardship, determination and political activism. As a student during the war, Iza had smuggled grenades in her bag. Antal, educated thanks to a scholarship, had been befriended by Vince – Iza’s father – a judge who had once had his job taken from him after he refused to convict a group of peasants.

“She didn’t stay a word until they reached the edge of the wood, then stopped and looked at him again and spoke very clearly as if she wanted to emphasize every word to him. ‘Politics will be my life as long as I live, she said.
He knew it was crazy but at that moment he was sure he would marry her.”

Iza’s Ballad is a sad, deeply poignant novel, there is an inevitability to the ending – and like The Door, the characters will live long in my memory.

magda szabo4

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Translated from the French by Sandra Smith (2007)

Women in translation month continues apace, and I am always amazed by the array of books and writers that I have never heard of popping up particularly in my Twitter timeline. Just the sheer number of people joining in with this event is impressive.

witmonth2017My second read for #witmonth was a very slender little book I found in a charity shop while out with my sister. Irène Némirovsky the author of the acclaimed posthumously published Suite Française and many other novels and short stories died in Auschwitz in 1942, already a successful author, the two stories contained in this volume were published in 1930 and 1931 respectively.

These two stories are quite different, one the story of family of nouveau riche and the revenge taken by an unhappy teenage girl on her nasty, selfish mother. The second tale tells the story of a faithful Russian family servant, who in her advancing years follows the family she has served, as they emigrate to Paris.

In La Bal, we meet the Kampf family. The Kampfs have recently become very wealthy, and Madame Kampf in particular is keen to join the ranks of Parisian society. She is very aware of her working-class background, eager to shake off the taint of these roots she is very sensitive about her past. Madame Kampf plans to throw a sumptuous ball, to which she will invite all of society, the wealthy and the titled in order to gain the acceptance she craves.

“A ball… My God, was it possible that there could take place – here, right under her nose – this splendid thing she vaguely imagined as a mixture of wild music, intoxicating perfumes, dazzling evening gowns, words of love whispered in some isolated alcove, as dark and cool as a hidden chamber… and that she could be sent to bed that night, like any other night, at nine o’clock, like a baby?”

Antoinette is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Kampfs, there is little, if any love in her life, her father concerned with business and keeping his fractious wife happy, while her mother; Rosine’s unpredictable moods and obsession with society blind her to her daughter’s unhappiness. Antoinette is desperate to go to the ball, knowing other girls are sometimes presented to society at around her age, but her mother scoffs at the very idea. Antoinette has little joy in her life – daily, hated music lessons with the dreadful Mademoiselle Isabelle – a cousin of the Kampfs, to which she is accompanied by her governess Miss Betty. While Antoinette endures her lesson, Miss Betty goes off to meet her young lover. Antoinette is lonely and bitter and in a fit of teenage pique decides to exact her own terrible revenge.

I have read other mother daughter stories by Némirovsky especially in the collection Dimanche and other stories, and although I rather loved the story and thought it very compelling, it is not the best example of the type from this writer. Antoinette is not explored as well as I would have liked, she is also rather unsympathetic, which I don’t personally mind, but a little more sympathy might have made the conflict work better.

Snow in Autumn transports us to Russia, and the home of the Karine family around the time of the Russian Revolution. Tatiana Ivanovna is the ageing faithful servant who has served the family since the time Nicolas Alexandrovitch was a baby. After fifty-one years, she has seen two generations of the family grow up, watched her beloved Nicolas Alexandrovitch marry Hélène (after she cheated on her first husband with him), and dearly loved the four children born to them.

The revolution brings great change, hardship, tragedy and flight. Tatiana guards the family home alone, while revolutionaries rampage through the countryside, one member of the family is shot, and life changes forever. The family flee to Paris, and despite her years, Tatiana follows them. The life the family lead now is a long way from the life they lived in Russia, poverty is an accepted part of their lives now. As time goes on, the situation begins to take quite a toll on Tatiana, who longs for the snows of her homeland, seeing the landscapes that she loves in her mind, she longs for a time when she will be able to return.

“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them”

This second story is probably the better of the two, certainly it is more nuanced and the character of Tatiana as well as being more likeable than Antoinette, is particularly well explored. However, I enjoyed both very much, and yet again am reminded how much of Némirovsky’s work I have yet to explore.

Currently reading my third Witmonth book Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó which is brilliant.


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Translated by Eoin Bates and Sandrine Brisset.

Kindly sent to me by Sandrine Brisset – one of the translators.

Some time ago I read Dimanche and other stories – a collection of Iréne Némirovsky short stories re-issued by Persephone books. Since then, despite my best intentions I have only read one Némirovsky novel, Suite Française. I was delighted therefore to have to have the opportunity to read In Confidence a new collection of previously unpublished stories.

Famously of course several of Némirovsky’s works have been published decades after the author’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 when she was aged just 39. When she died, Némirovsky was already a published author, and for some a controversial one, due to the depiction of Jewish people in her work. Némirovsky had been baptised a catholic in 1939, but in 1940s Paris her Jewish heritage meant she was forced to wear the yellow star. I shudder now to imagine the fate of this wonderfully talented writer, a fate shared by so many whose talent and names remain unknown to us. Reading Némirovsky is always such a poignant reminder of this.

In this collection Némirovsky explores a variety of characters – mainly women – exposing their secrets and desires. Be it Parisian suburbs or small French towns, in the years between the wars, there is a wonderfully strong sense of place. Némirovsky’s canvases are small, her themes however are not. She examines the human condition, the things which go unspoken, the secrets, unexplained mysteries and histories behind the seemingly ordinary middle aged, middle class people  who we meet in her stories.

I’m sure lots of other people will be reading this collection soon, so I will merely attempt to give a slight flavour of the collection – which I think is absolutely superb.

There are eight stories in this collection, opening with Epilogue, in which an American woman, a pianist, confesses her darkest secret to a fellow regular in a bar she frequents.

An Honest Man, tells the sad story of an ageing man cut off from his once adored son, because the father suspects the son of theft. The father nurses his fury, and his own dark secret, disinheriting his son, and refusing to see him. As the father lies dying, the son arrives at a nearby hotel – hoping that his father will consent to see him one last time.

Lunch in September Thérèse Dallas, a married middle aged woman, is remined of a man she used to have a secret infatuation for, Suddenly, he appears and asks her to lunch.

The title story In Confidence – was undoubtedly my favourite. Blanche Lajunie feels her best years are behind her, approaching middle age she obliged to earn her living teaching the spoiled teenage daughter of relatives – among other pupils. On the morning the story takes place, she visits her doctor, before returning home where she gives lessons. Blanche understands how she is viewed by her pupil. While her pupil can only think about the handsome boy across the street, Blanche wishes only to share the story of her one great romance, when she was a young girl. Blanche Lajunie is a beautifully drawn character, Némirovsky shows us the sad quality of her life, the frustration of her position, equally well drawn is Colette her pupil.

“The indifferent crowd pushed her on. It was noon. All the shops and offices were closing their doors. Everyone was rushing. No one even glanced at her. No one would recognise this supreme effort of the propriety and dignity she was imposing on herself… But she would not give up. She would walk home. At the moment of her death she would be able to think in all honesty, ‘I was my own mistress until the very last day.’”

(In Confidence)

In a rather different little story, Magic tells the story of a man who whilst in Finland as a young man, joined in a group entertainment of ‘table-turning.’ The memory of the resulting magic stays with him for many years. It is a story which considers the question of destiny.

In The Fire Madame Georges and her husband pride themselves on their ability to haggle over the estates they wish to purchase. Their latest acquisition comes with a sitting tenant – who Madame Georges can’t get out of her head.

The Spell takes us to a Ukrainian town in the memory of a woman looking back to her childhood, and the visits she made to the family of her childhood friend Nina. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale of friendship, fortune telling and romance.

“On stormy days rainwater was collected in tubs, and all the women of the house washed their hair outdoors and then dried it in the sun; this is how I saw Klavdia Alexandrovna’s hair. It was a cloak of gold. I remained motionless, gazing in admiration at it. Her hair fell to her knees, its radiant colour shimmering in the light. Sofia Andreïevna was there too, half stretched out on a straw lounger. She was wearing a lilac dressing gown, open slightly on her heavy white chest. She caught me looking and started laughing. Her chin quivered slightly when she laughed and she had a kindly, gentle, wise expression.”

(The Spell)

The final story, Nativity concerns two sisters, one the youngest is about to be married, her elder sister about to give birth. Yvonne is blissfully content, her trousseau, the wedding gifts a fond fiancée – Brigitte, has reason to be less happy. Her marriage has been soured by her husband’s debts, infidelities and several pregnancies. Yvonne is shocked when her sister goes into labour – terrified by the sounds from the room next door.

In Confidence was a really excellent collection, Némirovsky’s writing is really very good, clear, insightful with sublime characterisation. I love her writing, and I am (again) determined to read more of her work soon.


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