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Posts Tagged ‘#WITmonth’

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August is over already and I am anticipating going back to work next week. August is usually a pretty good reading month for me, and this August was certainly good, seeing me juggle books for the librarything Virago group’s annual All Virago All August, and Women in Translation month. I didn’t just read for those two challenges though, there were three books not for either challenge.

August began with me reading This Real Night by Rebecca West, sequel to The Fountain overflows. Carrying on the story of the Aubrey family it takes us from before the First World War until the time when that terrible conflict touches them personally.

The Power by Naomi Alderman was my very small book group’s August read, proving hugely popular with the whole group, it gave us a lot to talk about. The novel packs a punch – imaging a world turned on its head – where women have all power.

The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey set on the island of Domenica, as the daughters of a privileged white creole family return from America and the UK. The story narrated by Lally the old Dominican nurse who has worked for the family for years.

A World Gone Mad the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939 – 1945 – the author of the famous Pippi Longstocking stories kept a war journal throughout the war. From her own neutral country of Sweden Astrid Lindgren was able to observe the terrifying situation as it unfolded in the Scandinavian region – as well as keeping a record of the war in Europe as a whole.

One of my favourite reads of the month was Chatterton Square by E H Young, E H Young is one of those Virago authors I particularly love – and Chatterton Square was her final novel. It tells the story of two rather different families living in Upper Radstowe – Young’s fictionalised version of Clifton in Bristol. (In case you missed it I also wrote a short introduction to E H Young here).

As soon as the new novel from Kamila Shamsie arrived I had to start it right away. Home Fire has been longlisted for this year’s Booker prize, and for one will be very disappointed if it doesn’t make the shortlist. It a novel which I think is essential reading for the world we live in, raising so many pertinent issues. It is an extraordinary novel, powerful, perhaps controversial and enormously readable, I urge everyone to read it.

My second read for Women in Translation month was slight little book containing two longish short stories; La Bal and Snow in Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky. 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.

Another lovely Virago read for AV/AA was Saraband by Eliot Bliss, a beautifully written coming of age story set just before and after the First World War. Thanks to Karen – I have now a copy of Luminous Isle the only other novel published by Eliot Bliss, both novels are said to be highly autobiographical.

Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabo, was my third read for Women in Translation month. I read The Door by Magda Szabo this time last year, and had been looking forward to reading more. It tells the poignant story of an elderly mother and her modern city living daughter – and the devastating changes that are brought to her life following the death of her husband.

Stone Mattress nine wicked Tales by Margaret Atwood, was up next (it is one of three books that I still have to review. I love short stories and this collection really is superb.

My very small book group chose The Summer Book by Tove Jansson for our September read, and I decided to pick it up a couple of weeks early. I have reviewed it already because I wanted to get in before the end of Women in Translation month. It proved to be a charming little book, full of wisdom, portraying the relationship between a six-year-old girl and her grandmother during a summer spent on an Island in the Gulf of Finland.

Another collection of short stories came my way with An Unrestored Woman –by Shobha Rao a collection either set during or inspired in some way by the upheaval surrounding Partition in 1947 – with the seventy-year commemorations of Partition having taken place a couple of weeks ago – it felt like a very timely read. It is a powerful collection, and I like the Atwood stories I couldn’t help but gobble it up.

My final read of the month was another Virago book; The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. It is a brilliant little novel, unusual a little twisted perhaps but I loved it – and I hadn’t been sure that I would.

So three August books still to review – I am sure I shall get around to them soon, work permitting.

Thirteen books read is very good for me these days – and as I head back to work on Monday I can predict that September’s total will be nothing like that. I always struggle with my reading when I get back to work in September. August was an outstanding month quality wise too – Home Fire, Chatterton Square, Stone Mattress and Iza’s Ballad my stand out reads – though it is hard to separate them from the rest.

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(Teignmouth seafront from the pier)

cofSo that’s it, Summer is over – as far as I’m concerned, my holiday at the seaside which I came back from last weekend already seems long over. *sigh* (roll on the next holiday). I haven’t made any particular plans for September – except to read pretty much only what I can cope with. The Librarything Virago group’s author of month is Nina Bawden, who many of you will know I like very much, and as I have three or four of her books waiting I am fairly sure to join in. (I failed miserably with Christina Stead in August – she and I are not destined to be friends). I suspect I will be leaning towards easier comfort reads – especially the beginning of the month and I have set aside a couple of Golden age mysteries and an Angela Thirkell in possible preparation as well as a super looking review copy. I am currently reading Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter – which a little over a hundred pages in, I’m enjoying it hugely.

What have you been reading during August? Is there something you feel I must read?

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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.

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cof

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 from the Swedish by Sarah Death

August is Women in translation month, and so when not reading books for All Virago/All August or book group reads I like to try and fit two or three #WITmonth books in as well. August is all about juggling books it seems.

witmonth2017My first read for this year’s women in translation month was A World Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, which I remember buying in the London review bookshop on my last London shopping expedition in November. Astrid Lindgren, of course the author of the children’s classic Pippi Longstocking books, stories which at the time these diaries were begun has not even been thought of. The title attracted me – how often in the last year or so have people declared ‘dear heavens, the world has gone mad’ – I have certainly said it and the week I picked up this book, there were further world events over which to shake our heads. I was made to think, more than once, how stupid an apparently intelligent species must be – if they fail to learn from their own history.

“Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.
Yesterday afternoon, Elsa Gullander and I were in Vasa Park with the children running and playing around us and we sat there giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling-off and agreed that there definitely was not going to be a war – and now today!”

Diaries are rather difficult to review, but this a very readable book and its author is very relatable to. Astrid Lindgren stares forlornly from the cover, pulling the reader in and one can’t help but wonder her thoughts. Karin Nyman, Astrid Lindgren’s daughter in her foreword explains how her mother had been determined to document the war from which Sweden remained neutral, but which raged around them on all sides. She remembers seeing her mother scribbling in her notebooks cutting out things from the newspapers, for the five-year-old Karin it was perfectly normal. The diaries were discovered in a wicker laundry basket in the Dalagatan home where Astrid Lindgren had lived from the 1940s until her death in 2002. Her daughter acknowledges how extraordinary it was, for a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother with some secretarial training but no previous experience of political thinking to have produced what she did. For almost six years, recording her thoughts, painstakingly cutting out newspaper articles to stick alongside her entries (these articles are not reproduced in the book).

“Today’s huge sensation – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to the British Isles in a Messerschmitt plane and parachuted safely to the ground, where a Scottish farm-worker looked after him and took him to hospital in Glasgow. Now we’ve seen everything.”

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. As she continues to document the war, the shifting political alliances and how they impacted upon the war, she often considers the nature of evil, and the individual’s responsibility at such times to stand against it.

All around Sweden, other nations were suffering terribly, Norway and Denmark occupied by the Germans, Finland by the Russians, resulting in them losing a sizable amount of their territory in uneasy peace negotiations. Sweden was in a vulnerable position, and there were times when Astrid was practically holding her breath, anxious lest her country find themselves invaded, drawn into hostilities against their will.

“It was Karin’s seventh birthday yesterday. I wrote in my diary on this day last year ‘God grant that the world will look different by Karin’s next birthday!’ And it certainly does look different, but there’s no sign of any changes for the better. Possibly Sweden and the other Nordic countries are in slightly less danger, the main focus now seems to be on the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Yesterday the Germans launched an air invasion on Crete, or was it the day before? What’s left of Greek resistance is concentrated there, with British assistance.”

Alongside her entries which document the war so well, we get frequent glimpses of ordinary family life. The children’s birthdays, the gifts they received the food that was cooked and eaten in celebration. We also get some moving descriptions of her marriage – hints of some difficulties in the last year of the war, which she doesn’t dwell on or go into any detail about, in what for her was obviously meant as a chronicle of war. As a mother to a teenage boy as well as a young daughter – Astrid felt especially for the mothers of soldiers killed and maimed, realising, as she considered her own dear son, that the pain of just imagining him in their place was more than she could bear.

As the war years advanced Astrid began working as a censor in the postal control division, the letters that passed through her hands, providing Astrid with another more personal perspective on the war that was destroying Europe. An aspiring writer, Astrid won a competition in 1944 with a story about Britt-Marie, the Pippi Longstocking stories were originally invented to entertain her daughter while she was ill.

These diaries were a great way for to celebrate Women in Translation month. I found I really liked Astrid, and on finishing the book looked up her Wikipedia page – she really was a fascinating woman who was obviously very well loved by the people of Sweden.

astrid lindgren

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grand hotel

Translated from the German by Basil Creighton

I would never have heard of, much less read this superb novel had it not been for Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal – whose review sent me scurrying off to buy it. The fact that it has been recently reissued in this gorgeous NYRB edition with this wonderful cover was a bonus.

Grand Hotel is set in the post World-War One world of the Weimar era. Berlin of the 1920’s, and here we meet a host of remarkably well drawn characters, who are explored in astute and searching detail.

Through the revolving doors of the Grand Hotel come all kinds; the war damaged, the dying, beautiful ageing ballerina, businessman, thief. The hotel exists to provide the very best of everything for their guests, and yet there is a feeling that like some of its guests, the hotel’s best days are in the past. The porter on the front desk is a count, putting his ancestry behind him to serve the guests of the Grand Hotel. #witmonth

Doctor Otternshlag, is the first of the hotel residents who we meet, a veteran from the war, half his face destroyed by a shell, he sits in the hotel lounge viewing the same scene as the day before, reading the paper, as does every day. He asks the porter if there are any letters for him, a telegram perhaps or a message, there isn’t – there never is, no matter how many times he asks.

Having just received a fatal medical diagnosis Otto Kringelein has come to the Grand Hotel in order to live – if only for a few days, really live for the first time in his life. An unhappily married bookkeeper from Fredersdorf, Kringelein is about to experience all the good things that have so far passed him by, before it’s too late. Intent on spending his savings, and life insurance, after years of very careful living, Otto has wads of cash in his wallet for the first time. When presenting himself at the hotel on his first day, he looks shabby and ill, and is shown eventually to an inferior room. Quiet, unassuming Otto Kringelein going against the habits of a lifetime, demands a better room, and gets it. A room costing fifty marks a day, with a bathroom he can use whenever he likes.

“Kringelein, obstinate now that he has run amok, insisted that he required a superior and a beautiful and expensive room, at the very least a room like Preysing’s. He seemed to think the name of Preysing was a name to conjure with. He had not yet taken off his overcoat. His trembling hands clutched the old crumbling Fredersdorf sandwiches while he blinked his eyes and demanded an expensive room. He was exhausted and ill and ready to cry. For some weeks past he had begun to cry very easily for physical reasons connected with his health. Suddenly, just as he was about to give in, he won the day. He was given Room No. 70, a first floor suite with a sitting room and bath, fifty marks a day. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘with a bathroom? Does that mean that I can have a bath whenever I like?’ Count Rohna without a tremor said that was so. Kringelein moved in for the second time. “

Kringelein’s boss, company director Herr Preysing comes to the hotel for a vital business meeting, desperate to secure a deal for his family firm which is not doing as well as he pretends. Hoping to secure a merger between his firm and another Berlin firm, the deal hinges on a potential contract with a third Manchester firm. Preysing, who has bullied Kringelein for years doesn’t even recognise his employee at first, so full of his own importance, Kringelein so far outside his radar. Doctor Otternshlag takes pity on Kringelein, briefly extending the hand of friendship, even accompanying him to the ballet, before Kringelein is taken up by a more glamourous seeming figure. Gaigern, handsome, athletic, baron and professional thief, whose accomplice – in the guise of his chauffeur is settled into the servants’ quarters. Gaigern is a man who turns heads, presenting himself as an elegant, wealthy and very correct.

“There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. He patted pageboy No. 24 on his sleek head, stretched out his arm, without looking, over to the porter’s table for a handful of letters which he put straight into his pocket, taking out at the same time a pair of buckskin gloves.”

grandhotelGrusinskaya is a fragile beauty, a famous ballerina fighting a battle with age. Her performances at the nearby theatre each evening playing to greatly reduced audiences, with no call for an encore. Her best days are behind her – and she knows, she’s is tired, the rigours of her art physically exhaust her. Accompanying her is her maid Suzette, to whom Grusinskaya says ‘Leave me alone’ the line which spoken by Greta Garbo became ‘I want to be alone’ in the film adaptation, and her very valuable pearls. Gaigern and his ‘chauffeur’ have their greedy eyes trained on the idea of those pearls. However, with the plans made, it is inevitable that not everything goes quite to plan. Finding out that Kringelein has money, presents him with a tempting alternative to his original purpose.

Meanwhile Preysing finds his head being turned by a young secretary generally known as Flämmchen or Falm the second (Flam the first being her elder sister). A beautiful young girl whose desire is only to make it into the movies somehow, longing for, glamour and the chance to travel. While Preysing is dissembling in business, lusting after a girl young enough to be his daughter, Kringelein is starting to live. Spending money on clothes, dancing, gambling attending a boxing match, racing through the streets of Berlin in a car, flying in an aeroplane, he learns about exhilaration. Both he and Herr Preysing will find themselves, and their lives considerably altered by the time they leave the hotel.

The lives and various concerns of these characters are woven together brilliantly by Vicki Baum, exploring their hopes, fears, secrets and regrets. There are shades of light and dark in this novel, moments of black comedy, and others of great poignancy. The life, atmosphere of a German hotel in the late 1920’s is brought to life with breath-taking clarity. Grand Hotel is a wonderful; immersive novel, which I am delighted to have discovered.

vickibaum

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the door

(Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix)

Only my second read for #WITmonth, but what a fantastic read it was. I had originally planned on reading Iza’s Ballad also by Magda Szabó which I have had in paperback for months, but as I was away from home I read The Door on kindle instead. As far as I am aware (correct me if I am wrong anyone who knows differently) Iza’s Ballad and The Door are the only works by Magda Szabó available in English.

Magda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary. She was initially a poet, but was prevented from publishing for political reasons in the 1950s – a fate shared by the narrator#witmonth of The Door. She began writing again, novels this time, and in 1978 was awarded a major literary prize, again something which happens to the narrator of The Door. This novel first published in Hungary in 1987 was an international success, and was made into a film starring Helen Mirren – which I am now anxious to see.

“I know now, what I didn’t then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.”

The novel opens with a powerful dream sequence, the narrator haunted by the recurring dream of a door, a locked door, a door she is unable to open. There is no one to help her, and eventually she is awoken by her own screams.

The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.

Emerence is an already elderly woman when she arrives with good recommendations to see if she wants to work for the writer and her husband. Emerence explains how she doesn’t wash the dirty linen of just anyone, and seeks reassurance that her prospective employers are not likely to be involved in any drunken brawling. She further explains that once she has seen just how dirty her new employers are – she will inform them what her salary shall be. It is on such unusual terms then, that Emerence begins her long and stormy relationship with the lady writer, and her husband, whom Emerence devotedly calls the master.

“No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn. It might happen that for a day and a half we would be unable to use the bathroom because she had rugs soaking in the tub. Her capricious working hours were combined with awe-inspiring accomplishments. The old woman worked like a robot. She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself. There was something superhuman, almost alarming, in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on. Emerence obviously revelled in her work. She loved it.”

Emerence lives in an apartment within sight of the writer’s own house, she entertains her nephew, the Lieutenant colonel of police, and her neighbours on her porch, where later the writer herself will be entertained, she never lets anyone inside her home. Guarding her privacy jealously, she comes and goes as she pleases from the writer’s home. When the writer finds a stray puppy and decides to take it on, it is Emerence who the dog slavishly follows and obeys, pledging his own unspoken canine allegiance, with which the writer is never able to compete. Emerence works all the time, when the snows come to Budapest, she abandons the writer for days at a time to clear the snow from the outside of other homes. She takes her caretaking responsibilities seriously, and she never seems to slow down.

“She was like someone standing in strong sunlight on a mountain top, looking back down the valley from which she had emerged and trembling with the memory still in her bones of the length and nature of the road she had travelled, the glaciers and forded rivers, the weariness and danger, and conscious of how far she still had to go. There was also compassion in that face, a feeling of pity for all the poor people below, who knew only that the peaks were rosy in the twilight, but not the real meaning of the road itself.”

Emerence is secretive about her past, stubborn and frequently difficult, she is generous, but refuses gifts from her employer. As time passes, the writer gradually begins to learn something about Emerence’s past, the sadness at the center of her life, the love she lost. Although dismissive of writing as work, she insists on having copies of her employer’s books, which she has no time to read. The present of a small plaster dog that Emerence gives the writer and her husband is the unexpected cause of a big falling out. Emerence stops working for the writer, and everyone predicts she’ll never go back. It is the persistence and diplomacy of the writer herself that persuades Emerence to return.

Over the years that follow, a relationship develops between the two women, which begins to look like friendship. However, friends can sometimes let each other down. The two have each been dependent on the other for years, when Emerence falls ill, and the writer finds herself suddenly in demand by media and foreign delegations.

I absolutely loved this book, Emerence is a wonderfully memorable character, the ambiguity of the relationship between these women is fascinating. I was drawn quickly into the small world of this neighbourhood, over which Emerence reigns. Szabó is a writer I very much want to read more by. I am very much looking forward to Iza’s Ballad, and am currently undecided whether to squeeze it into this #WITmonth or leave it for a rainy day.

(FILES) A picture taken 27 October 2003

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