Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: The Evenings

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (translated by Sam Garrett), is a book about one man’s ennui. Set in post war Amsterdam, its protagonist is twenty-three year old Frits van Egters, an office worker still living with his parents. The story follows his day to day existence over the course of a few weeks in December. His actions, mostly banal, are presented in hour by hour detail. There are repeated references to the clock as he watches time slowly pass, frustrated by his lack of fulfilment.

Frits leads an ordinary life in every sense. He cycles to and from work, prepares food or eats with his parents. He calls in on friends, visits the cinema, seeks company then counts the minutes until he can leave.

Frits is not a pleasant character, although this view is exacerbated by the detail of his private thoughts which few would ever share. He treats his parents with contempt, insults his friends with impunity. Uncomfortable with silence when with others, his conversation is often offensive.

Amongst his friends there is cruelty, in word and deed. A dog is tortured, the young men exchange anecdotes about the deaths of children, they imagine how they would choose to kill. As a young boy, Fritz dismembered insects and took fish out of water just to see how they would cope, how long they would live. He states that women are ‘defective, deplorable creatures’. He advocates the culling of all those over sixty.

Much of what he says is taken as humour by his friends who, despite knowing he failed at school, consider him a thinker. Fritz has a relentless preoccupation with baldness coming up with many wild theories for its cause and prevention.

In the privacy of his home Fritz will examine himself in front of mirrors. Despite deploring his parents’ slurps and unhygienic practices, he too has distasteful personal habits. He sleeps long hours when he has the opportunity and suffers vivid, violent dreams.

I found the telling repetitive, a book about boredom that I wanted to end. In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, proved that the meticulous detail of a life can be portrayed with humour. Unlike that perspicacious tale, I found this soulless.

Other reviewers have described this book as funny and it is not the first time I have failed to see the vaunted humour in a portrayal. The voice and structure cannot be faulted, the setting and imagery impress, but this was not a book I enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Dance by the Canal

Dance by the Canal, by Kerstin Hensel (translated by Jen Calleja), tells the story of Gabriela von Haßlau, the only child of the Chief Medical Officer at the surgical clinic in Leibnitz, and his wife, Christiane. Gabriela’s father, Ernst, is proud to descend from noble Anhaltinian stock. Christiane’s family he prefers to forget. In communist East Germany drawing attention to bourgeois standing could be regarded as dangerous.

When the tale opens Gabriela is living under a bridge by the canal, writing the story of her life on pilfered scraps of paper. She remembers back to when she was five years old and expected to learn to play the violin. Although unable to master the instrument her teacher had a lasting impact, one her father would prefer she forget. Ernst has high hopes for his daughter which she struggles to comply with let alone attain.

Gabriela’s schooling in particular proves a disappointment to Ernst. The girl’s chosen friend, Katka, is quickly banned as undesirable company for his daughter leading to undercover assignations lasting many years. The school encourages pupils to revere the state. When Ernst insists that his child should not join the sanctioned youth organisatons he ensures she is set further apart from her peers.

The timeline moves between Gabriela’s homeless experiences and those of her childhood, eventually explaining how the daughter of a once respected doctor ends up living under a bridge. The prose is dreamlike in places as Gabriela navigates her memories whilst trying to survive the increasing harshness of the streets.

The story is told in jigsaw pieces which the reader must fit together, the picture emerging being more impressionist than linearly complete. Gabriela’s pain and confusion as she tries to find a place in the life assigned her shine through the cracks, despite her emotional distance in the telling.

This is a laconic yet vivid account of societal failure in a communist state. Gabriela, like her story, resists further classification

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Karate Chop

Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken), is a collection of fifteen stories exploring ordinary people and situations they encounter, with incisive wit and perception. The Danish author has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This is a rebound edition of a selection of their shorter works.

The snapshots of life offered up are varied, as are the protagonists. All are recognisable and relateable. There is a cogency, a poignancy to the prose. An undercurrent of isolation and the frailty of human interactions pervades.

The Buddhist tells of a man whose job requires him to write speeches for a government minister. When his wife leaves him he decides that he will turn to Buddhism, thereby gaining insight from the pain. He no longer wishes to spread lies so writes an article for a national newspaper exposing the deceits in which he has been complicit. He harbours delusions of grandeur believing his actions, inspired by Buddhist teachings, could change the world. As time passes he becomes increasingly selective in following his ideals. The circle turns.

The Winter Garden is narrated by a young boy caught between divorcing parents. Wanting to please, he lives first with his mother then his father, feeling distanced when they introduce new partners who have their own children. The special regard he felt for each parent is stripped away when he realises he is not uniquely valued. Opinions, once sought, lose their impact.

The Big Tomato offers a story of hope amongst displaced people. This is a gentle tale of burgeoning friendships and appreciation of kindnesses shared.

Duckling is narrated by a young girl facing the hypocrisy of her caring but opinionated father.

“Dad had his boxes and he put things away in them, even things that contradicted each other.”

The smooth surface of family life relies on much being left unsaid.

Female Killers shares the private thoughts of a husband when alone late at night, his wife in bed. The reader may decide if, as no action results, his musings are harmless or grotesque.

Flight is a tale of loss told by a wife whose husband has left her. In trying to deny the hurt she feels, an emptiness is created. Moving on from a situation when change was not desired proves challenging.

The Heron is set in a park and offers glimpses of those passing through. Of note are approaching mothers pushing their baby carriages with intent.

“They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another.”

The storyteller suspects that the stony mothers regard him as they would a sickly heron he has observed – tired and sallow, often in the way. He thinks of showing kindness to their babies but recognises the impossibility of such behaviour given the mothers’ demeanour.

She Frequented Cemeteries tells of a love story that is insular, perhaps unrequited. The protagonist is nevertheless contented but has no wish to share her new formed feelings with friends. She suspects they may demand that she regard her valued happiness differently. As in so many areas, the unusual is treated with suspicion.

These stories are concise, just a few pages each in length. They offer circumstances and concepts that the reader may then interpret. There is much to ponder in the difficulties being faced. An empathetic, rewarding little read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Illogic of Kassel

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

The Illogic of Kassel presents something of a literary conundrum. It offers what appear to be perceptive insights, nuggets of wisdom, wrapped around a tale that does not always engage. It is mocking, opaque in places, appearing clever but perhaps for clever’s sake.

The protagonist, a Spanish writer who enjoys morning euphoria and then suffers evening depression, is invited to take part in a prodigious, avant-garde artistic endeavour, Documenta, in the German town of Kassel. Despite his antipathy towards the live installation he will be required to be a part of, the writer agrees as he wishes to solve what he describes as the mystery of contemporary art – to ‘seek the aesthetic instant’.

The writer is influenced by all he reads and observes – his life experiences. He plays out scenarios in his imagination which then inform how he acts. Reading this story felt, at times, like playing a game where the rules kept changing, where the premise and coherence shifted as the plot progressed.

On arriving in Kassel the writer finds himself repeatedly drawn to certain exhibits. He is particularly taken by a vast space, first empty and then leading into darkness, pulled along by a current of air. He opines,

“I had proved that solitude was impossible, because it was inhabited by ghosts.”

Whilst this may appear to be profound, a result of his careful deliberations, it is exactly what the artistic space represents.

In walking around Kassel the writer realises that his evening depression has lifted. He is affected by the exhibits he visits and ponders if art appreciation is purely a state of mind. In an attempt to be cultured, are intelligent people looking for inspiration in what is ridiculous? Does the avant-garde exist when, if acknowledged as art, anything can be accepted?

(I ask myself if I, as a reader of this book, am seeking to be impressed because I believe I should appreciate the skill of an acclaimed author.)

The writer is passed between organisers of Documenta and their assistants. Although enjoying their company he does not always understand what they say or mean. He forms ideas of them and is then discomfited when they do not act as he expects.

“how frightening people are who suddenly show a side of themselves we’d never imagined”

The installation of which he is to be a part involves him sitting at a table in a remote Chinese restaurant becoming a Writer in Residence. To cope with the unknown aspects of this, particularly the attention he may receive, he invents a persona for himself and considers how this alter ego would react to observers.

“we are so many million people in the world, and yet communication – real communication – is absolutely impossible between any two of us.”

The writer comments that the contemporary art of Documenta is created without the contamination of the laws of the market. I found this disingenuous, akin to an author claiming not to care whether or not their book sold well.

The story is witty with much play between experimental arts of all kinds but still I am left feeling underwhelmed. This is much the same as when I view modern art, particularly live installations.

Any Cop?: If designed to provide a debatable literary experience the book succeeds. Whether it is one worth seeking – I am not entirely convinced.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark

Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett), is the third book in the author’s Varg Veum series of crime thrillers to be translated into English by Orenda Books (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). Four years after the death of his beloved Karin, Veum is slowly dragging himself from the mire into which his grief took him. He is now in a relationship with Sølvi, although her faith in him is about to be tested.

The book opens with Veum being arrested for accessing child pornography on line. He is accused of being part of an international operation supplying images and videos of such content. Incriminating evidence is found on his office computer and personal laptop. Veum vehemently denies the charges but the investigating officers do not believe his claim that he had no idea the files were there. When his lawyer requests information about potential contacts from his past who may be seeking revenge, Veum is forced to admit to alcohol induced gaps in his memory since Karin’s death.

As a private investigator of many years standing Veum has accumulated a bank of enemies. He delves his patchy recollections but realises that the evidence against him and the understandable revulsion felt by those who are convinced of his guilt undermine his protestations of innocence. When an opportunity to escape incarceration unexpectedly presents itself he goes on the run. He must solve his own case before being recaptured or face a prison term where he would likely be punished by inmates as the worst possible type of offender.

The plot is tightly constructed and written with a droll humour that offers relief from the sickening subject matter and page turning tension. Veum deploys a direct approach to people of interest in his investigations, a tactic that further angers those he interrogates but which builds the intrigue for the reader. There are the requisite twists and turns with blind alleys and dubious characters. Few of those he encounters emerge untainted in some way.

This challenging topic is tackled with empathy and skill, characters rising from the pages fully formed, grotesquely believable. Veum may not be entirely likable but it is hard not to confer a degree of sympathy for his predicament.

A dark thriller that uses its setting in Norway to fine affect. This is a gritty, gripping read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the Wolves in the Dark Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Wolves in the Dark is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Blue Self-Portrait

Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis), is an introspective inner monologue that flits around the narrator’s angst ridden thoughts. Travelling home on a flight between Berlin and Paris with her sister there is time for such self reflection. She is suffering ‘the wrath of grapes’ (possibly the best description of a hangover I have read) and dislikes air travel, attempting yet failing to distract herself with the books she balances on her lap. Her sibling expresses excitement at the mode of transport although is sensitive to her companion’s disquiet. They have a close relationship and mutual understanding. Thay are both well educated in ‘cultural integration’. The narrator, whilst outwardly composed, is bellowing in silence following her behaviour during dalliances with a pianist-composer in Berlin. She berates herself for having talked too much,

‘dizzying the pianist with a flood of verbiage’

The couple met in a popular intellectual cafe, the setting offering a model of restraint and good taste. Clientele would typically sip their coffee whilst leafing through a newspaper in a relaxed, cultured way. The narrator’s body language she describes as wired, feeling shame afterwards for her indecorious behaviour whilst the pianist remained calm and collected. Her thought processes travel in tangents as she recalls the time spent with this man. She ruminates on her prejudices at his choice of drink and her inability not to pause and consider before she shares her learned conceits. She says of herself:

“I disturb, I’ve never done other than disturb”

She believes that, after some time, the pianist was no longer listening to her many words. They visit a cinema where the narrator feels deliberately silenced.

There are reflections from their conversations on inspirations which the pianist believes may be found by following in the footsteps of the greats, including to their graves – composition amongst decomposition. There are scenes in cafes, in a modern, soulless building as well as those steeped in history.

Pivotal is a visit to the Brandenburgian castle of Neuhardenberg after which the pianist was moved to create a new composition following his discovery of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait. Its gloomy palette is displayed amongst what he regards as hateful depictions of Aryan collective happiness promoted by the Nazi regime. The narrator muses that the pianist

“felt incapable of talking about the music but also dying to give it a good talking about”

She herself is haunted by the portrait, and by her behaviour.

The pianist’s appearance is described as:

“the difference between style and affectation not only in the artistry of his playing, in particular, but also in his art of life, in general, the art of living”

The narrator considers herself to be outwardly socially acceptable, although jittery and appearing underfed.

“looking after yourself means aligning your mind to be in tune with your body”

Her mind is anxious amidst her embarrassed reflections.

There are thoughts on resistance, collaboration, shame and the meaning of moral existence. The effect of the portrait is woven throughout with music and the relationship between artists, composers and a genocide in which they may be complicit.

The writing is insightful although at times opaque. This is a book that will likely benefit from considered rereading.

Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait

(image: nationalgallery.org.uk)