Category Archives: Literature/Fiction

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Review: Enigma Variations by André Aciman

My Review:
enigma-variationsGiovanni, Maud, Manfred, Chloe and Heidi.  There are the people whom Paul has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his adult life and each one has left an indelible mark on his character and on his soul.  Aciman is a master at capturing the different stages of a love affair by devoting a chapter to each of Paul’s partners who all contribute varying degrees of love, lust, passion and commitment to the story of his life.

The first two chapters of the book are the most compelling and showcase Aciman’s ability to describe and capture emotions that are oftentimes too private to share.  Paul, the narrator, arrives on a small Italian that was his family’s summer home and reflects back on the last season his family spent there when he was an adolescent.   Paul remembers that as a twelve-year-old boy he experienced his first sexual awakening and because his was physically drawn to another man he is confused and ashamed.  Paul’s mother wanted to have an old desk, a family heirloom restored, so she invited the local cabinetmaker over to their home to examine the desk.  Giovanni, an attractive, strong man with attractive hands and a mellifluous voice immediately drew young, adolescent Paul’s attention:

That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world.  I couldn’t even look at him.  I needed to look away.  His eyes were too clear.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.

Aciman is a master at describing the innocent and naïve feelings that come with a first crush.  Paul begins showing up at Giovanni’s shop and helps him refurbish his parents’ desk.  The desk has a secret compartment that was not discovered by anyone in the family until Giovanni inspects it.  The hidden box within the desk that remains unknown to the family is a fitting image and parallel for the secret feelings that Paul has for the young and handsome cabinetmaker.  As Paul is visiting the island for the first time in ten years, all of his memories and desires for Giovanni come flooding back to him.  Paul is also there to inspect his family’s home which was burned down by the locals for some mysterious reason.  Aciman provides a compelling plot as the mystery of solving this crime is slowly unraveled throughout the first chapter.

The second chapter is devoted to Manfred, a man Paul meets at the Central Park tennis court in New York.  Paul is now in his late-twenties, has some sort of a career in writing and publishing and is living in New York City with a woman named Maud.  Aciman builds a complex character through Paul to make the point that love, passion and sexuality are never easy or well-defined.  Paul is equally attracted to and sexually stimulated by men and women.  Even though he lives with Maud and has a great physical and emotional relationship with her, he cannot stop thinking about Manfred whom he sees every morning at the tennis court.  It takes Paul two years to work up the courage to speak to Manfred.  When Manfred pays him the slightest attention with a look, a nod or a remark, Paul is elated.  Once again, Aciman is so adept at capturing the various stages of a person who has a romantic crush on someone and can only love from afar.  Paul has a private, inner dialogue with his longed for Manfred:

Every morning I watch you walk to your court, I watch you play, and I watch you leave an hour and a half later.  Always the same, never brooding, just silent.  Occasionally, you’ll say “Excuse me” when I happen to stand in your way, and “Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you.  With these few words, I find comfort in false hope and hope in false starts.  I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing.  Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine.  I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine.  I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.

Anyone who has ever loved someone from afar can identify with the pain and torture of Paul’s words.  Finally after two years of this hidden, inner torment, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and lay all of their feelings out for one another.  We are led to believe that Paul has finally found the right person for him, that a man like Manfred can satisfy him in a way that could never be by a woman.  But, this is only the half-way point of Paul’s story and it is far from over.

The last three chapters all deal with women that Paul is further drawn to.  Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has an especially profound effect on his emotions.  They keep running into each other at social gatherings about every four years and every time these accidental meetings take place their sexual passion is intense.  But they can never commit to one another so their relationship is nothing but a series of false beginnings that never go anywhere.  In the last three chapters, Paul’s self-doubts and emotional confusion don’t fade away with time or age.  Whenever he finds himself in a committed relationship, he is always looking for or thinking about someone else.  I found his story at this point a bit tedious because even in middle age he has not found what can make him happy.

Always looking, always doubting, never happy, Paul becomes a depressing, cliche of a dissatisfied middle-aged man.  Perhaps this is meant to reflect Paul’s continuing struggle with his sexuality;  Aciman’s language and plot in the first part of the story is much more interesting than the ending of the novel.  But overall, it is still worth the read.  This book has many of the same themes and subjects he explores in his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name.  This story also reminded me of Bae Suah’s exploration of the complexities of human sexuality in her novel A Greater Music.

About the Author:
Andre AcimanAndré Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, has taught at Princeton and Bard and is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published three other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008) and Eight White Nights (2010).

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Review: The Clouds by Juan José Saer

I received a review copy of this title from Open Letter via Edelweiss.  This review is my second contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos.  I am also very excited to say that this is the 300th post on my blog.  I have worked hard on all of my reviews for the past two years and thanks to everyone who has visited and supported my modest endeavors.

My Review:
The CloudsThis interesting tale begins in modern day Paris when Pichón Garay receives a disk with the contents of an absurd story about two doctors in 19th century Argentina whose mission it is to cure the mad.  As Garay reads the beginning of the story he learns that no one is sure whether or not this story is pure fiction or has any truth to it.  At times the story seems far fetched and ridiculous, but the ways in which these doctors treat the insane is compassionate and for this reason we hope it’s true.

The narrator of this manuscript is Dr. Real, whose ironic name is a not-so-subtle stroke of genius by Saer. Dr. Real meets his mentor in Europe while in medical school and accepts the position to serve as his assistant while they establish an asylum for the insane in Argentina.  Saer handles the sad plight of the mentally ill in the 19th century with sympathy as he describes their illnesses which are little understood in that time period.  Most of the patients in the hospital are dropped off by the rich and elite who are embarrassed by their mentally ill family members.  It is sad that many of the patients end up with Dr. Real, not because a family wants their loved one to be cured, but because they are fend up and ashamed by the stigma of such an illness.  Saer dwells on the fact that Dr. Real and his mentor employ the kindest possible treatment for these discarded and abandoned patients.

When the clinic is built, Dr. Real is given the task of going to Santa Fe to collect five of the patients that will be treated in the clinic.  The journey from Argentina to Santa Fe is perilous for many reasons and doing it with five very ill patients makes the journey seem absolutely absurd at times.  Saer meticulously describes the symptoms and backgrounds of all five mental patients.  Among them are a nymphomaniac nun who believes she needs to have sex with as many men as possible in order to unite the human with the divine.  There is also an upper class gentlemen who seems well-dressed and charming at first, but after speaking with him for only a few moments Dr. Real discovers this man is severely manic.  There are also three young men, two of which display symptoms of Tourette Syndrome as they repeat certain phrases and noises.  The other is a young man who repeats the same motions with his hands and seems to be suffering with some type of an obsessive compulsive disorder.

The real danger presents itself on the trip back to Argentina when Dr. Real must keep his patients calm while navigating the various treacheries of the plains.  When they set out it is winter and the constant cold and damp makes everyone miserable.  They must constantly alter their course to avoid the flooding river and the constant threat of hostile Indians.  The nun is someone that Dr. Real has a particular time controlling because she is successful at seducing the military troops who are supposed to be guarding the caravan.  By the end of the journey the nun is the best guarded person in the caravan as the soldiers rarely leave her side.

The Clouds showcases Saer’s genius of  describing vivid landscapes.  We feel cold when the winter sets in, damp when the rivers flood and terrified when a fire threatens the caravan.  Dr. Real is reading Vergil’s Aeneid during his journey which epic could not be more appropriate for his excursion.  The comparisons between Dr. Real and Aeneas are endless as I thought about both stories.  But on the most basic level, Aeneas is the perfect hero and role model for Dr. Real who is attempting his own dangerous and seemingly impossible trek across a harsh landscape.

This is the second work I have read of Saer’s and I was captivated by his storylines and his prose in both.  I cannot recommend this author highly enough.

About the Author:
SaerJuan José Saer was one of the most important Argentine novelists of the last fifty years.  Born to Syrian immigrants in Serodino, a small town in the Santa Fe Province, he studied law and philosophy at the National University of the Littoral, where he taught History of Cinematography. Thanks to a scholarship, he moved to Paris in 1968. He had recently retired from his position as a lecturer at the University of Rennes, and had almost finished his final novel, La Grande(2005), which has since been published posthumously, along with a series of critical articles on Latin American and European writers, Trabajos (2006).

Saer’s novels frequently thematize the situation of the self-exiled writer through the figures of two twin brothers, one of whom remained in Argentina during the dictatorship, while the other, like Saer himself, moved to Paris; several of his novels trace their separate and intertwining fates, along with those of a host of other characters who alternate between foreground and background from work to work. Like several of his contemporaries (Ricardo Piglia, César Aira, Roberto Bolaño), Saer’s work often builds on particular and highly codified genres, such as detective fiction (The Investigation), colonial encounters (The Witness), travelogues (El rio sin orillas), or canonical modern writers (e.g. Proust, in La mayor, or Joyce, in Sombras sobre vidrio esmerilado).

His novel La ocasión won the Nadal Prize in 1987. He developed lung cancer, and died in Paris in 2005, at age 67.

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Review: The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

My Review:
The Parable BookThis is the story of an author who is looking back and assessing his life through a series of lesson, or parables, he has learned which have particularly shaped his spiritual life.  The author’s name is Perola and his life appears to have an uncanny resemblance to that of Enquist’s himself.  When the book begins Perola is lamenting the speech he delivered at his mother’s funeral and decides he wants to write a better one to hand out to his relatives.  He reminisces about his childhood with his mother who was his only parent for most of his life.

One of the few possessions Perola has left of his father is a notebook full of poetry and personal reflections.  But the notebook was half-burned because his mother threw it into the fire and decided to save it at the last minute.   This notebook is also missing nine pages which his mother tore out.  The author spends a great part of the book comtemplating why his other decided to save the notebook at the last minute and what might have been contained in those missing nine pages.

Perola is brought up in a very religious environment and he is even on track to study religion and become a reverend.  Since Perola is now an old man who is sick with a bad stomach and heart, he contemplates the parables he learned that changed the course of his life.  One of his earliest memories is of a sickly Aunt Valborg who is asked by an uncle why she doesn’t pray or go to church anymore.  Aunt Valborg’s answer is simple yet has a profound effect on Perola’s life and is something he remembers until his dying days.  She says, ” I know for certain there is nothing there.”  Aunt Valborg had prayed to The Saviour and her only answer was a resounding silence and at that point she no longer regarded herself a believer.  This simple statement that he overhears his aunt say is the first crack in the surface a foundation of religion that Perola’s mother tried to establish.  It shocks him because he never realized that not to believe was even an option.

The pivotal point of the book during which time Perola knows that a devout, religions life is not the correct path for him is when he has his first sexual encounter with a much older woman.  Perola is fifteen and he visits a fifty-one year old woman who is renting a cottage in the village.  Perola is at first nervous to be around her but he is put at ease when they discuss books and have lemonade.  And she very slowly and tenderly introduces him to the world of sexual intimacy.

This scene in the book is not salacious or inappropriate; the woman and Perola both serve a need for each other and this experience further shapes his non-religious awakening.  Perola describes this sexual experience in religious terms during which he has a epiphany.  But this moment of clarity actually turns him away from religion instead of driving him toward it.  According to the beliefs he is taught, he should feel guilty about what has happened between himself and the woman on the knot free pine floor.  But instead he feels like his experience has invited him to step inside what he calls “the innermost room” and begin to experience the meaning of life.

This is a truly literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable.  Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book.  Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side.

For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read.  So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K.  I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

About the Author:
P EnquistPer Olov Enquist, better known as P. O. Enquist is one of Sweden’s internationally best known authors. He has worked as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. In the nineties, he gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician.

After a degree in History of literature at Uppsala University he worked as a newspaper columnist and TV debate moderator from 1965 to 1976. Because of his work he soon became an influential figure on the Swedish literary scene. From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in Berlin on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been working as an independent writer since 1977.

Enquist’s works are characterized by a chronic pessimistic view of the world. They always describe the restrictions imposed by the pietistical way of living, especially in March of the Musicians (1978) and Lewi’s Journey (2001). He gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician (1999) where he tells the story of Struensee, the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII. Many of Enquist’s works have been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally.

 

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Review: Against Nature by Tomas Espedal

I receive a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  This book was published in the original Norwegian in 2011 and this English version has been translated by James Anderson.

My Review:
Against NatureWhen the book opens the main character, Tomas, is at a party where he meets a girl that is twenty years his junior; despite their age difference they appear to have an instant connection.  Tomas reflects on the famous literary couple of Abelard and Heloise who have a passionate and scandalous love affair despite their age gap.  But things did not turn out very well for Abelard and Heloise, so is this Tomas’ way of foreshadowing what will happen with his own relationship?

The book then flashes back to Tomas’ teenage years during which he spends the summer working in the same textile factory where his father is employed.  He wakes up every day at the crack of dawn to do a physically difficult and monotonous job of fixing and oiling looms at the factory.  The only bright spot in his day is when he is able to ride his bicycle over to his girlfriend’s house where he has dinner with her family. After dinner, without any protest or interference from her parents,  he retires to the family guestroom with his girlfriend where he engages in what he calls his “adult education.”  Tomas’ swears that he is madly in love with his girlfriend and wants nothing more than to marry her.  He does stay with her for quite a few years into his early adulthood, but the only clue he gives us about the disintegration of this relationship is that when they tried to live together it “didn’t work out.”

The girl that Tomas ends up marrying is an actress from his home town whom he has run into from time to time when they were younger.  Agnete is home for a visit while promoting a play that she is doing in Rome and it is on this trip home that she connects with Tomas.  Tomas, at this point, has decided that he wants to be an author; when he meets Agnete he is the quintessential lonely writer who lives in a sparse bachelor pad and can barely make ends meet.  And he is attracted to Agnete because, like any lonely writer, when he gives up his loneliness it must be for a relationship that is as unpredictable and volatile as possible.  When they fight Agnete throws objects at Tomas and even gives him a black eye and some broken ribs.  It is obvious that this tumultuous relationship cannot be sustained forever, and it does last for much longer than one would think.  When it is finally over Tomas seems more relieved than anything else.

At the end of the book we are brought back to Tomas’s relationship with the younger woman whose name we are told is Janne.  When she moves into his house he feels that for the first time in his life he is happy and content.  Mundane things like reading in bed, cooking dinner and sitting on the couch make him happy.  He goes on for quite a few pages about what happiness is and how he has finally achieved a level of happiness in his own life.  But when Janne decides that the gap in their age is too much to handle she moves out and Tomas’ happiness is utterly shattered.  The last forty pages of the book are a transcription of his notebooks or journals which he keeps during the time of his break-up.  To call his notebooks sad or depressing would be a serious understatement; he wallows in his sorrow and at times his descent into loneliness, excessive drinking and inertia were very difficult to read.  Tomas’ notebooks reminded me of the Roman poet Catullus, who writes his own depressing break-up poems after he has an affair with a married woman; there is also a significant age gap in this relationship between Catullus and this woman.  I would highly recommend that Espedal read Catullus’ poems if he isn’t already familiar with them.

Finally, I have to mention the title, “Against Nature” and this theme that is constantly present in the book.  Tomas always seems to be straining against what is considered “natural” or at least society’s perception of what is natural.  It isn’t natural for a man in his mid-forties to have a relationship with a woman twenty years his junior.  It isn’t natural that Tomas should stay in a tumultuous relationship with his wife long after all love is lost between them.  Tomas and Agnete live in a farmhouse surrounded by nature and he never feels comfortable there; it is more natural for him to be in a city, away from nature.  The book is an interesting reflection on the things we accept as natural; who decides what is natural and what is not?  If we go against nature, does that make us unnatural or some type of an outcast?

Against Nature is a thought-provoking and poetic read.  This book has made me excited to explore additional titles in the Seagull books catalogue.

About the Author:
T EspedalTomas Espedal debuted as a writer in 1988. In 1991, he won awards in the P2/Bokklubbens rome competition for She and I. Founder of the Bergen International Poetry Festival, Espedal’s later works explore the relationship between the novel and other genres such as essays, letters, diaries, autobiography and travelogue. Espedal’s Go. Or the Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life (2006) and Nearly Art (2009) have been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize.

 

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