Category Archives: Novella

Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Novella, Russian Literature

Review: The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N’Sondé

leopard-childrenThe Heart of the Leopard Children is Wilfried N’Sondé’s first book to be translated into English.  It was written and published in French and this English edition has been translated by Karen Lindo.  This title is part of the Global African Voices series by the Indian University Press whose mission is to publish “the wealth and richness of literature by African authors and authors of African descent in English translation. The series focuses primarily on translations of new works, but seeks to reissue longstanding classics that are currently out-of-print or have yet to reach English-speaking readers.”

The unnamed narrator in this novella emigrated to Paris from the Congo when he was a small child.  His parents were hoping to escape poverty in Africa, but the deplorable conditions in the housing project where they live with many other immigrants is not much better than their original home.  The narrator is sitting in a jail cell because he has been accused of a violent crime.  In between beatings from the police, he reminisces about his younger days which he spent with his best friend Drissa and his girlfriend Mireille.

My full review appears in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.  To read my full review click on the link: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/heart-leopard-children-wilfried-nsonde

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Filed under France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella, Uncategorized

Review: Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman by Stefan Zweig

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  This novella was published in the original German in 1925 and this English version has been translated by Anthea Bell.

My Review:
twenty-four-hoursStefan Zweig is a master at writing short stories that are full of descriptive details, interesting characters and surprise plot twists.  It is truly amazing that he manages to do this all within the span of 100 pages.  The setting of this short piece is a hotel on the French Riviera where a group of upper class citizens from various countries are vacationing.  A shocking social incident has occurred within their social circle and this scandal has all of the guests arguing and gossiping.

The narrator, who never gives us his name, is staying on the Riveria and interacts with the other guests, incluing a German husband and wife, a “portly” Dane, an Italian married couple, and a distinguished and older English lady.  This group of strangers usually just engage in small talk and mild jokes while eating their meals, but the disappearance of Madame Henriette has disturbed their peaceful routine.  A young, handsome and garrulous Frenchman arrived at the hotel on the previous day and captivated everyone’s attention.  Zweig shows his skill at describing characters with just the right mix of adjectives and metaphors:

Indeed everything about him was soft, endearing, charming, but without any artifice or affectation.  At a distance he might at first remind you slightly of those pink wax dummies to be seen adopting dandified poses in the window displays of large fashion stores, walking-stick in hand and representing the ideal of male beauty, but closer inspection dispelled any impression of foppishness, for—most unusually—his charm was natural and innate, and seemed an inseparable part of him.

The shock comes when Madame Henriette, the wife of a wealthy businessman, disappears with the Frenchman after knowing him for only a couple of days.  All of the guests at the hotel are very quick to condemn and judge Henriette for throwing away her marriage, her children and her reputation.  The narrator is the only person who comes to Henriette’s defense and reminds the guests that it might have been possible that Henriette was caught in a “tedious, disappointing marriage” and thus had a valid reason for running off with a young man who was virtually a stranger.  This heated debate has a profound effect on Mrs. C, the distinguished English lady, who requests a private meeting with the narrator.

The story that Mrs. C. tells the narrator involves an incident in her life when she was forty-two, some twenty years earlier.  The incident had left her so embarrassed and mortified that she never told a word of it to another soul, until now.  Henriette’s impulsive decision to run away with the Frenchman has brought up old memories for Mrs. C. and she wants to unburden her soul from the guilt of her own folly.  Mrs. C. tells the narrator that, as a widow who lost her husband to an unexpected illness, she traveled around Europe while grieving for her beloved spouse.  Alone and miserable, she finds herself in Monte Carlo, one of her husband’s favorite places for entertainment, and meets a twenty-four-year old man with a serious gambling problem.

The events that unfold between Mrs. C. and the gambler bring up feelings of passion, anger, redemption, impulsivity and regret.  I don’t want to give away what happens between the widow and the young man, but I will say that Zweig has a gift for writing shocking and unexpected plot turns.  I never would have guessed the ending to Mrs. C’s story and I was riveted until the very last page of this short book.  Zweig shows us that he is an astute observer of human emotions; love, loneliness, passion and sexual desire can make us lose our minds and do irrational things which are completely out of character.

One final aspect of Zweig’s writing that must be mentioned is his careful attention to detail, even in a short work like this novella.  When Mrs. C. arrives at the casino, she describes the chiromancy—guessing a person’s moves by observing their hands— that her husband had taught her.  This English woman spent hours observing the players’ hands which are much more telling than facial expression.  Zweig writes about Mrs. C’s practice of chiromancy:

All those pale, moving, waiting hands around the green table, all emerging from the ever-different caverns of the players’ sleeves, each a beast of prey ready to leap, each varying in shape and colour, some bare, others laden with rings and clinking bracelets, some hairy like wild beasts, some damp and writhing like eels, but all of them tense, vibrating with a vast impatience.

Zweig’s description of the players via their hands is absolutely fascinating and absorbing and is another surprising gem found within the pages of this short piece.

November is German Lit. Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  The full list of reviews for this event can be found here: http://germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk/ and on Twitter #GermanLitMonth.

About the Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Novella, Pushkin Press

Review: The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  The book was published in the original German in 2007 and this English version has been translated by Jamie Bulloch.

My Review:
the-empress-and-the-cakeThis psychological thriller starts innocently enough with a kind old woman offering to split a cake with a young woman she meets outside of a bakery in Vienna.  But Stift’s novella becomes gruesome, disturbing and haunting very quickly.

The old woman, whose name is Frau Hohenembs, is oddly dressed in all black and the young woman discovers that the old woman’s apartment is even stranger.  Frau Hohenembs has an extensive collection of pictures and mementos of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria or Empress Sissi as many referred to her.  The apartment is also packed with furniture, two caged parrots, an enormous dog and a portly servant named Ida. The young woman patiently observes these strange women while she has tea and eats her share of Gugelhupf.  The first shocking twist in the book happens when the young woman returns home to her own flat, finishes the rest of her Gugelhupf as well as everything else in her refrigerator and forces herself to throw up the entire contents of her stomach.

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        Gugelhopf Photo by Dirk Vorderstraße

There are two eerie and gruesome threads that run throughout the story, the first of which is an obsession with food, weight and vomiting. Stift vividl describes the narrator’s grisly decent into the full grip of bulimia and her constant obsession with the cycle of binging and purging:

I was learning a new vomiting technique and was eating by colours.  I started with chemical sweets such as bright-green gummy frogs or pink foam bacon bits or claret so-called laces and snakes.  These took time to mix with the mush of food that followed, which meant that my vomiting could be monitored.  I would puke until I’d arrived at this tough, lurid mass, so I could be sure I’d got everything out.

The narrator also weighs herself incessantly every few minutes on a pair of scales she purchases.  She becomes obsessive about her weight and the size of her stomach.  She is so consumed with food and vomiting that she stops working and only goes out of her flat every few days to go on a grocery shopping binge.  She reveals throughout the course of the story that her mother and maternal grandfather also had an unnatural preoccupation with being thin and this fixation on weight affected her from a  very early age.  Her deep-seated psychological issues make her easy prey for the manipulative and controlling Frau Hohenembs.

Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

       Empress Sissi 1862 by Ludwig Angerer

The second theme that is woven throughout the narrative is that of control, both losing it and gaining it over others.  Frau Hohenembs has an obsession with the Empress Sissi and pulls the young narrator into her plots to steal relics and artifacts that once belonged to the Empress.  Frau Hohenembs first invites the narrator to a picnic after which they take a bizarre tour through a sex museum.  Stift is a master at slowly developing the ways in which the older woman gains control over the younger woman’s life.  At first she can’t say no to innocent outings that involve picnics and museums.  The next significant turning point in this disturbing relationship is when Frau Hohenembs uses the young woman to steal a duck press from another museum in Vienna.  This rather macabre kitchen instrument is used to squeeze the blood, bone marrow and other juices out of duck carcasses. Frau Hohenembs loves to drink the meat juices extracted from the press and throughout the novel she has Ida use the press so that she can always have her favorite drink on hand.

Frau Hohenembs uses this theft of the duck press to gain more control over the narrator’s life.  She tells the young woman that if she doesn’t go on outings with her or help her out on her secret missions then she will report her to the police.  Frau Hohenembs becomes progressively sinister and appears to have connections around Vienna that would help her to have the young woman prosecuted.  The final, and most disturbing, theft that the trio carry out is stealing a cocaine syringe that belonged to the Empress Sissi from a pathology museum in Vienna.  Frau Hohenembs then instructs the young woman on how to use it properly to inject the old woman with daily doses of cocaine.

By the end of the novella, the young narrator is trapped and completely controlled, not only by her eating disorder but also by this strange old woman and her maid.  Straft is a master at building suspense and presenting an unexpected and frightening conclusion to her psychological thriller.

This is the third and final installment in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  All three books in the collection are very different but are all excellent.  I don’t think I can choose a favorite from the series.  I have also reviewed the other two Fairy Tale books:

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/06/13/review-her-fathers-daughter-by-marie-sizun/

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/02/21/review-the-man-i-became-by-peter-verhelst/

About the Author:
l-stiftLinda Stift in an Austrian writer. She was born in 1969 and studied Philosophy and German literature. She lives in Vienna. Her first novel, Kingpeng, was published in 2005. She has won numerous awards and was nominated for the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2009.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

My Review:
33-revolutionsI first became interested in the tumultuous history of the small island of Cuba when I took a Caribbean politics course in college.  It fascinated me that an island which is so geographically close to the United States could be so very different in its political system.  33 Revolutions captures life under the Castro regime from the point-of-view of an ordinary citizen who has become disillusioned from promises of change and is trying to scratch out a bare existence.

This book is more of an ode to a an island that has been betrayed by promises of revolution than a novella.  In order to capture the atmosphere is his life the author’s constant refrain throughout the writing is “like a scratched record.”  His monotonous job is like a scratched record;  the small and nondescript apartment he lives in alone is like a scratched record;  the monotonous routine of his office where he performs minimal tasks for a government agency is like a scratched record.  Guevara’s prose is lyrical and captures the frustration of citizens like this unnamed author who feel stuck and trapped:

The whole country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before, every week, month, year; and from repetition to repetitions, the sound deteriorates until all that is left is a vague, unrecognizable recollection of the original recording—the music disappears, to be replaced by an incomprehensible, gravelly murmur.)

The narrator tells us about the beginnings of the revolution in Cuba and as a result of which upheavel his well-bred mother and his ignorant peasant of a father were able to connect:

They met—or rather, bumped into each other— at one of those huge meetings where anger and fervor fused, and further encounters in various associations and assemblies ended up giving rise to an awareness that they were equal, that they had the same dreams, were part of a project that included them and made demands on them equally.

The narrator spends the rest of the novella explaining the countless ways in which this revolution failed its people and took away any spark of fervor that they once had to make their lives better. The narrator himself is brought up fully indoctrinated into the ideals of the revolution and the regime.  He was the model citizen until one day when he started reading and a whole new world, one outside of Cuban Communism, opened up to him.

One of the most interesting and enlightening descriptions in the book is that of Cuban citizens using makeshift rafts and boats to try and escape the Communist regime.  The author comments that boats full of people used to attempt to escape under the clandestine cover of night, but now people are brazen and openly board their skiffs in public during the day.  It is an incident with a large group of young people who try to hijack a government boat in the harbor that serves as the narrator’s breaking point.  He decides he can’t take the scratching of that broken record any longer and declares, “I’m not going to suppress anybody.”  And with these simple words, he declares his own minor revolution and never looks back.

About the Author:
canek-sanchez-guevaraCanek Sanchez Guevara, grandson of Che Guevara, left Cuba for Mexico in 1996. He worked for many of Mexico’s most important newspapers as a columnist and correspondent, and he wrote a regular newspaper column called “Motorcycleless Diaries.” He was a measured and informed critic of the Castro regime. He died in January 2015 at the age of forty.

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