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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The plot of The Juniper Tree is, at first, deceptively simple. Narrated in a matter-of-fact, emotionally detached tone, one would never guess the hardships and suffering that are yet to come in this story. Bella Winter escapes her cruel and harsh mother by moving in with a boyfriend who has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards her. Bella’s face is permanently scared in an car accident which her boyfriend, Stephen, causes. When their relationship finally dissolves, Bella moves on from Stephen but finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with a black man she never sees again.

But Bella is never bitter or harsh, she accepts her life and loves her daughter and even finds happiness by working in an antique shop. Bella’s daughter, Tommy, thrives on Bella’s love despite the fact that many people, including her own mother, are judgmental about her biracial daughter. Comyns’s depiction of what it is like for a single mother and her innocent daughter to suffer from racism in 20th century Britain is true to life and heartbreaking. I was captivated by Bella’s simple yet happy outlook as she doesn’t view her scar, her daughter or her occupation as obstacles to her contentment. But Comyns draws the reader into the tragedy that will eventually occur in brilliantly subtle ways.

When Bella meets Bernard and Gertrude Forbes, a wealthy couple who take Bella and Tommy under their wing, hints of tragedy start to appear. Although she spends weekends at the Forbes’s well-appointed home and garden and becomes a integral part of their family by helping them with domestic chores, Bella still retains her freedom and cherishes her antique shop and her own space. Bernard, in particular, seems patronizing towards Bella and views her as his pet project. His attempts to educate her about art, music and languages reminded me a bit of Ovid’s Pygmalion myth.

Tragedy strikes in the story when Bella, against her better judgment, gives up her freedom. She thinks she is making decisions to enhance her daughter’s education and future, but she knows that sacrificing her own, simple joys, is a bad decision. This book is equally as important and relevant in the 21st century as a commentary about women, social roles, and the balance that mothers and wives have to make between the comfort and safety of their families and their own individual needs. It’s something I struggle with personally every day.

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Ours is the Long Day’s Journey of the Saturday: Conversations with George Steiner

Even in reading this brief interview with literary critic, scholar and polyglot George Steiner one is impressed with the scope of his erudition.  Born in Paris in 1929, his Jewish parents had fled Vienna because his father sensed the impending danger posed by the Nazis.  Steiner’s father moved the family, once again, to America just as the Germans were invading Paris.  The details of his upbringing and early years as a scholar that he discusses with his interviewer Laure Adler in this book are fascinating.

I thought it would be fitting for my last post of this year to share Steiner’s metaphor of “A Long Saturday” of life.  Steiner explains in greater detail what he meant when he wrote in his book Real Presences, “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.”

I took the Friday-Saturday-Sunday schema from The New Testament.  Christ’s death on Friday, with the darkness that descended on earth, the tearing of the veil of the Temple; then the uncertainty that—for the believers—had to be beyond horror, the uncertainty of the Saturday when nothing happened, nothing moved; finally the resurrection on Sunday.  It’s a schema with limitless power of suggestion.  We live through catastrophes, torture, anguish; then we wait, and for many the Saturday will never end.  The Messiah won’t come, and Saturday will continue.

So how should we live this Saturday?

This Saturday of the unknown, of waiting with no guarantees, is the Saturday of our history. In this Saturday there’s an element both of despair—Christ killed in a terrible manner, buried—and of hope.  Despair and hope, of course, are the two sides of the coin of the human condition.

It’s very hard for us to imagine a Sunday, except (and this is important) in the realm of our private lives.  Those who are happy in love have known Sundays, epiphanies, moments of total transfiguration.

This was another book that someone from literary Twitter recommended to me in the early fall.  Time’s Flow has done a wonderful series of posts on Steiner  which I highly encourage everyone to visit, that reminded me I had this book sitting on my shelf.   I am so grateful for the literary community of likeminded readers who have had a profound influence on my reading choices for this year.

Happy New Year and happy reading in the new year.

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The Expectation of a Body: From A to X by John Berger

In this epistolary novel, a woman named A’ida writes to her boyfriend Xavier who has been given two life sentences for committing some non-specific political act against the totalitarian regime under which they live.  Xavier is not allowed to have any visitors and their request for a marriage license is denied three times, so they only means of contact they have is through letters.  A’ida’s missives to Xavier are full of images of her daily life—visits with friends, her work as a pharmacist, trips to the market, run ins with soldiers from the military.   The enduring message in all of her writing is her longing, always hopeful, to keep a human connection with Xavier no matter how long he is in prison.  Images of different senses pervade her letters.  First touch:

There’s such a difference between hope and expectations.  At first I believed it was a question of duration, that hope was awaiting something further away.  I was wrong.  Expectation belongs to the body, whereas hope belongs to the soul.  That’s the difference.  The two converse and excite or console each other but the dream of each one is different.  I’ve learnt something more.  The expectation of a body can last as long as any hope.  Like mine expecting yours.

Then sound and voice:

I stare at this paper I’m writing on and I hear your voice.  Voices are as different from each other as faces and far more difficult to define.  How would I describe your voice to someone so they could infallibly recognize it?  In your voice there’s a waiting—like waiting for the train to slow down a little so you can  jump.  Even when you say: O.K., let’s go, give me your hand, don’t look back!  Even then there’s this quality of waiting in your voice.

She also starts drawing pictures of hands at the of her letters which we learn that Xavier keeps taped to the wall of his cell.  One letter ends with such a drawing and these words:

In the dark folds of time maybe there’s nothing except the dumb touch of our fingers.

And our deeds.

 

Even in the last few letters A’ida’s hope continues:

And in our life today we are condemned to endless irregularity.  Those who impose this on us are frightened by our irregularity.  So they build walls to keep us out.  Yet their walls will never be long enough and there’ll always be ways round, over and under them.

In a single piece of writing Berger manages to compose a stellar example of the epistolary technique, a political commentary on oppressive regimes, and a story about an enduring love that survives time and space.   Whether I am reading his essays, poems or novels Berger’s writing has that special quality that forces me to look inward.  I kept thinking to myself while reading her letters : if I were A’ida, how long would I wait?

 

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Rock Crystal: A Christmas Novella by Adalbert Stifter

I’ve fittingly ended the year by reading another classic piece of German Literature, Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter. I have to, once again, thank literary Twitter for steering me towards this author. The NYRB Classics edition I read also includes a lovely introduction by W.H. Auden.

In Stifter’s Christmas Eve tale, two young children get caught on a mountain in a snowstorm on the way home from their grandmother’s. He begins his story by describing the warmth and charm of the holiday: “One of the most beautiful of Church festivals comes in midwinter when the nights are long and days are short, when the sun slants toward earth obliquely and snow mantles the fields: Christmas.” Stifter is a master at laying out a detailed landscape that captures the quiet beauty of the snowy, mountainous scene in which the brother and sister get lost (it is no wonder that he was a landscape painter):

They went steadily up the winding road now west to east, now east to west. The wind predicted by their grandmother had not come up; the air, on the contrary was so still not a twig or a branch stirred; in fact, it felt warmer in the woods, as is usual, in winter, among spaced objects like tree trunks, and the flakes kept falling thicker and thicker so the ground was already white, and the woods began to gray and take on a dusty look, with snow settling upon the garments and hats of both the boy and his sister.

This is truly a gem of a novella as Stifter describes the tender devotion of family, the coming together of an entire village during Christmas and the demonstration of rare emotion from what is an otherwise taciturn father. I highly recommend this short yet beautiful book; I look forward to exploring more of Stifter’s writing in the new year.

Merry Christmas to all!

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You Can’t Go Home Again: Map Drawn by a Spy by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

The following is an introduction to a review that I have contributed to the latest edition of The Scofield.  The theme of this issue is Kobo Abe & Home; the link to the issue that includes my full review is below:

In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, the publication of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Map Drawn by a Spy is a timely reminder of the complicated history of the author’s island homeland. While serving as a cultural attaché in the Cuban embassy in Belgium in 1965, the author’s mother dies and Cabrera Infante flies back to Cuba for her funeral services. He is only supposed to be in Cuba for a week; however, when prohibited by authorities from boarding his plane back to Belgium, he is forced to confront a native country he no longer recognizes. Map Drawn by a Spy, Cabrera Infante’s autobiographical account of this forced stay before final exile, candidly reveals a decaying of the old, prosperous Cuba and its way of life, as well as the people’s growing disillusionment with the Revolution of 1959.

Cabrera Infante was born in Gibara, Cuba in 1929 and moved with his impoverished family to the capital city of Havana in 1941. In addition to being a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist, he was also a film critic who wrote under the pseudonym of G. Caín. In 1952, when he published a short story containing English-language profanities, he was arrested and fined by the Batista regime. His parents were two of the original members of the Cuban Communist party and, along with his family, he supported the revolution that launched Fidel Castro into power. But he soon became disillusioned with the new socialist government that shut down Lunes de Revolución, the weekly literary magazine which he founded and edited. His position as a diplomat in the Cuban embassy was an attempt by the authorities to send him into exile. Published in 1965, his novel Three Trapped Tigers, favorably compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, earned him international attention. It has been speculated that both his political stance against the government, as well as his literary success, caused him to fall out of favor with the Cuban authorities. In 1965 he fled from Cuba to Madrid and later settled permanently in London, where he died in 2005. Cabrera Infante never returned to his home in Havana, but he remained a stanch and outspoken critic of Fidel Castro until his death.

Map Drawn by a Spy was found among the author’s papers after his death in 2005, so this version of his story was never subjected to Infante’s edits or corrections. Indeed, the accounts of his meandering daily activities within confinement often feel as if they are written spontaneously, without any literary premeditation.

Continue reading my review and see the rest of this issue here:   http://thescofield.com/

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