The ridiculous is very deep in her, where she fights with phantoms

My First Wife
by Jakob Wassermann
translated by Michael Hoffman

This “lost classic” deserves introduction because it’s really quite an odd story. First published in German in 1934, this story was just a small segment buried in a 2000-page trilogy, an autobiographical confession loosely disguised and hidden from view. When Michael Hoffman stumbled across it he was stunned by this powerful account of a marriage and knew he had to bring it to a wider audience and so set about translating it into English for the first time.

The story is that of Wassermann’s alter ego Alexander Herzog, a German-Jewish writer who lives on the kindness of friends and strangers in true Bohemian style until he is introduced to the bizarre character of Ganna Mevis. Claiming to have been misunderstood her whole life, Ganna enthuses gushingly about Herzog’s artistry, sure that he will become a star and that her generous dowry will help him to get there. It is not a comfortable union from the start. Herzog confesses to being cold with her and can never understand her, but he is also spellbound to a certain degree, whether by her constant flattery or sheer weirdness it’s hard to tell:

“You can find a woman lovable without loving her; that’s a dangerous grey area. When I gave her my hand, she could sit there charmed as though that moment was a singing eternity, then she would lean over and press her lips to my fingers with a reverence that sometimes made me say: oh, don’t do that, don’t bother.”

After a few years of uneasy truce the marriage begins to unravel and so begins the legal and financial tangle that make the rest of Herzog’s life hellish. He is made to see how his earlier leniency has cost him dearly, but not before he has spent years defending Ganna to everyone else, as they all see how dangerous she might be:

“One shouldn’t judge Ganna on the basis of single incidents, you need to see her in the round, as the wild nature she is. Her errors, her passions, her mistakes, they are all based on a splendid unity…The ridiculous is very deep in her, where she fights with phantoms…She doesn’t have a clue about reality.”

If this wasn’t autobiographical (with very few details changed, apparently) it might be hard to believe in the character of Ganna. She is utterly vindictive, but that’s not quite the word because she so thoroughly believes that she is in the right and that she has been wronged at every turn. And no wrong is ever forgotten.

Wassermann’s style is at once detached and chatty. He is analysing his own story and making a clear effort to separate himself from events, which is of course impossible even if he has given his story to Herzog, and leads to the occasional “unreliable narrator” moment when he lets slip a detail about himself that you realise explains an awful lot that has gone before.

There is a lot of glib talk about optimism and pessimism, which occasionally becomes profound:

“Even those moments of wanting to die come with a small flame that causes the heart to flicker into life…The least happiness is something so exquisitely precious in the lower depths.”

Wassermann writes movingly of love (albeit not for Ganna) but also of the Great War (“At the Somme a half-brother of mine died…No letter, no farewell, just a silent death.”), of misplaced trust but also of rabid inflation and other signs of political turmoil in Germany and Austria in the 1910s and 1920s. He tries hard to understand how he ended up where he did, a successful author dying in severe debt with his sweetly optimistic lover crushed by the weight of years of doing battle with her predecessor. And really the clues are all there, he is far from blameless.

This is such an interesting read, and eminently quotable at that, but it is not one to race through quickly. It demands of its reader some attempt at understanding this relationship that defies understanding. And I found myself trying to bestow empathy, or at least sympathy, on characters who pages later threw such an emotional response haughtily back at me. I have no doubt that Penguin is right to label this a classic on its first printing in English.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

First published in German, within Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz, by Queredo, Amsterdam, 1934.
This translation published in Penguin Classics, August 2012.

All that succession and repetition of massed humanity

Vile Bodies
by Evelyn Waugh

Why oh why have I never read Waugh before? How has this happened? He was clever and funny and acerbic and fun and catty. Can you tell I enjoyed this book?

The novel follows a short time in the lives of the “bright young things”, the high, fast-paced society of 1920s London. From the first page the caustic comic tone is set. No-one escapes a vicious lashing. There are no real heroes, though a case might be made for Adam Fenwick-Symes being the centrepiece. He is certainly the butt of the longest joke: his relationship with lovely but frankly flighty Nina.

The story is really a series of parties and other social engagements. As Adam remarks at one point:

“…’Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.
(Masked parties, Savage parties, Russian parties, Circus parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. Those vile bodies…)”

For all the wit and the lack of getting inside anyone’s head, the characters are not entirely caricatures. There is an element of that certainly, but there are complexities too. When at one point Adam encounters a dressmaker’s dummy, the narration adds:

“…there had been one of these in Adam’s home which they used to call ‘Jemima’ – one day he stabbed ‘Jemima’ with a chisel and scattered stuffing over the nursery floor and was punished. A more enlightened age would have seen a complex in this action and worried accordingly…”

While the goings-on are quite lighthearted and romping, there is the occasional event that you feel ought to be being taken more seriously. But then when I got to the ironically titled final chapter “Happy ending”, I realised that that was the whole point. Without wishing to give anything away, Waugh neatly provides the excuse for all this living to excess, while maintaining his pessimistic tone.

The satire of society does come at a price. Emotion is limited or absent completely, despite the central love story of Adam and Nina, not to mention some other serious goings-on that might demand an emotional response. And politicians are present and roundly mocked but their politics not dealt with at all. I suppose it is quite a small book and to keep its momentum it had to have a narrow focus.

One subject that does muscle its way into the narrative is tabloid journalism, in particular the gossip columns. This was handled so amusingly that I particularly want to read Waugh’s novel Scoop soon.

First published 1930 by Chapman & Hall.

It was only a series of feelings

I'm the King of the Castle

I’m the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill

I think I may have left it a little too long to write this review because I was struggling to think of coherent things to say. Which is not to disparage the book. I really enjoyed it. I had just fried my brain a little with too much stuff.

This is the story of a fight for supremacy between two 10–11 year old boys. Hill perfectly captures how to them it is of utmost importance, while to their parents there is nothing of import going on. Edmund Hooper lives quietly with his father in their big old family home. He is dismayed when his father employs a new live-in housekeeper, Mrs Kingshaw, who brings her son Charles along. He is even more dismayed when it quickly becomes apparent that Mrs Kingshaw is as much a candidate for second wife as she is housekeeper. Her son is equally dismayed by this idea, partly due to jealousy of his mother’s time, but primarily due to the increasing possibility that he will spend his entire life being bullied by Hooper.

The style is slightly odd and stilted, which I suppose you could say reflects the awkwardness and distance between all these characters who ought to be intimately linked. Kingshaw thinks at one point:

“He wanted to say I’ve come here and I don’t like it [but] I’ve got to stay here [so] why can’t we make the best of things? He was willing to put himself out, he would even, just at this moment, have said he would do whatever Hooper wanted, would acknowledge him as a master of his own territory. But he couldn’t put any of it into words, not even to himself, it was only a series of feelings, overlapping one another like small waves. He was confused.”

The relationship between the boys is cleverly created. Physically they are approximate equals but Hooper has confidence and the home territory, giving him the advantage. He terrorises his prey by subtly observing Kingshaw’s many fears and playing on them. Hooper is also the cleverer of the two, knowing just how to behave in front of their parents so that they suspect nothing. Kingshaw is not a sweet innocent, though. When he gets a chance to have the upper hand he takes it, usually.

There are moments of genuine childish play in the middle of it all that give you hope that the parents will be right after all, that two boys of the same age will always become friends if thrown together. But almost as soon as these moments begin, the seeds of doubt are being sown, as the boys size one another up.

On an aside, I bought the really quite beautiful Penguin Decades edition, with cover art by Zandra Rhodes. I am such a sucker for pretty books.

First published 1970 by Hamish Hamilton.

Rain poem

Three weeks ago, the very lovely poet and bookseller Jen Campbell blogged about a fantastic event in London called Raining Poems. She offered to send out some poems from the event and I was thrilled to be one of the lucky winners. My poem arrived today.

Beautiful post

The poem is “Purple” by Catherine Labiran (with a translation into Spanish by Andrés Anwandter).

A poem that fell from the sky

Huge thanks to Jen for the fun post and adding a beautiful poem to my life.

Sunday Salon: British summertime

The Sunday Salon

Many years ago, my sister won a fancy dress competition dressed as British summertime. She wore a swimsuit, kagoule and wellies and carried a bucket, spade and umbrella. And most summers that’s pretty accurate: we’re hopeful but ultimately disappointed. But this year, well it’s been a bit special.

After a month of what felt like solid rain, the sun came out in time for the school summer holidays and, of course, the Olympics. The whole country suddenly found its national pride and got excited about…sport. I’m a little sad that it’s ending today. The Olympics, that is. I’m hoping the summer carries on a little longer.

In-between watching far too much TV we have been enjoying the sunshine with a bit of gardening:

and a trip to a city farm:
Mmm, tasty goat ear

All of which means I have done very little reading. I have finally started reading Evelyn Waugh for the first time, and am greatly enjoying Vile Bodies. What have you been up to? Are you squeezing any reading into your summer activities (assuming it’s summer where you are)?

All just programming

Old Paint
by Megan Lindholm

This is a novelette from Asimov’s Science Fiction that Tim encouraged me to read. It’s a touching, simple story set in a near-ish future and playing on American tropes.

I hadn’t realised until looking her up for this review that Megan Lindholm also writes as Robin Hobb, which is a name that is much more familiar to me but also one I wouldn’t pick up because she writes that traditional swords and magic fantasy that I’m not a fan of. Well, turns out she can write SF pretty well so maybe I’ll look up more of her work written under her real name.

This is the story of a poor-ish family in an American city in the late 21st century. Suzanne and her two school-age kids share a small flat with one computer between them and have no car, much to the children’s shame. But when they inherit their grandfather’s huge muscle car they are even more embarrassed. Especially when their mother insists on actually driving it rather than letting it drive itself like everyone else does.

To say much more about the storyline would be to give too much away, but it’s an interesting take on the American love affair with cars. From an environmental perspective it’s hopeful, because all cars run on electricity, with back-up solar cells for when they can’t get to a charge point. Despite the advances in technology, this is a story about people. Suzanne reminisces about her teenage relationship with this same car. And yes, I know how that sounds and yes, to a certain extent the story does anthropomorphise the car (“Old Paint” is the name they give it), though it does acknowledge this directly:

“We all know that Old Paint is just following the directives of his programming. He’s not really…alive. He just seems that way because we think of him that way. But it’s all just programming.”

But that’s not what it’s about. Suzanne’s long-since given-up-on relationship with her father is rescued after the fact by this gift and her children learn to appreciate her through it as well. Which sounds odd, but trust me, it works.

There are more SF elements than my synopsis perhaps suggests but they are subtly done so that, aside from one thing that’s central to the story, it’s all background. It’s a very believable near future, with only one significant change from now.

First published in the July 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

Given a pen instead of a gun

Penguin Lost
by Andrey Kurkov
translated from Russian by George Bird

When I began this book, the sequel to Death and the Penguin, I was mostly a little lost and puzzled. I ended it engrossed and near tears (happy-sad ones). Which is a pretty good review in itself, I think.

To explain the plot I’m going to have to discuss how book one ended, so big fat **SPOILER ALERT STARTS HERE**

We last saw Victor travelling to Antarctica in the place of his pet penguin Misha, whom he left in a hospital in Kiev with his treatment being paid for by dodgy types who were almost certainly mafia. In this book, Victor arrives back in Kiev to find that Misha has disappeared, Victor’s sort-of foster daughter Sonya has got a pet cat, appearing to have forgotten Misha already, and Nina (Sonya’s nanny) has moved her new boyfriend into Victor’s flat. Alone, dispirited and possibly still on the wrong side of the mafia, Victor is in a dark place and only too happy to get taken under the wing of increasingly questionable types in his search for Misha the penguin.


In the early parts of this book, former journalist Victor is working for a local politician who initially appears pretty dodgy and certainly has some dodgy contacts. I found this a little dull, perhaps because I was missing some of the nuances of Ukrainian politics. Or perhaps it was Victor’s semi-defeated demeanour. When he started to get his confidence back, I started to be interested. He appears to have a knack for persuading people to help in his unusual quest (finding his pet penguin, if you didn’t get that from the title), though it’s certainly not an easy adventure.

Although book one did deal with politics, mafia and death, they were in the background behind the story of a man and his attempts to pull his life together. In this story Soviet politics become far more prominent, as Victor travels from Ukraine to Russia to Chechnya, the latter embroiled in war and a dangerous place for a Russian-speaker to be. The story gets pretty dark, very dark in fact. And there is less of the black humour of Death and the Penguin, though it is still there. But what it does have plenty of is the same compelling weirdness. I also learned a lot about Ukraine in the 1990s:

“Maybe I’ll be a journalist when I’m big. And sit up in the kitchen when everyone’s asleep.”
“You mustn’t – you wouldn’t want to be a soldier and go to war.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“You’d have to, as a journalist. You’d be taken on by some paper, given a pen instead of a gun, and told, ‘There’s the enemy, you go and write nasty things about him.’ And you would, until you got killed or hurt.”

Victor isn’t a positive thinker, perhaps understandably, but this gives him some interesting internal monologues:

“He stared at the white sheet of paper, but his brain refused to function. It was becoming internal, this weightlessness, prior to becoming external again, and beginning to irritate. At long last, he did actually type the words ‘What now?’ and felt better for it. Materialized, turned into text, the question ceased to occupy his thoughts.”

A note on the translation: my early disinterest aside, I felt that Bird did a good job of explaining the nuances of travel and interaction between the Soviet states. And I really felt the cold, bleak atmosphere exemplified by the image of a penguin on the balcony of a high-rise flat overlooking a car park.

Zakon uliki first published 2002 by Folio, Kharkov.
This translation published 2004 by the Harvill Press.

That strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back againe

Through England on a Side-Saddle
by Celia Fiennes

I picked this up in a rare glow of national pride, what with certain sporting stuff going on. It’s an odd little book. Published as part of Penguin’s “English Journeys” series, it’s an extract from the 1698 travelogue of a rich Englishwoman travelling on horseback up to Newcastle and down to Cornwall. Intrepid, I think the word is.

Through England on a Side-Saddle

The language takes a little getting used to. Not that the words are unfamiliar, but Penguin has left the original spelling and grammar in place, with only the occasional translation in square brackets. It’s jarring but once in the flow I found myself surprisingly able to cope with the same word being spelled three different ways within a paragraph!

This travelogue was written up later from a detailed journal that Fiennes kept on the road, and it suffers a little bit from listing the same few facts about each place: number of churches (I love that this was a reasonably reliable indicator of population!), distance in miles, quality of roads, major trade. But even these facts were sometimes fascinating: in 1698 Liverpool was so small it had only one church! Compare that with Newcastle-upon-Tyne (5 churches) and Bristol (19 churches and a cathedral) – even Wells, now England’s smallest city, had 2 churches and a cathedral! Also, roadsigns were a brand new idea:

“they have one good thing in most parts off this principality [Lancashire] that at all cross wayes there are Posts with Hands pointing to each road with the names of the great town or market towns that it leads to, which does make up for the length of the miles that strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back againe”

(I so badly want to take a red pen to that now!)

More importantly, Fiennes has occasional flashes of wit and humour that make the drier sections worthwhile. Take, for instance, her comments on St Winfreds Well:

“its a cold water and cleare and runs off very quick so that it would be a pleasant refreshment in the sumer to washe ones self in it, but its shallow not up to the waste so its not easye to dive and washe in; but I thinke I could not have been persuaded to have gone in unless might have had curtains to have drawn about some part of it to have shelter’d from the streete, for the wett garments are no covering to the body; but there I saw abundance of the devout papists on their knees all around the Well; poor people are deluded into an ignorant blind zeale and to be pity’d by us that have the advantage of knowing better”

Fiennes is travelling alone, with local guides (and, I suspect, luggage carriers) in each region. She at no point refers to being a woman travelling without husband or other family, which perhaps is a product of her being rich and well-connected enough that she knows people all over the country (and often describes their houses and gardens lengthily, another bit I found tedious). She makes a point of learning about local trades and industries, going into surprising detail about methods of coal mining, for example. She does, however, show a certain snobbery and prejudice, particularly towards the Scots when she briefly crosses the border:

“those houses are all kinds of Castles and they live great, tho’ in so nasty a way…one has little stomach to eate or use any thing as I have been told by some that has travell’d there; and I am sure I mett with a sample of it enough to discourage my progress farther in Scotland; I attribute it wholly to their sloth for I see they sitt and do little”

Overall I would say this is a fascinating historical document more than a good piece of writing but I am still interested in seeing what else is included in the “English Journeys” series.

The Journals of Celia Fiennes first published 1947 by the Cresset Press.
This selection published 2009 by Penguin Books.