Recent reads round-up

I read a few good books in a row and then went on holiday before writing reviews or even notes on them and now it’s two weeks since I finished the last of them. Oops. So here is my attempt to remember what I enjoyed about them. They’re all great!

her_fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter
by Marie Sizun
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

I loved this book. It is simple and sparse and yet utterly moving. This seems to be a pattern with Peirene books, one that I approve of. The story is told from the perspective of “the child” (she does have a name but it’s rarely used) – a young girl living in Paris during the Second World War. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and despite the Nazi occupation is utterly happy in her little world. Then the father she has never met comes home from the POW camp and the fight for affection begins.

Sizun brilliantly depicts the changing relationships – between mother and child; between father and child; between mother and father; between grandmother and child – against a backdrop of the occupation of Paris ending, and then the war itself ending. Though the child is not the narrator, her perspective filters the story to its essential parts. This at times almost reads like poetry, it’s so distilled. But it isn’t at all abstract in the way that poetry can be. A beautiful, quick read.

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Leaving behind me a thousand little phantoms in my image

vagabondThe Vagabond
by Colette
translated from French by Enid McLeod

I love Colette. This slim, seemingly simple novel is beautifully told and explores in great detail the psychological weight of the decisions we make.

Renée is a music-hall dancer in Paris. Divorced and in her 30s, she has to perform in seedy venues late at night to pay her rent but she doesn’t mind that. In fact, she quite enjoys it, though it does give her a great fear of getting old, knowing as she does that it is her looks and not her talent that the crowds are attracted to. For now she has an agent who keeps her in work and a regular partner called Brague, a mime who designs and choreographs their act.

“Behold me then, just as I am! This evening I shall not be able to escape the meeting in the long mirror, the soliloquy which I have a hundred times avoided, accepted, fled from, taken up again, and broken off…Behold me then, just as I am! Alone, alone, and for the rest of my life, no doubt. Already alone; it’s early for that.”

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Spring reads in brief

Predictably, having dared to enjoy just a smudge of the lovely weather we had before everything turned to rain, my lupus is flaring and my brain is therefore fried. So rather than write pages on each book I have enjoyed lately, I will just crib together my notes into something hopefully coherent.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
or the Murder at Road Hill House

by Kate Summerscale

So when I first heard about this title somehow I didn’t realise it was non-fiction – and it reads like it. My own fault, I know, but even as historical non-fiction goes it is not stylishly written. It is however, very very interesting and absorbing. It recounts the case of the murder of an infant son at an English country home in 1860 and the ensuing investigation by Detective Inspector Whicher, one of the original police detectives when Scotland Yard was founded. Although the style was dry, I couldn’t forget that it was the story of a real-life murder and therefore found it very eerie and unsettling – I couldn’t read it last thing at night after having difficulty sleeping the first night I did that! What I really liked was the background of detective fiction versus real police detectives – I found it fascinating that they emerged together, each learning from other, and could happily have had more of that. It was, however, a bit repetitive – a character might have been introduced just a few pages before and at their next mention would again get a full explanation of who they are. But for all its faults, this was a compelling read. I didn’t want to put it down and easily got into the habit of reading after work rather than watching TV.

“The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville’s death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.”

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

The Books of Magic
story by Neil Gaiman
art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson

Tim has spent years recommending this to me and I finally gave in. This trade paperback is a compilation of the mini series of comics that Gaiman wrote that turned into an ongoing series with other writers at the helm. I think we have the first few of those as single issues in the library. But I digress. In the mini series we meet teenage boy Timothy Hunter who is told by a group of strange men that he has the potential to become the world’s most powerful wizard, and does he want to know more? The four strangers take it in turn to introduce Tim to the various forms that magic takes, from performance artists in San Francisco to faerieland and even time travel. It is a beautiful book with fantastic characters but it left me with a similar feeling to the first volume of Sandman – where was the story? I suppose because it’s the set-up for a longer project, nothing is really resolved, everything is just introduced, but the longer series isn’t Gaiman so I am torn now as to whether I want to carry on.

“[We must] show him what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become. It is up to the four of us to ensure that he chooses his path correctly. Are we all in agreement? Doctor Occult?”
“I agree. I will show him the Far Lands.”
“Mister E?”
“If you are too soft to dispose of him, then I suppose you must educate him. If he gets that far then I will take him to the end.”
“Yeah, fair enough. I’ll give him the grand tour, introduce him to the runners, give him an idea of the starting price…Just what the world’s been waiting for. The charge of the trenchcoat brigade.
“I heard that, John Constantine.”

First published as single issues 1990–1991 by DC Comics. This compilation published 2001.

Source: I bought it from Excelsior! comic bookshop in Bristol.

Claudine and Annie
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This is the last in the series about Claudine and, oddly, not only is it the first to not be narrated by Claudine, but she’s not even the main character. This book is narrated by new character Annie, a young, closeted Parisian woman whose husband has left on a long voyage and who gradually starts to disobey her husband’s orders as she makes the most of Parisian society, including strengthening her friendship with a certain Claudine. Though Annie is interesting enough, I was disappointed to find that this is barely even a Claudine book at all. Claudine is now so happy and settled in her life that the most interesting thing about her is her effect on other people, so it does make sense, but it still wasn’t the same, and in some ways seemed a blatant method of depicting another fall from innocence. This novel doesn’t veer into soft porn like the previous ones but it would certainly have been risque for its time in the descriptions of relationships. The characters are all wonderful, I just would have liked more Claudine.

“He has gone! He has gone! I keep saying these words to myself; now I am writing them down on paper to find out if they are true and if they are going to hurt me…I am afraid to move, to breathe, to live. A husband ought not to leave his wife – not when it is this particular husband and this particular wife.”

Claudine s’en va first published 1903.
This translation first published 1962 by Secker & Warburg. Reissued by Penguin.

Source: I bought it from a secondhand bookshop.

See also: my reviews of Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married.

I was penetrated by sunlight

Claudine Married
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

Claudine Married

Getting hold of this book was a little bit of a saga. I came across the first Claudine book in a secondhand bookshop and fell in love with both the charming story and the attractive old Penguin edition I had picked up. I resolved to collect the set of four in the same design and soon had three, but this one proved a bit of a challenge. Twice I ordered it from sellers on Abe Books only for the sale to fall through because they didn’t have it in stock after all. It was with some excitement I finally lined up my little collection.

It’s a shame then that this instalment didn’t quite live up to the first two, though I hasten to add that it’s still a beautifully written and insightful book. But one of the things that I liked about the character of Claudine was her mixture of naughty wilfulness and youthful innocence. Now she is innocent no more. Or isn’t she?

In this third book in the Claudine series she returns to Paris from a long, leisurely honeymoon with her husband Renaud. She is just 18 years old and her husband in his 40s, which gives us an early clue as to his sexual tastes. There is an uncomfortable section where the newlyweds visit Claudine’s old school and both flirt outrageously with the 15-year-old girls boarding there.

Sexual attraction had been a major topic of the series previously but here that’s what it’s all about. Claudine had dabbled with both sexes before her marriage and the pattern continues. As well as loving her husband, she falls hopelessly in lust with a new acquaintance, Rezi, the buxom wife of a jealous invalid. Renaud immediately sees this and encourages Claudine in what she sees as him being an understanding husband, but I read as straightforward lechery. I won’t say which of us was right, but Claudine certainly has some lessons to learn.

As always, Colette writes with great affection for the French countryside.

“At least I had been able to bathe my bare hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun. I was penetrated by sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden.”

This book is fairly sexually explicit but it’s not Henry Miller. The deed itself is usually skipped past. The narrative concentrates instead on Claudine’s reaction to events. It was with some relief I realised that her reluctance to give in to her desire for Rezi stems from wanting to be faithful to her husband, not the fact that Rezi is a woman. She has, after all, been there before.

I can see why it took almost 60 years for an English translation to appear in print but I do wonder how shocking (or not) these novels were in France.

First published as Claudine amoureuse 1902.
Published as Claudine en ménage after the above edition had been destroyed.
This translation published 1960 by Secker & Warburg.
My edition published 1972 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

On the brink of getting old

Break of Day
by Colette
translated from French by Enid Mcleod

I found this book both beautiful and uplifting, and painstakingly slow and even dull. Which is probably why I had started and abandoned it once before. I’m glad I gave it another go.

I suppose you could call this novel a lightly fictionalised autobiography, and it may even have been the inspiration for so many books since written in that vein – half of Amélie Nothomb’s works, for example. Its ageing heroine, Colette, is spending a summer in her beloved Provence. She is alone but for a coterie of pets and, though she has endless company from friends old and new, she feels strongly that the time has come to learn how to be on her own, how to live without love.

The novel is partly addressed to, and partly about, her mother Sido. Colette quotes from her mother’s letters and realises with pride how much she has come to be like her. But mostly it is a musing on her own life, her love of nature and her thoughts on love. Her lofty aim to no longer depend on a man for happiness is complicated by the presence of Valère Vial, a younger man whose company she enjoys but who she frets does not belong in her story.

The prose is beautiful but rambling. The blurb calls it a prose poem and that’s pretty apt. If you can accept that for pages at a time nothing will happen, or her meaning will not be clear, then you can just wallow in the language and enjoy a master at work:

“The open windows let in the smell of the melon rinds floating on the water of the port; between two parts of a tango, a long sigh announced that a wave, born far out at sea, had just died within a few paces of us.”

The title refers to her ongoing battle with sleep and her love of the dawn. A lot of the book is set in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning, with Colette perusing life in an overtired state, hoping to see the new day begin before sleep finally comes. It could be the most lyrical autobiography I have read, except that she adds the lines:

“Are you imagining, as you read me, that I am portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model.”

First published 1928 by Flammarion as La Naissance du Jour.
This translation first published 1961 by Martin Secker and Warburg.

The shock of growing up

Claudine in Paris
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

After thoroughly enjoying the first book in the Claudine series, I was glad to already have the second book waiting in my TBR. It was another wonderful, rollicking read and I’m now going to have to search out the other two.

These were the first novels written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who was an absolutely fascinating literary figure. I visited her grave in Paris a few years ago and was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be (especially considering that previous to this series her novels have failed to move me).

Ici repose Colette

In this volume, Claudine and her father have moved to Paris, so that he can further his studies of slugs. She discovers to her surprise that she suffers greatly from homesickness for her beloved countryside village. She also discovers, on exposure to a new male friend who is gay and an old female friend who has become a rich man’s mistress, that she is far more easily shocked than she would have expected of herself:

“Disgust, yes definitely! There I was, making myself completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! You can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen!’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways…In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

Well, Claudine may have discovered that the big wide world isn’t as easily bluffed as her old schoolmates were, but she is still far from common or everyday. Claudine is hypersensitive enough to catch a fever when she gets anxious but she is also tomboyish enough to do exercises every morning and speak her mind almost thoughtlessly. She is still vain enough to admire herself in every window or mirror and look coquettishly at every man she sees, but is self-aware enough to know that she is silly and vain and inexperienced to boot. She catches herself feeling jealous of an old friend who is marrying a sensible, dull sort of man and presses her friend the kept woman for information about sex while all the while feeling scared and sickened by the whole business.

Most of all, Claudine is still a witty, entertaining narrator who lets you into her world with disarming honesty, beside the occasionally withheld nugget of interest. The main switch in this book is that Claudine appears to have left behind the lesbian intrigues of school, only revisiting them for the entertainment of her cousin Marcel, who is left hot under the collar by her accounts and begs for more detail. Claudine’s romantic interest now seems to be firmly aimed toward men and marriage.

For all its shocking content and its youthful, not as sophisticated as she’d like to be narrator, this book is extremely well written with a wonderful, colourful cast of characters and a clever humour that must have been a challenge to translate this deftly.

Claudine à Paris first published in 1901 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1958 by Secker and Warburg

The trials of being above the rest

Claudine at School
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This was the first novel written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the result of her entertaining her first husband with stories of her own schooldays. It is a thoroughly charming read that I was reluctant to put down yet wanted to linger over.

Perfect breakfast

Claudine is sassy, bitchy, talented, beautiful and entitled. She attends the local day school because she refused to be sent to a boarding school, with the result that she’s a rich girl surrounded by the daughters of farmers and shopkeepers. She doesn’t need to do well at school but she takes pleasure in achieving more than the other girls whose future livelihoods depend on their test scores. Really, she should be completely unlikeable. But she’s not. She also has a very sweet relationship with her doting but distracted father.

The book takes the form of Claudine’s diary. She confides her own bitchy actions, with the full awareness that she has acted badly. She also confides all the gossip she has learned and her own intimate thoughts. I mean, this isn’t Judy Blume, no-one’s going to learn how to deal with periods or ill-fitting bras from this book, but she does admit to her crushes and flirtations.

The thing that will stand out for a lot of people about this book is the lesbianism. It’s pretty rife. Claudine herself, as well as the headmistress of the school, know how to gain advantage from flirtation and suggestion with men but are only really interested in women. This is never stated outright, but gradually becomes apparent from the actions of both characters. It’s also never clear if this is accepted by the people around them (or indeed known in Claudine’s case). One character does come under criticism for her lesbian relationship but the criticism is based on the fact that she’s engaged to a man at the time. Which is a fair point.

Claudine is aged 16 and 17 in this novel and it feels like a very realistic portrait of being that age. She is confident and brassy around others but alone she experiences doubts and insecurities about her future, her looks and her love life. This may be partly because she has not fully acknowledged that she is gay, or at least bisexual. She talks vaguely about how one day she will do this, that or the other with a man, without any enthusiasm or interest. She does show great interest in her friend Claire’s string of boyfriends but she vacillates between admiration and disapproval of such an active (and yet virtuous) love life. She pretends to know better how to keep hold of a man, and yet admits to never having been in a situation to put her knowledge to the test.

Looking back, very little actually happens in this book. And in many ways that is the point. Claudine can be obsessively excited by, and then deeply bored by, the day-to-day minutiae of school life. Which is precisely how I remember school being. She views herself as worldly and cosmopolitan but actually lives in a small country village where very little happens. Which I suspect leads to all kinds of fun in the next book in the series, Claudine in Paris.

This book was so much fun. It’s the schoolgirl book I wish I had read when I was a teenager instead of all those sappy American ones. I’m so entranced I fully intend to read all of the Claudine sequels.

Claudine à l’école first published in 1900 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1956 by Secker and Warburg

The end of childhood

Ripening Seed
by Colette
translated by Roger Senhouse

Colette is one of those highly rated authors whose works I continue to read but fail to be bowled over by. I think I understand the attraction but I am not personally attracted.

This book is, based on my experience, a typical example. The story is simple, the writing is simple, with lucid descriptions and a lot of detail about the setting. Characters’ thoughts and feelings are voiced and yet we never truly get to know them. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book is so short.

Vinca and Philippe’s families have holidayed together in Brittany every summer of their young lives. They have grown up together thick as thieves, under the assumption that their innocent friendship will one day turn into marriage. But this summer Vinca is 15 and Phil is 16 and suddenly teenage hormones make it hard to remain innocent. The appearance of a mysterious older woman in Phil’s life only complicates things further.

The storyline is largely predictable because, well, people are. There is a definite air of sadness about the loss of innocence; in fact I found the point to be pressed a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I was never sad to leave my childhood behind (because I was always eager to grow up, not because I had a bad childhood), but I find it hard to relate to this series of delicate, poignant moments.

Some of the language is beautiful and the story has stood the test of time pretty well, which I think is greatly helped by the seaside setting – kids still swim, rockpool, clamber over rocks and largely exist without noticing their parents.

I will continue to buy Colette’s books when I spot them in second-hand bookshops (few if any of her books are still in print in English) because they’re not bad and maybe one will touch me and get me enthusing.

First published 1923.
This translation first published 1955.