She succeeds in doing what no one ever dared think she would

little-communist-who-never-smiledThe Little Communist Who Never Smiled: a Novel
by Lola Lafon
translated from French by Nick Caistor

Like many who dabbled with gymnastics in their youth, I have a small obsession with former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci. I remember a year or two when a VHS copy of the made-for-TV biopic Nadia was passed around my gym club like a precious jewel. I watched it several times during the week I took it home. Years later I realised that this was the same Nadia on our TV screens during every Olympics and World Championships, only now she was an American coach. But despite my love for Nadia the gymnast, I never really looked further into her life.

On reflection, it should have been obvious that her life was more interesting than the bare facts of her gymnastic achievements. Born in 1961, the Romania she was raised in and trained in was a “Marxist-Leninist one-party state”, as Wikipedia puts it, until the 1989 revolution that ousted – and executed – the state’s controversial leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nadia defected to the US just weeks before the revolution.

As the subtitle and author’s note make clear, this is fiction, but it’s fiction written in a journalistic style. Lafon uses real sources – articles, footage, interviews, even Nadia’s own memoir – and an imagined dialogue with Nadia to piece together her life from the age of 7, when she was picked for training by legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, to 1990, a year after her mysterious escape. As such this reads like a particularly well-written biography, careful in most places not to invent what cannot be verified and to be clear where events are disputed. But there is, of course, invention – not least those conversations with a current-day “Nadia C”.

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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I am too diffused

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing

This book is more of an intellectual exercise than a novel, which has its rewards and makes it good fodder for discussion, but doesn’t make it the most enjoyable book I’ve read lately. Not that I hated it by any means, I’m glad I’ve read it, but I’m not convinced of Lessing’s skill as a writer so much as her intellect.

Having said there’s plenty to discuss, I’m not sure some of the more interesting things I got from it can go into this review as they reveal too much about the end of the book, but I’ll try to say what I can without spoilers and without sounding like a study guide (which, incidentally, there are plenty of for this book, because it’s that kind of book).

This is the story of two women, Anna and Molly, in 1950s London. (There are some flashbacks to earlier in their lives, particularly Anna’s, but the bulk of the story is in the 50s.) Molly is an actress, with a steady stream of small parts, or sometimes big parts in small shows. She has a grown son, Tommy, who lives with her and a fraught relationship with her ex-husband Richard. Anna is a writer who wrote one very successful book early in her life and has been living off the proceeds since. She is also a single mother, though the story of the child’s father is only gradually revealed. Both women have been communists, which proved a major influence on their lives.

“Looking back at those week-ends they seem like beads on a string, two big glittering ones to start with, then a succession of small, unimportant ones, then another brilliant one to end. But that is just the lazy memory.”

Essentially, the book is split into sections: there’s the “wraparound novel”, a seemingly straightforward narrative about Anna and Molly, titled Free Women. Then there are four notebooks kept by Anna, in which she writes about different aspects of her life, splitting herself and the way she observes the world. Anna writes multiple times that she can’t help fictionalising her own life, indeed it is never wholly clear whether Free Women is written by her, and therefore yet another fictionalised account, or if it is the supposedly objective “truthful” account.

“I was going to say disaster. That word is ridiculous. Because what is so painful about that time is that nothing was disastrous. It was all wrong, ugly, unhappy and coloured with cynicism, but nothing was tragic, there were no moments that could change anything or anybody.”

Anna’s previously published novel that she is living off was loosely based on her own experience in colonial Africa during the Second World War, and she writes several accounts of her time there in the notebooks, but they don’t entirely match up – sometimes she changes names, sometimes she refers to the version of the story told in her novel. When you add to this that Anna shares an awful lot in common with Doris Lessing, it all starts getting rather meta. Lessing’s own explanation of the book is that it’s a novel plus the notes an author makes surrounding it, which either demonstrates how much is discarded from the full “fictional” idea, or demonstrates how differently the same “true” story can be told, even by the same person.

“I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused.”

Which all sounds more complicated than it is to read. The writing style is pretty straightforward, though I found my interest wavered with the subject matter. The overriding theme of the notebooks is to analyse over and over, which I tended to find an interruption to the story rather than an enhancement, but arguably it was the whole point. Though Lessing claims in her introduction that the novel isn’t “about” anything except a person falling apart, it certainly has a lot to say about communism, feminism, friendship, writing, love, sex, relationships, parenthood, psychoanalysis and truth. I suppose you could try to read it as a straightforward narrative without trying to piece together the different versions of the same story, but for me that was part of the fun. I like that when I got to the end there were several ways to interpret it, both in terms of what “happened” and in what the “real” structure is.

“It’s a question of form. People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like the messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand formlessness.”

However, I only fully engaged with relatively short sections (bearing in mind this is 550 pages of small print), when the story got under flow, in-between lists, newspaper cuttings, diary-style brief notes and the like. I didn’t warm to Anna, which is in some ways surprising as a writer struggling with anxiety and depression, contemplating motherhood and politics, full of concern about the world, should be right up my street! But I mostly found her cold and unemotional, even listless, making odd decisions about life, which I suppose might arguably be a better depiction of depression than many I’ve read.

Maybe it was just far too long. I certainly highlighted dozens of passages that I admired, either for the language or for the idea. I really liked learning more about communism in Britain in the 1950s, and about war-time in a British colony in Africa, but despite her Nobel Prize in Literature I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to Lessing.

First published 1962 by Michael Joseph.

Source: Paper copy bought from Toppings in Bath, e-book from Amazon. (I have both as I was going on holiday just before the book club and I only take my Kindle on holidays.)

There must have been some extraordinary quality

The Mitford Girls
by Mary S Lovell

The Mitfords weren’t really on my reading radar until I started book blogging (almost three years ago) and suddenly they were everywhere. After trying to read a volume of Nancy’s letters and failing to see the charm everyone else seemed to have found, I decided it might help to know more about the family and by a stroke of luck, spotted this biography in a charity shop. It worked, in that I am now completely smitten with the Mitfords.

This book is clearly extensively researched – there are 80 pages of notes, index and bibliography at the back – but it manages not to read as a dry product of research, as biographies sometimes can. This is partly due to Lovell’s clear affection for the family, though she only briefly spoke to, rather than knowing intimately, four of the sisters and recounts those meetings very honestly in her introduction. In fact, she does an excellent job of bringing to life her large cast who were largely dead or elderly at the time of writing. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Mitfords were such a very interesting bunch of people.

For those who don’t know, the “Mitford Girls” of the title are the sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah, of whom only the youngest, Deborah, is still alive. For much of the 20th century they were household names, for various reasons. Nancy was a bestselling writer, author of many greatly admired biographies as well as novels including The Pursuit of Love that were heavily based on her own family. Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and was a staunch supporter of his political ideals despite decades of hatred from the British public. Unity went even further and became friends with Hitler, in fact was obsessively in love with him and tried to kill herself when Britain declared war in 1939, resulting in brain damage. Jessica was a card-carrying Communist, worked for the civil rights movement in the USA and became such an accomplished journalist that she lectured at universities including Yale and Harvard. Even the less-featured-in-the-headlines Pamela and Deborah lived the kind of lives most of us would find hard to imagine, born as they were the daughters of a Baron, hobnobbing with the great and good of Society, including John Betjeman (family friend), Evelyn Waugh (good friend of Nancy), Winston Churchill (their cousin by marriage), the Kennedys (related by marriage to Deborah) and Harold MacMillan (also related by marriage to Deborah), to name but a few.

I think, because the details were new to me, it was Unity’s story that I found most shocking:

“There must have been some extraordinary quality in Unity that not only attracted Hitler’s attention but caused him to establish a deeper relationship by continued invitations… Unity chatted to Hitler as she would to any member of her family, unselfconsciously bright, always seeking to amuse, entertain or impress. No-one else in his life dared to treat him in the casual manner that Unity adopted.”

Lovell’s job was not, I suppose, an easy one as so very much had previously been published about the family, often directly contradictory. As you might imagine from the differing political affiliations, there were some serious fallings out between members of the family and the combination of sisterly cattiness and a public profile that allowed them to publish their views on any subject in print meant that Lovell did have some work to do establishing the facts. However, sometimes I found this point pressed a little too hard, especially in the earlier sections where I, as a relative newcomer to the story, did not have any preconceptions and therefore got a little bit bored of being told what I had apparently got wrong. Lovell also had a lot of material to wade through, as no less than four of the sisters had written memoirs; they were all prolific letter writers and kept diaries; and being such high-profile figures, many biographies and documentaries of some or all of the family exist.

Despite the title, Lovell also writes quite a lot about the girls’ parents, Sydney and David, and the one brother, Tom. Tom, I suspect, would make a great subject for a biography of his own and does take a bit of a back seat here, though he was clearly universally adored.

My main criticism of this book (and bear in mind here that I thoroughly enjoyed it) would be that Lovell does seem to defend Diana and Unity’s political beliefs but remains critical of Jessica’s Communism (despite stating in her introduction that she would not take a political side). This was also the stance of the parents – Sydney in particular greatly admired Hitler, even after the war – and perhaps it is just that Lovell’s reportage of the opinions of family and friends seemed one-sided because their opinions were heavily sided against Jessica. In fact, on reading this I have come to admire Jessica most of all, as she was instrumental in early civil rights activism in the USA and spent her life bringing to light and campaigning against injustice. As she wrote of her youthful political awakening in Hons and Rebels:

“The discovery of other people’s reality – more than fifty million in England alone! – is one you can grasp from time to time, only to find it eluding you again, its vastness proving too much for you to handle. You discover suffering – not just your own suffering, which you know is largely of your own making, nor the childhood suffering over Black Beauty, David Copperfield or Blake’s Little Chimney Sweep – but you catch disturbing, vivid glimpses of the real meaning of poverty, hunger, cold cruelty.”

In fact most of the passages I marked in the book were about Jessica or noting something that annoyed me: Lovell’s adoption of some of the upper class language (“on non-speakers”, eurgh), her insistence on using nicknames throughout, her repeated use of the phrase “at the height of her beauty”. Except for this one passage, which illustrates the warmth and joy the sisters seemed to be filled with:

“For Nancy, Paris increasingly became the beau idéal of life. She found there an elegance, glitter, warmth and freedom that were lacking in London. One could be uninhibited there without drawing clucks of disapproval, ‘I have often danced all down the Champs Élysées,’ she wrote to Tom, ‘and no-one notices, they are so used to that sort of thing…Oh, I am so excited.’ “

And that’s what makes this a good read. The Mitfords were/are such wonderful characters. I foresee a lot more of them in my reading future!

First published by Little, Brown and Co in 2001.