Sunday Salon: Catching up

The Sunday SalonThis is the blog post I intended to write last Sunday night, but I was exhausted from having such a full weekend so I curled up on the sofa with a book and fell asleep. It’s not a bad way to end the week!

And what exactly did I fill last weekend with? Well, I’m going to start with Friday morning because that way I get to mention something I’m super proud of: I ran 8 km before going to work last Friday. That is the furthest I have run yet, and marks the first time I felt actually confident that I will be able to run 10 km by early May, when the Bristol race that I’ve entered comes around. (I tried to repeat the achievement this week and managed 7.5 km, which is not to be sniffed at, but slightly disappointing when I now know I can beat it!)

Last Friday night, we went with my Mum and brother to the theatre to watch the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Othello. I really enjoyed it and thought the acting excellent. The local press have been a bit sniffy, and I do agree that some of the modern touches were a misstep. But I thought the central relationships – between Othello and Desdemona, between Othello and Iago, and between Othello and Cassio – were really well portrayed.

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A piece of a human being but yes, a human being

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron

I spent most of December re-reading Sophie’s Choice. I wanted to understand what it was about it I fell in love with 10 years ago. I still think it’s a great book, but it has dropped a little in my estimation.

Partly that’s its length. I used to happily read much longer books than I do now. It’s not that I have anything against long books per se, but I have less patience for rambling. I’ve always had a fondness for brevity. This book is not brief. But it is an amazing story.

This is the story of Sophie, an attractive young Polish woman who has survived the Holocaust – has survived Auschwitz – and come to live in Brooklyn, where she works as a doctor’s receptionist and is in a relationship with Nathan, a volatile but charming man who rents a room across the corridor from her. Sophie’s back story is told intermittently between the tale of the second half of 1947.

The title of this book is so familiar, a phrase well known for its hint of torment, but now that so much time has passed since both the book’s publication and the film based on it, many people now will, like me when I first read it, not know exactly what the choice of the title refers to. The novel is structured around gradually revealing Sophie’s secret, but there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way.

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All I see is oppression and hate and suffering

alone-in-berlinAlone in Berlin
by Hans Fallada
translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Our next holiday will be in Berlin so a colleague recommended I read this novel to get to know the city a little. It’s fiction, but it’s also pretty close to being a first-hand account of life for ordinary Berliners in the city under Nazi rule. Hans Fallada was a successful author before the Nazis came to power and during their rule he tried to tread the fine line between avoiding trouble and collusion with politics and people he didn’t agree with. Those experiences, plus a real-life case of anti-Nazi propaganda, form the basis of this book.

The story opens in 1940. Postwoman Eva Kluge is bringing a telegram to older couple Otto and Anna Quangel with news of the death of their son, fighting at the front. Their upstairs neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, lives in fear of the Nazi thugs on the 1st floor, the Persicke family, since her husband was arrested. But perhaps she should be more afraid of Emil Borkhausen in the basement, who figures he can get away with robbing an old Jewish woman, and might even be rewarded for it by the Party.

“But even though her eyes are now very close to his, she keeps them shut tight, she won’t look at him. Her face is a sickly yellow, her usual healthy colour is gone. The flesh over the bones seems to have melted away – it’s like looking at a skull. Only her cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake.”

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Words, dropping on her like millstones

siegeThe Siege
by Helen Dunmore

After thoroughly enjoying Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter for my old book club, I added a random handful of her other books to my Christmas wishlist and this was the one my Mum picked out. I’m sure they would all have worked out equally well, as I’m starting to think I might be a Dunmore fan.

This is the story of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. Which sounds like a tough, war-heavy subject, and this book is certainly all about how tough it was, but Dunmore also makes it compulsively readable. 23-year-old Anna, her father Mikhail and her 5-year-old brother Kolya are settling into summer life at their dacha, in the countryside just outside Leningrad, when news of the German army’s advance reaches them. Instead of spending the brief northern summer growing their usual store of food for winter, they must instead hurry back to the city and help to build defences before the Germans arrive.

“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials. Each prospect of stone and water yields a second meaning which seems to have been waiting, hidden, since the city was first conceived.”

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I want to go on living even after my death

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl
by Anne Frank
edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler
translated by Susan Massotty

This Definitive Edition of the diary of Anne Frank is not, according to the publisher’s note, intended to replace the earlier version edited by Anne’s father Otto shortly after her death, but instead to serve as a more accurate historical record for those who have already read the (quite heavily) edited version. It is in some ways quite a different book and almost makes me want to refer to the Critical Edition, which compares Anne’s original diary, her own edits and her father’s edits.

This is one of the aspects of the diary that I only learned this year – Anne Frank edited and rewrote the majority of her own diary in early 1944 after hearing on the radio that the Dutch government wanted after the war to collect eyewitness accounts of Dutch people who had lived through the German occupation. Otto Frank’s edit combined material from both versions of Anne’s diary and even some accounts she wrote about life in hiding that had been thinly veiled as short stories. The Definitive Edition is almost entirely composed of Anne’s self-edits, which I like because that is what she intended to have published herself – it’s why she went to the effort of doing all that editing.

“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death…When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!”

The Definitive Edition is quite a bit longer (30% apparently) than Otto Frank’s edit, because he cut a lot of stuff out. Partly this was because the original publisher was aiming at a young adult audience and therefore wanted something short and without any references to sex or puberty. And Anne, pardon the pun, could be very frank with her diary, which she called Kitty and spoke to like a friend (she even, in some places, writes as though she is addressing questions that Kitty has asked her). But the thing that struck me most reading this edition is that most of what had been cut out was material that might be considered unflattering or even outright cruel about the other occupants of the annexe, especially her mother.

I should probably include a summary of Anne Frank’s story for those who don’t already know it. Otto Frank was a successful businessman in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, which is where Anne and her older sister Margot were born. In 1933, when Anne was four, changes to German law regarding Jews led to the family moving to Amsterdam, where Otto continued his business, Opekta. In 1940 the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, who immediately introduced anti-Jewish laws there. Otto and his business partner Hermann van Pels signed their business over to a trusted non-Jewish colleague and the girls had to move to a Jewish school, but Otto and his wife Edith anticipated worse to come and soon began planning a safe hiding place. In 1942 a summons arrived for Margot and within days the Frank family was installed in the Secret Annexe – a building attached to the back of the Opekta warehouse that had formerly served as a laboratory and extra office space. The Van Pels family joined them there (Anne gave them pseudonyms in her edited diary, so you may know them as the Van Daans), as did family friend Fritz Pfeffer (Albert Dussel in the diary). They remained hidden for two years, until 4 August 1944, when the SS arrested all eight occupants of the annexe. They were taken to various concentration camps and only Otto Frank survived the war. When he returned to Amsterdam, one of the Opekta secretaries who had helped the families to hide gave him Anne’s diary, which she had retrieved from the annexe and hidden.

“[Miep] brings five library books with her every Saturday, We long for Saturdays because that means books. We’re like little children with a present. Ordinary people don’t know how much books can mean to someone who’s cooped up.”

The diary really is a mixture of many things. It’s an open, honest account of being a teenager, and the joys, frustrations, changes and experiences that most girls will have between 13 and 15 years old (the diary was given to Anne on her 13th birthday, in June 1942). It’s also a record of someone learning to be a writer, from before she harboured that ambition, through discovering it, to beginning to refine her work and identify what kind of writer she might be. It is of course a historical record of being a Jew under Nazi occupation, of Amsterdam in wartime, with all the food shortages and the thefts and suspicion that follow on from privation. And it’s a study of people under intense pressure, squeezed into a fairly small space physically but of course it’s the psychological pressure that made it really claustrophobic.

“I’ve been taking valerian every day to fight the anxiety and depression, but it doesn’t stop me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian drops, but we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh. Sometimes I’m afraid my face is going to sag with all this sorrow and that my mouth will permanently droop at the corners.”

Having been to the building itself, at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, helped me to visualise a lot more of the diary this time around. The annexe was in effect insulated from the warehouse (where none of the workers knew anyone was hiding upstairs) by the Opekta offices, where all the regular staff knew about the occupants of the annexe and helped them a great deal. The neighbouring buildings were all businesses, and therefore empty at night. But although this allowed them to make at least a little noise, they still had to be extremely careful not to ever be seen, so blinds or curtains were kept drawn and windows could only be opened a little overnight, but had to be strictly closed during the day. Outside of business hours they did sometimes leave the annexe and use the rest of the building – most of them took their baths in the office or the office kitchen and they sometimes used the office kitchen to cook – but as break-ins became more frequent this became ever more dangerous.

“I see the eight of us in the Annexe as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter.”

I don’t remember from my previous reading of the diary there having been so many break-ins and other near-misses and I found myself, in the last couple of months of the diary, thinking each time – was that it? Was that time they forgot to unbolt the warehouse door, or that time the warehouse manager spotted an open window, or that time they actually chased off burglars from the warehouse, the time that someone realised people were hiding there and reported it? It’s genuinely chilling to read Anne describe them as near-misses when maybe one of them wasn’t a miss at all. (Though it could just as easily have been more mundane. A lot of people knew they were there, from food suppliers to official Jewish organisations, and a slip of the tongue or a beating from the police could have betrayed them.)

I realise I’ve written a lot without really reviewing the book itself. Partly that’s because it’s impossible for me to separate the book from the wider story that it’s part of. But of course I do have responses specific to the book. Despite Anne’s edits it is still brutally honest because that is who she was. She records her joys, her rages, her depressions, her contemplations and above all she judges herself. Often she will make a proclamation that sounds ill-thought-through and childish (that she is too independent to need her parents, for example), only to tear it down a few days later, berating herself harshly, especially when she has upset her father, who she doted on. But then there are also passages that are beautiful and/or insightful. She says a few times that she has had to grow up too fast, that going into hiding effectively stole her childhood, and of course she’s right. At 15 she is better read and much more politically aware than I was at that age, but it’s more than that. She becomes quite astute when it comes to understanding people and their motives. Where in 1942 she simply dislikes most of the annexe occupants (her father and Margot are really the only exceptions, and even they come in for criticism), over time she learns to understand them all and be on better terms with them, though the relationships all remain volatile.

For the first half of this reread I didn’t think I had fallen for Anne the way I had previously. The extra material criticising her mother and Mrs van Pels/van Daan turned me off a little. But of course I was won over and if anything the change in Anne over time was more apparent and the ending more poignant. This wasn’t just yet another girl who dreamed of being a writer, this was someone capable of great things who sadly (that word is so inadequate) was only able to give the world one great thing, but what a gift it was.

Het Achterhuis first published 1947.
This translation first published by Doubleday in 1995.
Revised with extra material in 2001.

Memories that approached, invading my body

The Seamstress
by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

This novel (which is titled The Time In Between in some countries) is one of those where a lot happens later in the book and I am torn about how much to reveal. I don’t think the story hinges on these plot points, but I have a general policy to not give away plot details. So I’ll do my best but

I think the key to my impression of this book was hidden away in the author’s note at the end. I can see why it was saved until after all of the story has been revealed, but it made me see everything in a different light and half makes me want to re-read the book with the new knowledge that I have. What Dueñas has done is to take a historical story that she wanted to tell, with huge real events and important real people, but shown through the prism of a fictional minor character.

That character is Sira, born in Madrid to a single mother who works hard as a seamstress. Sira is all set to follow in her mother’s footsteps, or perhaps learn to type and become a lowly civil servant, when a man storms into her life and changes everything.

The story is set in the 1930s and 1940s, through the Spanish Civil War and the beginnings of World War II. In Spain, Morocco and Spain again, Sira’s fortunes rise and rise, but as she mixes with richer folk she learns about the politics of her country and is driven to do what she can to help it at this worst of times. She enjoys more than a little luck, with many a kind stranger giving her a helping hand along her way, but she is a likeable enough character. In fact, she is a very strong woman, single for most of the book and independently making her way.

Sira narrates the story in no-nonsense fashion, with few embellishments and few asides. What she describes is believably what would catch the eye of a dressmaker born to a poorer life than the one she later enjoys. She describes the poise and confidence of the rich, the cut and quality of clothes, the size and elegance of rooms or furnishings. Despite essentially following one career on a successful trajectory, Sira thinks of each new stage in her life as a reinvention, requiring changes to her personality as well as her back story. She makes a point of teaching herself how to act above her station – how to stand, how to speak, how to socialise.

At 600+ pages it’s quite a long book, and there were times in the middle when my attention strayed. It felt to me that the whole point of the book was the final section, in Madrid when Franco’s government is teetering towards full collaboration with the Nazis, and that all of the rest had been build-up. It certainly changes pace there, becoming a thriller with a poised, confident female heroine. But perhaps it wouldn’t have worked so well without the full knowledge of how Sira became that woman.

Another slight negative for me, and of course I don’t know if this is Dueñas or the translation, was that there were many times when what could have been a subtle point was overstated, sometimes clumsily even. But I should also say that in general I thought the translation was excellent, dealing very effectively with characters speaking multiple languages to one another.

This book has stayed with me in the days since finishing it and has definitely made me curious to learn more about the Spanish Civil War. And it’s made me want to go to Morocco, but I kinda already wanted to do that!

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

Published May 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Hunting for metaphors which might convey something

The Alexandria Quartet
Book 4: Clea
by Lawrence Durrell

And so at last I have finished the quartet. Was it a fitting end, full of vagueness and mystery? Did the poetic unreliable narrator return, both as a narrator and to Alexandria itself?

The Alexandria Quartet

Well, the answer to question two (both parts) is yes but to question one…I’d hazard no. The series began, in Justine, with a lot of vagueness, events in uncertain order and a lot was left unsaid. As the Quartet proceeded, the narrative got clearer and clearer until this book, even though it is once again narrated by Darley, who was previously so unreliable, was perfectly straightforward and linear. I mean, there were memories and extracts from old letters, but they were clearly signposted as such. To be honest I found this disappointing, though it was good to get closure on all the characters and storylines at last.

Which is not to say that the writing in this book is less good than it has been previously. In fact, I have bookmarked more quotable passages than ever. But as a story it didn’t grip me. Which is odd because there was a lot going on in this book. Darley has been called back to Alexandria from his Greek island to return the child he has been looking after to her true father. World War II has finally got under way and Alexandria has not escaped unscathed. Mountolive (the British Ambassador to Egypt) finds Darley a job in the censorship department of the War Office, which is a perfect statement on his narrative. No mention is made of Darley ever having been expected to fight, despite his being a British citizen of, I assumed, good health and young age, but I don’t know what the situation was for ex-pats.

And so, until the end of the war and a short time afterward, Darley catches up with the lives of his old friends, makes sure the girl settles in with her new parents and discovers more details about his previous stay in Alexandria that once again force him to re-evaluate the truth. Clea is, as ever, everyone’s friend and confidante, and a cheery one at that, so through her we hear the little anecdotes that people really do tell about their friends, particularly those who have died. She is a good influence on Darley, encouraging him to not just face the truth but actively seek it. When one friend asks Darley how his writing is going, he replies:

“It has stopped…I somehow can’t match the truth to the illusions which are necessary to art without the gap showing…”

The picture of a city at war is hauntingly real. A lot of the time, Alexandria is on the outskirts of the war, the place where soldiers come on leave from the desert frontlines, but it is for a short time bombarded and the harbour is full of warships rather than pleasure boats.

“How had things changed? It was not danger, then, but a less easily analysable quality which made the notion of war distinctive; a sensation of some change in the specific gravity of things. It was as if the oxygen content of the air we breathed were being steadily, invisibly reduced day by day…”

One thing I found a little strange was that one longish chapter takes the form of an essay written by (Darley’s former flatmate) Pursewarden years earlier after a series of conversations with Darley about literature. It is eloquent and interesting and so, so quotable (“Words being what they are, people being what they are, perhaps it would be better always to say the opposite of what one means”) but it perhaps went on a little long and broke up the story more than necessary for its purpose: making Darley realise he had misjudged Pursewarden.

Despite the apparent changes in Darley, perhaps he is still unreliable, because he still manages to fool himself and he repeatedly declares that he is done with writing yet he narrates as if he is writing it down:

“I am hunting for metaphors which might convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom granted to those who love; but words, which were first invented against despair, are too crude to mirror the properties of something so profoundly at peace with itself…”

And lest all the revelations and clarifications of this book fool us into thinking we are here learning the absolute final truth about these characters, we have this pearl from the wise old doctor Balthazar:

“When one casts around the fields of so-called knowledge which we have partially opened up one is conscious that there may well be whole areas of darkness which may belong to the Paracelsian regions—the submerged part of the iceberg of knowledge.”

So on the whole it was a fitting end to the Quartet. It made me laugh, it made me sad. It has a surprisingly modern attitude to sex, love and homosexuality (though the characters do not necessarily have modern attitudes) and I can now go and have a look at the last discussion of the Guardian Reading Group without having the story spoiled for me!

First published 1960 by Faber & Faber.

N.B. It’s too late now to join in the Guardian Reading Group discussion about this book but you can still listen to the Guardian Books podcast about Lawrence Durrell at 100. It discusses and quotes heavily from The Alexandria Quartet and is well worth checking out.

See also: my reviews of
Book 1: Justine
Book 2: Balthazar
Book 3: Mountolive