Dedalus News & Blog

Dedalus Christmas Reading, The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi, translated by Judith Landry

Why is The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi such a great book and should be on everyone’s must read list?
First, it is a riveting story telling 100 years of Italian history by following the lives of a family of northern peasants transplanted to the recently drained Pontine marshes to fulfil a grandiose scheme by Mussolini.
Secondly, the characters and the family dynamic are engrossing. We soon care about them and the minutiae of their lives. Mussolini is a major character in the novel and for the most part is sympathetically treated although his flaws and the disastrous effect he had on Italy is there for all to see. Contemporary events flash through the book and the hardship and misery of earlier periods are also seen against the background of modern prosperity. The heroes and heroines of this novel come from the extended Peruzzi family.
Thirdly and above all, the reader feels he is eavesdropping a private Italian conversation and in doing so learning what it is to be an Italian and getting to the heart of this nation. The narrative voice isn’t lost in the English translation, Judith Landry’s translation is pitch perfect, so much so it reads as if the book was written in English.
The great Italian novels for me are I Malavoglia(The House by the Medlar Tree) by Verga, The Leopard by Lampedusa and The Mussolini Canal by Pennacchi. These are the three narratives which use the family to tell Italy’s story and document the state of the nation during periods of great social change. They are novels which engage both the mind and the heart and in doing so stay forever in the reader’s mind.
The Mussolini Canal sold more than 400,000 copies in Italy and has been widely translated. In the UK it has received universal praise and I will end with Margaret Drabble’s appraisal in the Times Literary Supplement.
‘The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi is an epic account of the rise of Fascism. It’s the story of the (fictitious) Peruzzi clan of sharecroppers, moved from their native north to the malaria-ridden Pontine Marshes for the building of the canal and the New Town of Littoria. It mingles family legend and up-to-date political commentary with personal appearances from Edmondo Rossoni and Mussolini, and takes us through Italy’s Imperium and the campaign in Ethiopia to the Anzio landings. The complex chronology and the demotic and combative narrative voice (of a young Peruzzi descendant) are imaginatively handled by the translator, Judith Landry, and the novel presents us with a whole new landscape, complete with the kiwi fruits and eucalyptus that thrived in the reclaimed land. Better than any guidebook, it explains how and at what cost Mussolini succeeded where Romans, popes and emperors failed. A challenging but very illuminating read.
Margaret Drabble in Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement

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Guest Blog by Zoe Turner The Book of Birmingham by Kavita Bhanot

The Book of Birmingham

I had lived in Birmingham for a year before moving to work with Comma in Manchester, and ‘The Book of Birmingham’ was the first title that I began to publicize. The relationship that I had built with the city of Birmingham the year before was a confusing one. I had spent a lot of time there wondering why everything felt so disconnected; why, as numerous and driven as they were, its creative organisations seemed so scattered and hidden, and why, as ethnically and culturally diverse as the population was, these various communities often still felt separated from one another. Moving around the city could be like hopping from one island to another, as though one side of the street was almost invisible to its opposite neighbor. I was in Birmingham to study Film Production and, alongside these emotional observations, I was learning from those I worked with that the city was largely neglected by the film and television sector. I started to piece older ideas together with these new ones, things picked up as a person growing up in the Midlands; that the Brummie accent was a horrible thing to hear, that you ought to keep your wits about you in Birmingham, that there really wasn’t much to be there for other than to shop in the Bullring. When I spoke to other people in Birmingham about this sensation of a disjointed and misconstrued place, there was large agreement, but we could never quite put a finger on the conception or reason.

When I read Kavita’s introduction to this collection, things began to click into place, loudly and firmly. Her explanation of the ‘ring of complex, conflicting and often neglected neighbourhoods’ comprised of varying immigrated communities from across origins and generations, and a mistreated and misinformed white working class, which circles the city centre, ‘a never-ending work-in-progress, constantly in flux, endlessly undergoing ‘development’.’ Kavita seemed to be sketching the Birmingham in my mind’s eye onto the pages when she continued to describe this gentrification of the centre, which was like watching money being pumped into money as if to try and compensate for its less than appealing reputation ‘like a done-up front room for guests, hoping all this expensive new furniture will finally enable Birmingham to live up to its ‘second city’ status.’ Instead, this airbrushing and overfeeding of the centre has served to muscle out the city’s long-standing settlers with less money than is needed to afford this new housing, dining, entertainment and people seem to move around each other in a contrasting bustle of much separated selves.

The stories Kavita Bhanot has compiled in ‘The Book of Birmingham’ then, are a way of knocking down the illusions which surround the city and make the truth of it inaccessible to people from the outside. Instead, these stories invite passing visitors (or readers) into local experiences, opening doors to very specific pockets of time and place within the city’s recent history that they otherwise would not see for all the demonising headlines and glaring canal side apartments. Bound together as they are, these stories of interracial coupling in 1960s Smethwick, social affluence between generations of immigrants, rumours, tensions, desires and surrealism, complete a jigsaw of Birmingham that tells real versions of real people from a long made-up location. After reading this collection, the next time you walk through Birmingham it will be softer; you’ll live the moment of realisation as with a new friend when you both find that you’re comfortable in sharing the depths of your lives. And you’ll hear no bad word said about them; rather, you’ll urge the understanding that everybody carries a history, some more complicated than others.

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Timothy Lane’s blog on Waves by Eduard von Keyserling

Much to my shame prior to proofreading this novel I had not heard of Eduard von Keyserling. It is easy to arrogantly get to the point where you feel you have read the major novels of a particular time and place, only to discover a forgotten classic and wonder how this one came to be forgotten. It is all the more surprising when a writer from a language and culture of prominence is neglected. If a minor classic work in Serbo-Croat were to be neglected one would be saddened but not surprised, but an equivalent neglect of a German or French classic should be a lesson in how capricious literary status can be. And there is much to be said for the world touched upon in Waves (German title: Wellen).

Eduard von Keyserling (1855-1918) was from a Baltic German noble family, born in what is today Latvia. The community of Baltic Germans he belonged to and whose minor aristocrats populate his novels, is now vanished. To put this disappearance into perspective in 1881 the population of Baltic Germans was estimated at 180,000, roughly 5% of Estonia’s and 6% of Latvia’s population. Today there are no more than 5,000 people of German descent, the two wars and their consequences having radically reshaped demographics.

The events of Waves take place over one long hot summer spent on the coast. The real life coastline location is thought to be the Curonian Spit, a sixty mile sand dune spit separating the Curonian lagoon from the Baltic Sea, a beautiful location popular with affluent sojourners and famous for inspiring expressionist painters from the art school in nearby Konigsberg. It is therefore fitting that one of Waves’ main characters is a painter.

The painter in question, Hans Grill, has eloped with a Countess who’s portrait he was commissioned to paint, by her much older husband. The beginning of the novel finds the painter and the Countess Köhne-Jasky, Doralice, one year after their elopement, holidaying for the summer in the home of a fisherman. Free spirited and ambitious, Hans has plans over the summer to make a detailed study of the sea, and then to establish a study in Munich where he will no longer be reliant on Doralice’s money. There is clear evidence that already Hans’ plans that involve a certain level of dull tethered domesticity for Doralice do not sit well with her listless and enigmatic spirit.

Also holidaying close by are the Buttlär family and the Generalin von Palikow. Baroness von Buttlär is particularly troubled by the proximity of such a disgraced woman, not least because of her husband’s incorrigible philandering, but because of her presumption that such an unhealthy example close by will be bad for her daughters, Lolo and Nini. Older, less neurotic and less disposed to such stern society judgements, her mother-in-law the Generalin remonstrates with her objections and insists that the family must at the least show a decent modicum of civility. An uneasy familiarity between the conventional family and the social pariahs is established, in part due to the adoration of the Countess by the young bride to be Lolo. Entranced by her beauty, gracefulness and wit, her sensitive nature romanticises the Countess.

Into this company comes not just the long expected Baron, but Lolo’s fiance, Baron Hilmar von dem Hamm, a dashing and passionate German Army Officer. Quickly and completely infatuated with the Countess, he makes no attempt to conceal his courtship, despite the presence of his own fiance and Doralice’s husband. One might expect the novel’s progress from this point to follow a rather typical pattern of an adultery repeated, a tragic clash of male pride and the further falling from grace of the Countess. But the novel never becomes a drawing room soap opera and avoids the besetting sin of many fin de siecle novels where affluent people with too much time and too little purpose saunter from one languid but cultured dejection to another.

Alongside the little dramas of Lolo and her Officer, Doralice and Hans, and the endless gossiping of the Buttlär’s there is the constant presence of the sea, beautiful, formidable, capricious: a perilous livelihood for the fisherman, a challenge for Hans to paint. Keyserling with his painterly prose and his eye for the contrasts and parallels between nature and humanity, effortlessly accompanies his story of romance and tragedy with rich evocations of the sea, the way a drama is dignified by the addition of apt music.

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Timothy Lane’s Blog on The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski

‘Fumes’, the first tale in this short story collection, opens with a description of a blizzard. A young man, called Ozarski, who we are told is an engineer, has been separated from his colleagues by a snowstorm. As evening sets in, he quickens his pace in the hope of finding shelter for the night. Trundling on, he becomes tired, dispirited and acutely isolated. Following the road he has taken into a small valley he is relieved to discover a rudimentary inn, erected in complete seclusion.
The door bursts open as soon as Ozarski knocks. In front of him is a tall sturdy white-haired old man. He asks for lodging and is welcomed effusively. The welcome Ozarski receives begins to unnerve him. The old man puts his arm round Ozarski’s waist to guide him to his dinner table, insists on touching his knee when he sits, and stares at him ‘with black demonic eyes, that burn with wild lecherous fire’. Despite his age, the impression he gives is of great strength and energy. After serving his guest with bread and drink, he eventually disappears into an adjacent room, leaving Ozarski to pass judgement on what a dive he has discovered.
After a little while the door to the adjacent room squeaks open. Expecting to see the strongly built white-haired gentleman, Ozarski instead sees an attractive young woman. She goes over to a cooking pot that has been simmering away on a stove and pours out the contents into a large clay pot. She brings the Borscht over to Ozarski and as she does so, she brushes his cheek with her breasts that are partially exposed from her unbuttoned blouse. She sits down close to Ozarski and he leans over touching her breasts. Seemingly oblivious to the sexual aspect of the situation she simply stares at him while answering his questions. He at first assumes she must be the old man’s daughter, then thinks she is his mistress, but she consistently dodges his questions until she too disappears into the adjacent room.
Baffled by her conduct, Ozarski drinks yet another vodka and is on the verge of falling asleep when the old man re-appears. He has brought wine and yet again touches Ozarski in a manner that unnerves him, this time pinching his thigh. His evident anger at being touched causes the old man to retreat from him, but he still leers at him from the other side of the room. By now very angry and very drunk, Ozarski demands that the old man sends the pretty voluptuous woman back into the room and clears off to leave them in peace. He runs after the old man as he is heading next door but before he can follow him inside the young woman remerges, wearing fewer clothes and carrying baskets of bread to be put into the oven.
Ozarski becomes ever more drunk and ever more aggressive in his badgering of the young woman. After she puts the bread into the oven she promises that she will return at midnight to lie with her guest. Once more he frustratedly watches her disappear into the enjoining room. He begins to undress and with an undiminished capacity for vodka lies down on his surprisingly comfortable bed. Expecting the young woman to come back earlier than stated for the bread and wanting to be ready for her, he puts out the lamp leaving the room lit only by bright embers from the oven. His eyes trained on the red light of the oven Ozarski begins to doze.
He falls asleep and dreams of the old man and the young woman, who combine in his mind into an unsettling chimera. Upon awaking he is disturbed by a sound coming from the oven, and soot falling down the chimney. It is at first too dark for him to see much, but the clouds part sufficiently for a strip of moonlight to illuminate a little of the room. He sees naked muscular calves hanging over the stove, then watches in shock as the rest of a body emerges amidst much falling soot from the smoke-hole. Before him in the dim moonlight is a horrible old white-haired hag. But despite her evident signs of extreme age she has the supple thighs, hips and big breasts of a young woman in her prime. But it is her face that most perplexes the befuddled Ozarski, because it is so familiar.
She steps forward and her face comes more clearly into the moonlight. It dawns on Ozarski that the face is a hideous combination of both the young woman and the lecherous old innkeeper. This terrifying monstrosity walks right up to his bed, placing one leg along the edge of the bed and with the other places a toe directly over his lips, she pulls back the bedcover and begins to undress him. Undoubtedly frightened and wishing to defend himself, he finds, ‘his will fettered by the fire of her lustful eyes, he surrendered with some kind of terrible joy.’ Noticing his response to her, the creature removes her toe and lies down next to him where she begins fondling his body. They roll around on the bed, both abandoned to passion, until her embrace of his chest with her arms and his loins with her legs is so painful that he cries out for her to stop. Unable to prise himself free he reaches for a knife on the bedside table and plunges it into the flesh below the left armpit. The creature screams, part animalistic male roar and part wailing female shriek.
Relieved by the release of the crushing hold, he stumbles from the bed looking for matches to make light, the moon having passed behind clouds. Making himself a light he sees the soot and blood covering the bedsheets. Still dizzy from drink and the hag’s vice-like hold, he staggers to the window letting cold air in. He briefly loses consciousness, only to wake with a renewed memory of that awful cry. Urgently grabbing the taper he rushes to that inner room from whence each time either the old man or the young woman emerged. Standing on the threshold of the room he looks in: there on a dirty plank bed are the bodies of both the large white-haired old man and the young woman, they each have an identical stab wound beneath the left armpit.
‘Fumes’ is a great sinister short story, and a striking start to one of the few selections of Grabinski’s work available in English. Grabinski has on occasions been called the Polish Poe, or the Polish Lovecraft. Sometimes this is to give a quick sense of his English language genre relatives, but I think much of the time it is to stress the exulted company of weird fiction writers he deserves to be ranked amongst. I would demur from the comparison on one note, I could never rate Poe anywhere close to Grabinski, well, maybe in one or two pieces he almost justifies being complimented as the American Grabinski.

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Timothy Lane on Toomas Nipernaadi by August Gailit

If one was to ask an enthusiastic reader with an interest in classic European novels for a list of their favourite books, it is likely that one would hear the same names rattled off, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Zola, a lot of Russian and French authors, maybe the odd novel from Scandinavia or Italy. It is unlikely that many novels from the Balkans or the Baltic countries would be mentioned. For both reader and publisher alike, the question is always whether this is simply a matter of the greater cultural reach that certain languages enjoy, or whether one cultural hemisphere is indeed richer than another when it comes to that form of cultural expression.
For my own part there have been many times when I have come across a celebrated name in another literature, I have been keen to find a translation, and have been disappointed to find either no translation, or very old translations that are hard to acquire in a readable edition, reading a classic from another literary tradition in a tattered third hand copy isn’t for me. For any Dedalus reader it will of course be well known that Eca de Queiroz in English has been one of our great accomplishments, and if such a great Portuguese author can be so little known and appreciated in the English-speaking world for so long, it should tell us that great writers wait to be brought to bigger audiences.
August Gailit (1891-1960) published Toomas Nipernaadi in 1928. An important figure in Estonian Literature he was the founder of the Siuru movement, a neo-romantic movement (named after a fire-bird in Finno-Ugric Mythology) with less formalist preoccupations to the Young Estonian Movement. It is worth making clear that Estonian like Finnish is not an Indo-European language, whereas Latvian and Lithuanian are. Indeed the Estonian epic the Kalevipoeg was drawn together from Estonian folklore inspired by the way the Kalevala was created from Finnish folklore, both story sequences having many overlapping themes and figures.
It should come as little surprise to find that Toomas Nipernaadi has a strong romantic era feel to it. This is particularly the case when one contemplates the character of Toomas. He is introduced to us as a solitary raftsman haphazardly working his way down the river as Spring returns. A poor forester Kudisiim and his daughter Loki, who have a small cabin on the riverside run to help a raftsman they believe to be in danger. Instead of finding a beleaguered raftsman upset at his misfortune on the river they find a lackadaisical Toomas on the riverbank whistling and playing his zither without a care in the world. Unable to understand his lack of will to get back on the river and reach bustling rich settlements like other raftsmen who have passed by, father and daughter return to their cabin, perplexed by this strange wandering newcomer. And so it is that Toomas finds himself in the first of the little communities we see him effect.
The very next day Toomas begins to involve himself in the life of Kudisiim and his richer neighbour Habahannes. He asks many questions about Kudisiim, his home and his neighbours, wanders about the woods singing and playing his zither, whilst giving very little substantive information away about himself. As the days pass he helps to repair Kidisiim’s cottage and becomes ever more romantic in his overtures to Loki. After one of his many dream-filled speeches to her she musters courage enough to ask him to take her with him on his raft. Moll, the daughter of the richer neighbouring farmer scoffs at the credulity of Loki believing anyone would have any interest in such a simple girl as her. One would normally be inclined to think that either a romantic elopement or a tragic betrayal of innocence might unfold next in the story. Instead we have a characteristically Nipernaadi-ish conclusion.
He meets Loki at night, they board his raft and set out along the river together. Some way along the river, Toomas discovers that Moll not Loki is aboard the raft with him. Moll has scared Loki off by frightening her with tales of wicked men like Toomas, intending to take her place. Discovering the deception Toomas jumps off the raft leaving her to helplessly drift down the river. We next meet Toomas strolling chirpily down a dusty road in the wood, as though all the preceding drama had never happened and we never hear about any of the characters he met again. We simply follow Toomas into a new environment where he tells entirely new tales of his provenance and where we wander what mischief he will cause next.
At first one feels Toomas must be something of a trickster figure, a transformative presence who enters stable or rather staid communities and stirs up changes by his fancies and his provocations. After each escapade in each village Toomas sets off to somewhere new with a forgetfulness akin to Peter Pan, making himself anew for a new environment. His effect on women is particularly pronounced. He courts almost every woman he meets, flattering them with compliments and inveigling them into his extravagant imaginings. The reader can’t help but be amused by a man who is on occasion described as resembling a scarecrow, carrying on like a gangly Don Juan.
Toomas’ farfetched dreaming is notable for how many normal people are brought under its spell. At one stage he claims to be a professional fen drainer who has amassed untold riches by draining fens and discovering treasure troves. His passionate conviction draws scepticism, credulity and ridicule, but as much as one can’t help but be aware of the absurdity of the claim, one is most sympathetic to the characters who want to believe Toomas’ romantic tales.
At the end of the novel we learn the rather melancholic truth about this eccentric wanderer. As the weather is turning and winter approaches Toomas comes to a fishing village. Once again insinuating himself into a local family and making all sorts of wild promises to a young woman. A new note of strain and desperation has made its way into his behaviour, reality and its dry reason catching up with him, until one day a lady arrives at the cabin of the fisherman he has been frequenting, who reveals herself to be Inriid Nipernaadi, Toomas’ wife:
‘I’m Nipernaadi’s lawful wife, have been for the last sixteen years. Has he not told you about it? Oh yes, I know him; when he goes on his summer travels, he’s a workman, farmer, tailor, or a chimney sweep, if you please. Then he denies his real profession and family, lives like a bird on a branch. This is what he’s like, I’m used to his ways and peculiarites. Come spring he disappears from me and his friends and then there’s no use looking for him.’
Inevitably one finds oneself comparing Toomas’ Nipernaadi to Don Quixote. But whereas the latter wakes from his delusions to a complete sense of his tragic absurdity, we can’t help but reread Toomas’ earlier attics and see in them the self-aware attempts of a romantic man to embellish with magic and adventure an existence that feels too mean and prosaic. When his wife appears to bring him home like some indulgent maternal figure, he peevishly insists, ‘the summer belongs to me’, it is not winter yet, he does not have to go home to reality quite yet.
The very best books, however much one might focus on form, style and influence, make some claim on us through our feelings, and Toomas Nipernaadi’s great appeal is just what a sympathetic figure he is, and how much time one would have for him if he turned up in the summer months with ambitious fen-draining and treasure finding plans.

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Timothy Lane on Drifting (À vau-l’eau) by J.-K. Huysman

A brief description of Drifting’s plot could easily lead one to think that is it a short minor work, only worth the time of academics and completists. This would be a mistake, as this little book creates a vein of characteristic Huysmans black comedy. I would go as far as to place it amongst my favourite of his works. It is the last piece that Huysmans wrote in his first period of major prose writing, defined by a more naturalistic approach. It was followed by his most famous and successful novel À rebours, as such it is hard not to make comparisons between the two and see foreshadowings of À rebours’ radical departures from naturalism.

Jean Folantin is a middle aged middling clerk working for the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. Although occupying an unexceptional position in the Civil Service, it is certainly a major improvement on the poverty of his ancestors. Despite some intelligence, industry and ambition, Folantin quickly learns that merit has little to offer one in procuring advancement in the Ministry, the right connections are indispensible if one wishes to move up.

His career stasis is complemented by a dissatisfactory Bachelordom. A short-lived period in his youth of visiting the very cheapest prostitutes with his limited funds, is followed by a disappointed attempt to build a more lasting relationship with a young working girl. This relationship ends with her absconding and leaving him with an unspecified venereal disease. Lacking the charm or social graces to woo a woman and lacking the funds sufficient to keep a mistress, Folantin comes to accept a dull loneliness in addition to his dull career.

It is at this stage in his life that we meet Folantin as he is in the process of ordering cheese at the end of his meal. Amidst a table of empty wine bottles and congealed leftovers Folantin picks at a Roquefort that was predictably awful. As he walks home his thoughts are anxiously preoccupied with whether on this cold evening there will be a warm fire waiting for him. Much to his chagrin he comes home to a freezing apartment and in between grumblings at the difficulty of finding reliable housekeepers, he begins to review the terrible day he has had at work and the awful meal after. Falling into a deep gloom he begins to, “review his forty-year way of the cross, stopping in despair at each station.”

Folantin is on a quest. He would like to find a reasonably priced restaurant where he can enjoy a good meal, or even just a fairly good meal. Every evening after work he debates with himself whether to return to the below average to poor restaurants he knows are consistent in their mediocrity, or to be more adventurous and risk the truly awful and inedible, in the dim hope of the enjoyable. Every available type of restaurant he has tried in every part of Paris he has frequented, has sufficient drawbacks to make his choice of restaurant utterly hopeless. In a rare sociable mood, he dines with a friend, the experience cures him of his desire for sociable dining.

Folantin’s past is never divulged but in one clear passage of biography, we get snippets of his life between his wretched meals, indeed his quest for a decent meal matters significantly more to him than anything else in his life. An edible meal has a positively transformative effect on his outlook. On the occasions his bachelordom particularly needles him, it is the vision of a woman to make decent home cooked food that especially taunts him. Maupassant, praising the book, described it as a ‘Ulysses of the eatery’. But while Homer allows Odysseus to see his family and his native Ithaca again, Huysmans has Folantin dolefully paraphrasing Schopenhauer after a depressing tryst with a prostitute.

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Timothy Lane on Marthe by J.K Huysmans

Familiarity with Huysmans in the English-speaking world is usually limited to but one book, À rebours. A quick look through the catalogues of publishers of classics in translation reveals numerous editions of this one text, whilst the rest of Huysmans’ oeuvre is the purview of Dedalus. One might go even further in saying that Huysmans is often mainly known through his association with Oscar Wilde; À rebours is usually assumed to be the ‘poisonous French book’ Dorian Gray is so attached to, and during Wilde’s trials, the prosecutor Edward Carson referred to À rebours in his cross-examination as a corrupting ‘sodomitical’ book.
But the quality and variety of Huysmans books entitle him to much more than being remembered in passing, or being remembered for one book. À Rebours marked a very significant shift in his writing away from the more naturalist inclinations of his earlier novels. In these earlier novels we read an author capable of creating arresting novels rooted in observation and experience. There is the novel Marthe about a young woman who succumbs to prostitution, the novel Les Sœurs Vatard about working class sisters who work at a book-bindery, a collection of short prose pieces, Parisian Sketches, and the short novel À vau-l’eau, about a lowly clerk’s quest to get a half decent meal in Paris.
Marthe was Huysmans very first novel. It depicts sympathetically but without naiveté the life of a poor pretty young woman and her fruitless attempts to escape the ‘venial mire’. Her father, a poor artist, dies when she is a child, her mother, a worker in artificial pearls, dies when she is fifteen. Marthe, working in artificial pearls like her mother, is left exhausted or ill by this meagre paying repetitive job. The sole family link she has is her mother’s brother, whose simple pauper’s pleasures exasperate her longing for something better, something more prosperous and exciting.
Huysmans offers a none too flattering portrait of the women who make up Marthe’s environment: ‘A girl is lost once she starts mixing with other girls; the conversation of schoolboys is as nothing compared to that of working girls; a workshop is a touchstone for virtue, you rarely come across gold there, but brass abounds. A young girl doesn’t ‘fall’, as the novelists put it, from love or being carried away by her senses, but mostly from vanity – and a little bit of curiosity’. Listening to the stories told by her workmates of their dalliances with men, she longs for something of their fun and excitement.
Soon Marthe takes up with a rich older man. She regrets her liaison with ‘the old letch who bought her’ and takes up instead with a younger man who she finds too soppy and weak. Another lover abandons her while she is ill, her misfortune is further compounded by the doctor telling her she can no longer continue with her pearl-blowing job. This misery, made more oppressive by the memory of the good fortune she had tasted with her first lover, drives her to seek new ways to support herself and eventually into the trade that she never manages to escape.
The lowest point in her life though is the short period of time she spends in a brothel. Broken down further and further by poverty, sleeping in abandoned squalid dives, losing a lover and a baby, the brothel awaits like the abyss. Later on when she has the good fortune to be taken on at a music hall and the director of her theatre company has her name removed from the books of the Prefecture of Police, her time at the brothel haunts her like one of the fates, as though her escape can only be temporary.
Perhaps the strongest impression the novel gives is the complete lack of opportunity even for a spirited poor woman like Marthe to have any life besides one of grinding ‘honourable’ poverty, or to take the plunge and commit to being the sort of woman who must play men for her advantage. The former life brings with it the sort of mental dullness and dehumanisation that working like a machine must naturally produce, whereas the latter life ensures that Marthe is forever branded as ‘that sort of woman’, the sort you cannot and should not love. One comes away feeling that only sheer selfish will and good luck can ensure one rises out of such poverty, and Marthe’s likeable and praiseworthy traits will only make her a more tragic victim.

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Alphonse Daudet’s Sappho by Timothy Lane

Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) is chiefly remembered today for his collection of short stories Lettres de Mon Moulin, ‘Letters from My Windmill’, winsome bucolic pieces set in Provence. He occupies a place in French culture with Marcel Pagnol, similar to the place occupied in English Literature by Laurie Lee and Flora Thompson. However a quite different side to Daudet was introduced to English readers by Julian Barnes in his 2002 translation of La Doulou ‘In the Land of Pain’, a non-fiction account of his long drawn out suffering with syphilis, a disease he contracted from a lifetime of louche pursuits. In a series of notes he relates the various drugs he took to combat the pain, the effect his pain had on his friendships and the time he spent in sanatoriums.
Sappho acts as something of a bridge between these two very different seeming figures. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Jean Gaussin, a promising but somewhat naive young man from Provence studying for the Consular Service in Paris. Attending a fancy dress party hosted by a wealthy engineer who enjoys supporting the arts, he meets a mysterious and alluring woman. He takes her back to his student lodgings and with foolhardy bravado insists on carrying her up four flights of stairs to his rooms. So begins his relationship with Fanny Legrand, an older, more experienced woman, who has had numerous affairs with many of the most fashionable Parisian artists and writers.
What begins as a fling Jean has no intention of allowing to develop, quickly becomes a relationship he has little control over. Fanny’s artfulness, coquetry, charm, attractiveness and devotion insinuate her into his life. Even when he witnesses the malicious and foul-mouthed way she humiliates a former lover, who begs for her to listen to him in his desperation, he cannot manage to break off with her. During a bout of illness following an exam, Fanny ministers to him in such a way as to remind him of his beloved Aunt Divonne in Provence. Unbeknownst to Jean until his recovery, Fanny has given up her home and maid to look after him; partly due to her devotion, partly due to an unwillingness to see her on the street, Jean agrees to them living together.
One of the central contrasts of the novel is between the old fashioned chivalric world that Jean comes from and frequently thinks back to in Provence, and the modish world of Parisian libertines that has been the backdrop to Fanny’s many previous amours. Jean is clearly out of his depth, not simply with Fanny, but when he encounters her previous lovers and artist-friends. Jean has some familiarity with the world of decadents, as one of his own uncles has frequently disgraced the family with his gambling and visits to the Paris brothels. But the chivalry of the south affords some latitude to the waywardness of a spoiled man of the gentry, women however, especially of more lowly social standing, are not viewed with any such indulgence.
And Jean is particularly obsessive about her past relationships. His lust, his infatuation, his jealousy, but also something of his pride about how desired she has been are most perfectly summed up in the sculpture of Fanny by the sculptor Caoudal, exotically dubbed Sappho by her old lovers. She has been adored by these famous writers he has read and admired, but she has also been possessed by them, and even the false catharsis of burning her old love letters from them, expecting them as a sacrifice from her, does little to diminish his rapacious jealousy.
One does not doubt the sincerity of Fanny’s affection for Jean, but one is tempted to think that she views their relationship as a performance. Her role as caring and obliging domestic goddess is dispensed with or renewed, depending on whether she feels Jean is tiring of her or is freshly infatuated. Moving from one lover to the next is like starring in one play before taking up the lead role in another, her commitment and passion is not to be doubted, but neither is it to be doubted that the show must cease at some point. But as cynical as one is inclined to be about her, Daudet very poignantly reveals at the end a woman who tires of giving more than she is given, of being the one lover and not the loved.

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The Golem of Gustav Meyrink by Timothy Lane

I occasionally find myself writing down the impression I have of a book before reading it. This might sound rather odd, but there have been times when I find myself a hundred pages through a novel and I find myself appraising the book, not on its merits, but on how it compares with an impression I wasn’t aware I had formulated before reading the book. This impression can stem from a blurb, hearing other people talking about the book, perhaps a cover, or the title. A title such as Gormenghast for example conjures up a great deal before one has even started on the first chapter.
My expectation of the book was no doubt strongly influenced by the cover image, a still taken from Paul Wegener’s 1920 black and white silent film. An image I can recall seeing since I was very small on an earlier edition of the book. The image shows an utterly chilling, eerily inhuman face gazing out from the cover towards something beneath him. It was only on watching the film that I realised this is a still of the spirit Astaroth whom Rabbi Loew summons to help him fashion a Golem, the Golem himself appears comparatively comical in the film. For a good two decades therefore I had conceived a view of the Golem as a dark figure residing in the shadows looking down on some poor soul with infernal malevolence.
I also realise that I expected Meyrink’s novel to revolve around the Golem as an antagonist, or as some sort of Lovecraftian monster. Whereas the Golem appears very rarely in the novel and on the few occasions he does appear, he fills people with a paralysing fear, the sense that he is a harbinger of something truly awful that is to occur in the ghetto, a manifestation of unconscious fears and neurosis, and most disturbingly of all that he is in some sense a part of the person who sees him. One character who saw him face to face is described as saying: “She used to say she was firmly convinced that it could only have been her own soul that had left her body for a moment and confronted her for a brief second with the features of an alien creature. In spite of the terrible dread with which she was seized, she said she was never in the slightest doubt that the other could only be part of her inmost self.”
The novel has a very unusual and unsettling beginning. The narrator watches the moonlight shining on the foot of his bed, he is in a reverie that is not quite awake and not quite asleep. He fantasises many strange and confusing events: walking in a dried up river bed, searching at the behest of an obstinate voice for a stone like a lump of fat. On waking from his trance the narrator feels restless, even that his senses are detached from his body. As he attempts to turn his thoughts away from this sense of dislocation, he finds himself standing in a gloomy courtyard looking through an archway at a Jewish junk dealer. He becomes aware he has been living in this neighbourhood for a long time.
We learn in the course of the book that the narrator has entered into the consciousness in some way of Athanasius Pernath, and experiences the life that man led thirty years before. In a series of unsettling and hallucinatory encounters, we meet and observe the neighbours and acquaintances of Pernath in the ghetto. There is Wassertraum the junk dealer, who despite his outward show of poverty, maybe very rich, and who is rumoured to be thirsting for vengeance, his physician son having been driven to suicide; Innocence Charousek the destitute medical student who claims to have discovered Wassertraum’s son was lying to his patients about the gravity of their illnesses only the better to extort money from them; Dr Savioli, a wealthy man who uses the ghetto for secretive trysts with married women; Rosina the underage red haired prostitute; and Shemejah Hillel and his daughter Miriam, a humbly religious pair whose home is Pernath’s sole refuge in the ghetto.
The narrative is a kind of phantasmagoria, as one would expect from the unusual way narrator and protagonist come together. At times one feels the characters are real flesh and blood people, at other times they feel like the outgrowth of grotesque anti-semitic stereotypes fashioned by centuries of paranoia and subjugation, even Hillel and his daughter can feel like equally unreal cyphers of Jewish sanctity. It is a testimony to the depth of Meyrink’s writing that so many layers are at work in every scene. There is something really quite disturbing about the descriptions of the Prague ghetto, almost as though the ghetto is in a manner alive, and the nature of that life is the total of all the rotten, miserable, hateful and lost people who prey on one another there. On the few occasions the Golem does appear he feels like the spirit of the ghetto rather than it’s tormentor or protector.

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Robert Irwin reveals the secrets of Wonders Will Never Cease to Emma Quick

What inspired you to write about the War of Roses?
I have loved the late Middle Ages since childhood – the world conjured up by Malory in the Morte d’Arthurand later by Huizinga in the Waning of the Middle Agesand in T.H. White’s tetralogy the Once and Future King. I love the colour, flamboyance and ritualised violence: heraldry, falconry, jousting and so on.
I really didn’t know anything about this period of time before reading your book, but it was a nice surprise to find King Arthur folklore scattered through your book (ones I wasn’t familiar with). Why did you decide to include these stories?
In the fifteenth century there really was a cult of Arthur and the Round Table for purposes of royal propaganda. And, of course, this was subject matter for Malory’s great epic romance in which, perhaps, bloody feuds and slaughters of the Wars of the Roses were turned into something much more noble and romantic. Looking at the question from another point of view, I am a novelist and a novelist must be interested in storytelling. I wanted to tackle the questions raised by storytelling head on: storytelling as lying propaganda, how do people respond to stories? do bad people listening to stories nevertheless identify with the heroic goodies? what were the tropes and cliches of medieval romances? storytelling as a preparation for death, and so on. Malory’s stories are marvellous in both senses of the word. He was a good writer who celebrated virtue, yet also a bad man.

What was it about Anthony that made you write the book from his point of view?
Anthony Woodville seemed to me to be a gift for any writer looking for a protagonist: the brother of the Queen, a leading protagonist in the Wars of the Roses, a champion jouster and a man of high culture and one of the first patrons of print technology.

I read that you taught medieval history, what sort of research was involved in writing this book?
My background as a former university lecturer in medieval history was not as much use as one might imagine, since I only taught European medieval history and covered such boring topics as Capetian fiscal policy, the Investiture Contest between the Hohenstaufen and the Papacy and the Filioque controversy. But I did accumulate a lot of books on medieval history and eventually researched the Wars of the Roses from a standing start. I think the preliminary research must be the most pleasurable part of doing a novel. I research for inspiration rather than strict factual accuracy.

I loved the subtle magic that creeped into the book, how did you decide where to add it? What inspired Anthony’s resurrection? And where did the idea for the Talking Head come from?
I did not actually make up Anthony’s resurrection. It really was reported after Towton that he had been killed and only later was he found to be alive. His mother, Jacquetta, really did have a reputation as a witch and so it seemed a reasonable possibility that she had given him him a life-preserving amulet. Some of the other magic comes from Malory or from English folklore, but quite a lot comes from medieval Arab occultism (on which I am an expert). For example the spell for the Talking Head comes from a medieval Arabic manual of sorcery the Ghayat al-Hakim, later translated into Latin as Picatrix.

After finishing your book, I went online to read more about the war and the historical figures ( I waited until I finished because I didn’t want any spoilers), and I read about the mystery behind Elizabeth and Edward’s children’s deaths, and that Jacquetta and Richard had 14 children. Were there parts of the history that you had to leave out, but considered including?

Indeed the main thing I cut out was members of the Woodville clan, some of whom were politically quite important, but there was just too many of them for a novelist to handle.

Ripley was such an interesting character to read, how did you create his elaborate story telling abilities?
Ripley really was an alchemist in the service of Edward IV and some his alchemical treatises really were disguised pieces of Yorkist propaganda. But much of Ripley’s storytelling ability comes from his skill as a plagiarist. He steals from Dante, from Julian of Norwich, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the finest poem in the English language) and from Malory. He boasts about his plagiarism. There was a lot of plagiarism about in the Middle Ages.

Were any of your characters made-up, or were they all based on real figures?
Almost everybody featured really existed, even Ripley, Scogin and the Coterel gang. Sergeant Raker is main exception. The combat with the Bastard of Burgundy is almost exactly as described in the chronicles.

Who was your favourite character to bring to life?
Ripley was my favourite. Apart from the real alchemist, he was based on a young man who gave me medical treatment and was always sunny, smiling and praising me for my stoicism. Besides, Ripley is an apprentice novelist.

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