Tag Archives: Maclehose Press

Abigail by Magda Szabó (transl. Len Rix): Coming of age in 1940s Hungary

Cover imageI’ve yet to read Magda Szabó’s The Door despite having enjoyed both Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is very different from either of those, not least in its length, but it comes billed as the most popular of her novels in her native Hungary. Set in a girls’ boarding school, it’s about Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation.

Fifteen-year-old Gina has a head full of glamour and romance, spending much of her time with her frivolous aunt, cultivating her crush on a lieutenant. Inexplicably, her beloved father has decided to send her to a strict Protestant boarding school, squatting on the edges of a town that resents it. At first, Gina enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules. When she carelessly lets slip one of their more arcane rituals, Gina feels the full force of her schoolmates’ fury. Desperate to escape, she devises a plan which ends in failure. Perhaps she should leave a note in Abigail’s pitcher, another ritual she’s sneeringly dismissed, but which has resulted in surprising results for other girls. When her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality. He brings news which chimes more with the dissident placards left around the town proclaiming the war a disaster than the school’s resolute patriotism, telling her that the secrecy of her whereabouts is paramount to her safety. Gina realises she must make the best of things, finding her way back into the affections of her schoolmates and devising entertainments that frequently land her in trouble. Life outside the walls of school becomes more dangerous as the Germans set their sights on occupying Hungary. Things come to a head when Gina’s cover is blown but Abigail comes to the rescue.

According to its press release, Abigail is the most celebrated of Szabó’s novels in her homeland – it’s even been adapted into a rock opera, still performed in Budapest, apparently, which is slightly mind-boggling. It’s told from Gina’s perspective, many years after the tumultuous six months in which she learnt that appearances can be deceptive. Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly – the spitefulness of adolescent young girls, bored and forced into piety, or the semblance of it, is painfully believable. Their tiny, tightly controlled world is in stark contrast to the bloody drama unfolding in their country, most evocatively demonstrated as the girls watch a train full of soldiers, bound for the front. Szabó tells her story well, pulling its thread of tension taut as Gina’s danger becomes apparent and neatly tying up loose ends in its final chapter. Not my favourite of her novels, but certainly well worth reading.

Maclehose Press: London 2020 9780857058485 448 pages Paperback

The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye (transl. Jordan Stump): A culinary enigma

Cover imageSeveral things attracted me to Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe: I’ve a weakness for novels about food, given its author and subject I expected a healthy streak of feminism and there was the promise of an unreliable narrator. My liking for those may be even greater than my predilection for foodie fiction. NDiyae’s novel is the story of the eponymous, celebrated cook known only by her profession and notorious for keeping her own counsel, told by the man obsessed with her.

One of eight children, the Cheffe was born into poverty, the daughter of two farm labourers with scant regard for the education of their children. Hers was a happy childhood. She left school at sixteen finding a job for herself as a maid with the Clapeaus, a gluttonous couple who opened the culinary world to her when their cook refused to accompany them on holiday. Her talent proved prodigious. She learnt quickly and well, delighting her employers then distressing them when she left to have her daughter. Unable to stay out of the kitchen for long, the Cheffe found herself a job, then set herself up in her own bistro, plain but smartly presented – much like herself – gaining a reputation that eventually won her recognition from an esteemed restaurant guide, much to her horror. She and the young apprentice whose adoration remains unspoken, talk long into the night. She occasionally spills details of her life which he eagerly pieces together, quietly scornful and disbelieving of her professed love for her daughter living in Toronto. As her young acolyte – now an ageing hedonist – tells her story, apparently giving the interview after her death that the Cheffe would never have granted, he waits apprehensively for a guest to arrive.

I mentioned an unreliable narrator in my introduction and they don’t come more unreliable – or blindly adoring – than the unnamed young apprentice looking back on the love of his life and telling his version of her story. Our narrator retails the sparse details of the Cheffe’s life, larding it with his own interpretations – her love for her daughter merely feigned, her beloved parents neglectful, all of her own actions considered and selfless. She is, for him, perfection. He’s a triumph but Ndiaye’s slow, reiterative style is something of an acquired taste. I remember giving up Ladivine for the same reason but became quite fascinated by the self-delusion of The Cheffe’s narrator who verges on the stalker in his obsession. In telling her story, he reveals a great deal more about himself than his intensely private beloved who remains something of an enigma, intent on her culinary explorations and often oblivious to everything and everyone else.

For those wondering about the title, there’s a footnote explaining it:

“Cheffe” is a recently-minted word in French; its meaning, of course, is “female chef”. Because no good English equivalent exists, this translation will use the French word.

Perhaps women are finally being taken seriously in what, for some reason, became a male-dominated profession.

MacLehose Press: London 2019 9780857058904 288 pages Paperback

That’s it for 2019’s rviews from me. The rest of the year will be all about the shiny and new on offer in January 2020.

All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Elizabeth Hay’s memoir for the same reason I read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: I’d enjoyed several of her novels very much, in particular Late Nights on Air. Truth be told, though, aren’t we all fascinated by other people’s families, perhaps looking for similarities with our own or thankful that ours isn’t anything like the writer’s? Hay’s relationship with her parents had always been a tricky one but when they move across Ontario into a retirement home just down the road from Hay and her husband, she finds herself struggling with their slow decline into decrepitude. All Things Consoled is a recounting of those years and the family history that came before.

Gordon and Jean Hay married in 1943 when they were twenty-four. He was a history teacher, proud of his long career but never confident, strict both at home and at school. She became an artist, painting pictures of the natural world and enjoying a small degree of success while determined to carve out some space for herself. Hay was the third of their four children, seemingly locked in a difficult relationship with a father who found it impossible to praise her achievements and whose temper resulted in violent punishments until she was twelve. When the family spent a year in London, the world opened up to her, paving the way to university. Visits home to her parents were hedged about with disappointment and dismay at her mother’s apparent inability to stand up to her father’s irascibility. Her parents seem determinedly hunkered down in the family home but after a medical crisis and the beginnings of her mother’s dementia, they agree to move. It’s Hay who steps forward, taking responsibility although she’s unsure quite why she’s done so. For three years, she visits her parents daily, trying to cope with the sheer grind of caring for two people, themselves slowly ground down by the long slow process of extreme old age. Several years after her parents’ deaths, Hay sets down her reflections in the hope of coming to an understanding of her relationship with them.

I arrived at their rooms and here were the two vivid giants in my life – still massive no matter how shrunken they had become, while for them I suppose I had grown huge  

Some of Hay’s descriptions will be all too painfully familiar to those whose own parents have endured a long decline or seen others at close quarters – hard enough when the relationship has been a good one. Inevitably, her book is as revealing about herself as it is about her parents, their scratchy yet close relationship and her attempts to understand them, particularly her father whose approval she’d craved and, eventually, realises she’d had all along. Hay’s use of langauge is as graceful in her non-fiction as in her fiction, and her demented mother’s poetic expressions are both poignantly apt and beautiful. It reminded me of Blake Morrison’s long-ago bestseller And When Did You Last See Your Father ?, no small compliment. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own stories but Hay’s memoir has a loud ring of truth about it. Let’s hope the writing of it helped soothe her hurts.

The Capital by Robert Menasse (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Better in than out

Cover imageI’m sharing the last stop on The Capital‘s blog tour with Reader Dad. I’m not one for blog tours – this may well be both my first and last – but I couldn’t say no to this one. If you’ve been reading this blog for the last couple of years, you’ll be in no doubt as to which side of the Brexit divide I belong. Robert Menasse’s sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated faults before bringing it back to the values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club.

The Capital opens with a pig running through the streets of Brussels, catching the astonished eyes of many of its characters. Martin Susman, who will conceive the idea for the ill-fated Jubilee Project, spots it from his apartment window. Auschwitz survivor Dave de Vriend sees it just as he’s about to leave his apartment for the last time. Fenia Xenopoulou catches sight of it from the restaurant where she’s hoping to finangle a transfer to another department. When Martin returns from Auschwitz, shocked at its commercialisation, he hits on an idea to rejuvenate the ideals of the Commission via the jubilee celebration he’s been asked to devise, putting the camp at its centre in counterpoint to the populist nationalism which has infected Europe since 2008. Fenia spots what she thinks is a winner but in a masterly piece of out-maneuvering, finds herself on the back foot and the celebration plans in tatters. Meanwhile, Inspector Brunfaut is trying to track down the pig, now a media star, while puzzling over why he’s been told to drop a murder investigation and Matek Oswiecki tries to dodge the consequences of what may well have been a botched assassination. These many and varied characters crisscross each other’s paths over a long hot summer in which migrants are heading for Germany.

A multitude of shifting character perspectives coupled with a good deal of information about EU institutions to absorb results in a slow start but patience pays off with The Capital. Swipes are taken at bloated bureaucracy, political manouevering and empire building but ultimately, it’s the founding values of the European Commission which are at the heart of this novel, that never again should Europe be faced with the horrors threatened by populist nationalism. Professor Erhart gives full voice to these ideals in a speech which horrifies his think tank audience, peopled with the self-important and self-interested, and would send Brexiteers running and screaming for the door. It’s a wide-ranging novel, at times wryly funny at others almost slapstick, but like all good satire it has some very serious points to make both about the EU and the forces that have taken hold in Europe since the financial crash. Rather like the institution its satirizing, The Capital is not without faults – some of its threads remained tangled for me – but there’s much to enjoy, bittersweet though it is in more ways than one.

If you’d like to catch up with previous posts on the blog tour, including Lizzy Siddal’s interview with The Capital‘s translator, Jaime Bulloch, here’s a list of links:

Winstondad’s Blog

David’s Book World

Nudge Books

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Katalin Street by Madga Szabó (transl. Len Rix): The past is another country

Cover imageI’ve yet to read The Door, Madga Szabó’s best known novel, and I made the mistake of reading Iza’s Ballad on holiday, failing to give it the quiet attention it needed. Nothing to distract me from Katalin Street, enjoyable or otherwise. First published in 1969, it explores the aftermath of the Second World War through three families, neighbours on the eponymous street with its lovely views of the Danube.

Henriette Held arrives on Katalin Street in 1934 when she’s six years old. There are two strange girls in what’s to be her bedroom and a slovenly woman standing in the hall with her mother. Later she joins the girls and a boy in the garden. This is Henriette’s introduction to Irén, Blanka and Bálint, her new neighbours. The beautifully behaved Irén couldn’t be more different from her sister Blanka, always in trouble yet much-loved, while Bálint is the quiet centre of their small group. Henriette’s father is Jewish, the holder of a gold medal for bravery won in the Great War which protects him until the German occupation in 1944 when he and her mother disappear on what should have been a day of joy, the day of Irén and Bálint’s engagement. Bálint’s father does all he can to protect Henriette but a horrible coincidence of circumstances results in her murder. When the war is over, the city finds itself under a different occupation. Irén becomes a teacher, following in her father’s footsteps; Bálint becomes a doctor working in the same hospital where Blanka finds work as an administrator but he’s returned from the war a changed man and is later imprisoned. By 1968, Katalin Street has long since been converted into social housing but still maintains its lure.

Szabó’s novel begins with a section anchoring it in Katalin Street before briefly visiting an unnamed island where Blanka lives with her husband and his family. From there, she arranges her narrative around a succession of significant dates, telling her characters’ stories from different perspectives. I found it a little difficult to get into at first but once the more linear narrative took off the story flows easily. Henriette continues to appear after her death, regularly visiting Katalin Street and its scattered denizens, dismayed at the changes time and events have wrought in them. It’s a technique that could easily have backfired but Szabó handles it beautifully, even injecting a little humour as Henriette’s parents regress horribly when they encounter their own parents in the afterlife. A quiet aching melancholy runs through this beautiful expressed novel, a yearning for a lost world, and its ending is heart-wrenching. Given that it was published in 1969 when Hungary was still a communist country, I wondered how that had effected Szabó’s writing of it: how much of what she wanted to say was explicit, how much was left to the reader to infer.

The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel (transl. Euan Cameron): Death, grief and hope

Cover imageIf you haven’t yet come across Philippe Claudel’s books you may know his work from I Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Ranging from Parfums, a sensuous fragrance memoir, to Monsieur Linh and His Child, one of the saddest pieces of fiction I’ve read, his writing is as elegantly understated as his movies, a style which I find immensely appealing. His latest novel, The Tree of the Toraja, is an exploration of death and grief through the voice of a filmmaker who has lost his producer and best friend.

Our unnamed narrator begins his meditative journey with an account of the lengthy funeral rites of the Toraja, an Indonesian tribe on the island of Sulawesi where he’s been on holiday. When a child dies, the Toraja carefully place its corpse within an incision made in a tree so that the tree’s bark will heal and enclose the body. On his return, our narrator finds a message from his best friend, Eugène, announcing his cancer diagnosis. Six months later Eugène is dead. Our narrator talks to philosophers, doctors and scientists about the ways in which we open ourselves to death. He meets his ex-wife every week in the same hotel room, thinks about a new film while watching the tenants of the apartment block opposite, speculating about the young woman who seems happy to live in the public gaze, all the time remembering Eugène and their many conversations. This brief, beautiful novella ends with an unexpected new start for our narrator and the beginning of his first project without Eugène.

It would be easy to cast Claudel as the unnamed narrator given that both are filmmakers and novelists of a similar age but my brief spate of googling became a distraction from the thoughtfulness of this exploration of death, grief and how we respond to it. Suffice to say that it’s an intensely personal piece of writing. Claudel’s prose is characteristically quiet but arresting, often painterly in its evocation:

We spent our evenings drinking vinho verde in the neighbourhood cafés of the Bairro Alto, nibbling at plump violet olives and eating sardines that had been cooked on grills in small yards where the walls were covered in azulejo tiles

We who live on are enveloped by the whispers of our ghosts

Bodies fade like flowers in vases; their corollas droop one day then slump in an irreversible destruction of their colours and their scents

There are striking metaphors throughout: our relationship with our bodies is compared to a love affair; our lives to books – some neatly handwritten with smooth blank pages, others with loose, torn leaves and a multitude of deletions. But there’s more to this piece of writing than its gorgeous prose. Both a philosophical investigation into that which faces us all and a beautiful meditation which ultimately ends with acceptance and hope, Claudel’s novella is a quiet, thought-provoking triumph.

One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): A wolf takes a walk

Cover imageImpossible not to comment on that title which makes the old bookseller in me wonder just how much it will be mangled in customer enquiries. I’m sure the publishers breathed a sigh of relief that Twitter have extended their 140-character limit, too. That said, it was the title which attracted me to this novella along with its setting largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany.

Coming out of the east, the wolf turns west into a forest where no wolf has been seen since 1843, crossing many people’s paths as it moves closer and closer to Berlin. Caught up in a traffic jam on his way back from Poland to his Berlin flat, Tomasz snaps the wolf on his phone, a shot which will later seize the media by storm. Elisabeth and Micha, two runaways from close to the border, spot the wolf’s tracks deep in the forest. Charly who runs a kiosk with his partner in an up and coming area of Berlin becomes haunted by his faceout with the wolf. A woman, intent on burning her dead mother’s diaries, spots it in the distance. The whole of Berlin falls under its spell, obsessed with this interloper who inspires both fear and wonder. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one.

This is such a clever, beautifully structured novella which seems to me to hold a mirror up to the reunified Germany through the stories of the characters whose path the wolf crosses. Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by the fragmented structure of this novella in which deftly handled coincidences abound. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking. I’d suggest putting aside any difficultly stumbling over that title in your local bookshop and grabbing yourself a copy.

The House with the Stained-glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska (transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones): A tale of three cities

Cover imageŻanna Słoniowska’s novel is set in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, known as Lwów when it was part of Poland after the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, then Lvov when it was in Soviet hands from the end of the Second World War until 1991. The House with the Stained-Glass Window tells the story of this fractured, fractious, beautiful place through the lives of four generations of women whose history mirrors that of the city.

Marianna is a mezzo-soprano with a voice so evocative that it summons up the very spirit of his country for Mykola, the set designer at the Lviv Opera. She’s the child of Aba who arrived in the city from Leningrad shortly after the war, her artistic ambitions thwarted by the tyrannical Great-Granma whose hysterics frequently rock the house. Marianna has a daughter who guides us through the history of these four generations. Great-Granma has seemingly never got over the abduction of her husband in 1937, taken for interrogation and never returned. Having fallen out with both Aba and Marianna, she’s taken to her room. In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, Marianna is shot by a sniper while singing at a nationalist march, swiftly becoming the poster girl for the independence movement. Aba steps in to raise her young daughter who will navigate her own way through the thorny pathways of both her family’s history and that of her city, helped by Mykola who was both her mother’s lover and the chronicler of Lviv’s unofficial history. That will have to stand as a synopsis for this novel although it’s a good deal more complicated than that.

Mariana’s daughter unfolds the story of this family who live on the first floor of a house whose stained-glass window encapsulates Lviv’s history. She’s a lively narrator – wildly imaginative and very funny at times – open to Mykola’s history lessons, the last of which is a tour of Lviv telling the stories that some of its inhabitants might prefer untold. Stuffed with lovingly vivid descriptions of the city, Słoniowska’s novel has a framework which works well although the occasional abrupt switches from one timeline to another can be disconcerting. You’ll need to have your wits about you to keep track – Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ brief chronology and explanatory note which preface the book come in very handy for that. It’s a novel that worked for me but it’s a little niche. If you’re not interested in Central Europe and its history, I suspect it’s not one for you.

If you don’t hear from me on Friday I’ll be in Budapest, a little closer to Lviv than I am now. H is in the midst of an Aged P crisis which may mean I’m still here in Bath. We’ll see. The odds are currently in our favour…

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin (transl. David Doherty): Sliding into obsession and madness

Cover image‘Check ignition and may God’s love be with you’ is the achingly familiar quote which prefaces Peter Terrin’s novella. It might be tempting to think that Monte Carlo was written after David Bowie’s death last year but it was originally published in Holland in 2014. Sometimes it’s a struggle to work out quite why an author has chosen a particular epigraph for their novel but in this case it couldn’t be more appropriate. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Terrin’s novel tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves.

Jack Preston is the chief mechanic of Sutton’s Formula One team. It’s the job he’s worked towards since he was thirteen, losing himself in tinkering with a local farmer’s Massey Ferguson two years after the death of his father. Jack and his team are readying themselves for the start of the 1968 Grand Prix but the crowd only has eyes for DeeDee, the young, delicately beautiful movie actress who has captured everyone’s hearts including that of the Prince whose wife was once a starlet. As DeeDee walks towards him, Jack catches the scent of fuel on the air, leaping towards her just in time to save her from a conflagration. DeeDee’s bodyguard drags them both away from the flames – DeeDee unscathed but Jack badly burnt. As Jack lies in hospital, a journalist comes to interview him, his answers haltingly translated by his nurse with her sketchy grasp of English. Jack arrives home a hero, not least to his wife, but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, Jack’s obsession with her deepens until, as the villagers’ admiration leaks away, he slides into madness.

From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. The first section is a cinematic intersplicing of images from the racetrack before the focus is switched to Jack and the aftermath of his dramatic rescue. Terrin’s writing is strikingly arresting: ‘Sunlight streams in through the vast windows of the reception area, reflected by the distant azure of the sea with a brilliance that verges on the audible’; ’A roar of laughter from the fat man punches a hole in the dignified serenity of the grandstand’. Jack’s increasingly delusional obsession is chillingly convincing, offset by the odd flash of humour. There’s a contemporary resonance in the portrayal of celebrity although DeeDee put me in mind of Princess Diana, several decades after the events portrayed in the novel. From the fragmentary structure which suits the novel beautifully to its oblique ending, this is a meticulously crafted piece of fiction. Terrin’s written four novels besides this one but it appears that only The Guard has been translated. Let’s hope MacLehose Press have plans to publish the other three.