Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf

January 27, 2014

It was foul weather for Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, so I was amazed by how many people turned up, hooded, wellied and umbrellaed, keen to get out on the Heath in spite of the sheeting rain.

Alas our garrulous charge into the greenery soon dwindled to a conversation-struggling limp as no one could hear anything beneath their hoods, and were concentrating too much on missing the puddles to be able to talk about the book. Feeling rather feeble, we retreated to a nearby café, shedding our waterproofs and apologetically disturbing its quiet newspaper-reading clientele, as, revived with hot drinks, all thirty of us launched into an impassioned discussion of Gaito Gazdanov’s brilliant The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. As you know, this whole sitting down thing is anathema to the walking book club, so I managed to move a few people around every now and then to mix things up, and darted about between the groups, reading passages aloud and steering conversation as though we were on foot. While we were thwarted of the bracing air and soaring views of London, everyone still claimed to have enjoyed their morning, and many remained chatting bookishly in the café after I returned to work in the bookshop.

The Spectre of Alexander WolfWhat a great novel! And what a strange one. It hooks you from the start, with a terrific first sentence:

Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.

Critics have compared Gazdanov to Proust, I suppose because of the way a powerful memory can propel so much of the narrative, but this is murder he’s remembering, not a visit from enigmatic Charles Swann at idyllic Combray. And while Proust’s narrative is luxurious and sensuous, there is a febrile urgency to the dreamlike feeling of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. It is more a telling of an unshakeable nightmare than a madeleine-induced reverie.

Back to the murder. We are told that the narrator was fighting in the Russian Civil War when his horse was shot and he ‘went tumbling down with her’, although was unharmed. Coming towards him was ‘a rider astride a great white horse’:

I saw the rider let go of the reins and shoulder his rifle, which, until that point he had been carrying atilt. It was then that I fired. He jerked up in his saddle, slumped down and fell slowly to the ground.

The narrator looks into the dying eyes of the fallen man, when he hears hooves in the distance, and so rides off on the white horse and escapes. In Paris, many years later, the narrator is astonished to read a short story telling of exactly this episode but from the murdered man’s point of view. Of course he is determined to meet the writer – Alexander Wolf – and the book follows him on his quest to meet him.

Or does it?

For this is a strange shape-shifting book. It begins as a mystery, then becomes a picaresque evocation of life in Paris between the wars, pausing for a detailed account of a boxing match, before transforming into an intense love story, and right at the end there’s an unexpected turn into gangster noir. All this action is interspersed with thought-provoking philosophical discussions and digressions.

These plural forms of the novel make me think of when the narrator receives a phonecall from his lover:

Hearing those first sounds of her voice, distorted as usual by the telephone, I immediately forgot everything I’d only just been thinking about; it was so total and instantaneous as though the thoughts had never even existed.

The twists and turns of the narrative can feel similarly startling. There you are on the path of this mysterious Alexander Wolf and the next thing you know you’re at a boxing match, and it is as though the earlier episodes ‘had never even existed’.

Except of course you don’t completely forget about what’s gone before. The book, in fact, makes a case for the inescapable uncanny interconnections between everything and everyone – however disparate they might seem. Throughout the novel, Gazdanov repeats the phrase:

The chain of events in each human life is miraculous.

Just one action – the bullet from the narrator’s revolver – has brought together a whole world of consequences:

Who could have known that the bullet’s spinning, instantaneous flight actually contained that town on the Dnieper, Marina’s inexpressible charm, her bracelets, her singing, her betrayal, her disappearance, Voznesensky’s life, the ship’s hold Constantinople, London, Paris, the book I’ll Come Tomorrow and the epigraph about the corpse with the arrow in its temple?

And there is even more contained in that bullet, yet to be revealed. I don’t want to give away the twist at the end, but it rests upon the flight of another bullet. Perhaps the chain of events set in motion by the first bullet can only be halted by that of a second.

As might be expected from a book which encompasses so many genres, capturing many scenarios and ideas in its sweep, there is a great deal to think about. Just as compelling as life’s ‘miraculous’ chain of events – the spinning bullet which draws everything into its centrifugal force – is the idea that one man’s life can be inextricably bound to another’s. The kill or be killed situation at the start, which the narrator and Alexander Wolf both managed to survive and so cheat death, binds them together. As one walker said, ‘It’s like Harry Potter and Voldemort!’ Indeed it is! Quite why all the critics seem so bent on picking up echoes of Proust rather than J.K. Rowling is beyond me.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is one of those books that will continue to haunt me, just like the narrator is haunted by the spectre himself. It left me – and other walkers too – wanting to re-read it straight away, to try to make more sense of the strange connections and diversions which Gazdanov, thankfully, doesn’t over-explain.

And just who is Gaito Gazdanov? He fought in the White Army and then was exiled in Paris from 1920, where he became a taxi-driver by night and writer by day. Praise be to Pushkin Press for publishing his work in English. They’re bringing out another of his books in late August – I can’t wait.

Gaito Gazdanov

The House in Paris

June 18, 2012

I’ve just finished my third book by Elizabeth Bowen and really she is a brilliant writer. She’s very good at creating a bewitching, utterly engrossing atmosphere that sucks you in and makes it quite difficult to climb out and get back into the real world. I mentioned (here) that when I read Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, it held me so spellbound as I read it lying in my carriage on the sleeper train up to Inverness, that I didn’t realise we’d arrived and very nearly didn’t get off the train. The stewardess looked bewildered when she opened the carriage door to give it a cursory look and found me lying there in my pyjamas, my head stuck in London in the Blitz. ‘We’ve been here quarter of an hour already,’ she said as though I were raving mad. I suppose, maybe I was a bit.

A similar thing happened with The House in Paris. Last week, I sat down to read it for half an hour one afternoon after lunch, and before I knew it, it was gone five and I’d nearly finished it. My flat had almost disintegrated; its whole quiet world with the hum of the washing machine and occasional ping of my phone completely faded out and I was there stuck in the book, caught up in its deeply mysterious feeling so that time really had disappeared along with everything else.

I began The House in Paris thinking that it would be a little like What Maisie Knew by Henry James, or, indeed the lower-brow Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is because it starts off being told through the eyes of Henrietta, an eleven-year-old girl who is suddenly in the middle of a very adult situation. I love books like this. I even began trying to write one while I was at university – although I didn’t get that far.

Children of that age are still childish, yet they have a loose, overheard grasp on adult issues, enough to ape an adult understanding of things, which makes them seem terribly precocious, when of course they don’t actually understand the darker subtext of a situation. This combination of childish naivete and pretence at being grown-up, when placed in a truly complicated, adult situation of lies and secrets, with adults dashing about trying to make everything seem fine, makes for a fascinating consciousness to use as a filter.

So eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives in Paris, ‘one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down’. She is collected from the Gare du Nord by a mysterious Miss Fisher who is to look after her for the day before taking her to catch the evening train down to the South of France where she is to stay with her grandmother. She learns in the taxi of another two mysterious characters, who will also be at the house in Paris: Leopold, a little boy who’s come from Italy, but is not Italian, who is there ‘for family reasons; he has someone to meet’ and Miss Fisher’s mother, who is very ill.

Miss Fisher is tense and responds to Henrietta’s questions by telling her far too much. Bowen reflects:

One of her troubles was, quite clearly, being unaccustomed to children. Henrietta had the advantage of her, for, as almost an only child – she had one married sister – she was only too well accustomed to grown-ups.

Henrietta gets to the house and meets Leopold, who is definitely a strange child. We see him first through Henrietta’s eyes:

He wore a bunchy stiff dark blue sailor blouse, blue knickerbockers and rather ugly black socks.

But here’s where it all becomes quite unexpected. For having been in Henrietta’s head for chapter one, chapter two puts us inside Leopold’s:

Henrietta, composedly sitting up on the sofa, pushing the curved comb back, made Leopold think of a little girl he had once seen in a lithograph, bowling a hoop in the park with her hair tied on the top of her head in an old-fashioned way.

It’s surprising, clever, and makes one draw a sharp intake of breath. It thickens things. It makes one wonder, what will happen next.

Well gosh I could go on and on about this book forever, but to spare all of us, I better speed things up a bit. Essentially the first part of the novel is about these two children, in this very adult sinister house in Paris. They, of course, completely disobey the adults, learn far too much, but don’t understand quite everything. An uneasy but very special bond is formed between them.

Then we get to part two, where another strange thing happens in the narrative. Bowen explains why Leopold’s mother, at the last minute, doesn’t come to meet him (for that is the reason for his being in Paris). She says:

Actually, the meeting he had projected could take place only in Heaven – call it Heaven; on the plane of potential not merely likely behaviour. Or call it art, with truth and imagination informing every word. Only there – in heaven or art, in that nowhere, on that plane – could Karen have told Leopold what had really been.

Bowen is saying that the whole premise of the first part couldn’t actually happen. As far as authorial asides go, this is pretty far out. And then it gets stranger yet:

This is, in effect, what she would have had to say.

The rest of the second part, which is around half the book, is the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and how Leopold came into the world.

It is a bizarre way of bridging the two stories, it feels perhaps clumsy, too obviously seamed, but somehow it works. And it was Karen’s story with which I sat down on the sofa and got completely wrapped up in for hours.

I think I shouldn’t give anything else away about the plot, but I will just mention one more thing that Bowen does very well: seedy meetings in ghastly restaurants.

One of the most memorable bits in The Heat of the Day is when Harrison makes Stella have dinner with him. He takes her to a fantastically hideous place, down some stairs into:

a bar or grill which had no air of having existed before tonight. She stared first at a row of backviews of eaters perched, packed elbow-to-elbow, along a counter. A zip fastener all the way down one back made one woman seem to have a tin spine. A dye-green lettuce leaf had fallen on to the mottled rubber floor; a man in a pin-stripe suit was enough in profile to show a smudge of face powder on one shoulder … The phenomenon was the lighting, more powerful even than could be accounted for by the bald white globes screwed aching to the low white ceiling – there survived in here not one shadow: every one had been ferreted out and killed.

It sounds just dreadful. A dodgy, horrid, underground place. They go on to have a terrible, tense, fateful confrontation of a conversation. And the setting, with its grimness, lends the whole thing an air of being unnatural, forced, not at all right.

In The House in Paris, there is another illicit meal in a restaurant. This restaurant is French and rather nicer, but there is still something hideously oppressive about it. It is lunchtime and blazing hot sunshine outside, but going in:

was so suddenly dark – and so suddenly chilly, making her cup her bare elbows in her hands … [he] read down his menu Napoleonically, and she looked at her menu blotty with mauve ink … Karen looked at a vase of roses on a middle table, then round the restaurant, with its embossed brown wallpaper, in which they were shut up with what Mme Fisher said.

These meals in these restaurants are acutely uncomfortable to read. The feeling of claustrophobia and oppression is remarkable. There is the clash of an intensely private meeting taking place in the public sphere, the smash of the outside against the inside.

In each situation, it’s the woman who feel this oppression rather than the man, who remains quite comfortable, even ‘Napoleonic’. The woman feels the outside world pressing in on her, strangling her private affair. Perhaps Bowen is iterating a woman’s need for her own private space – somewhere she can exist privately without the press of the outside. Just a few years earlier, Woolf had phrased it so famously as a woman’s need for ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

What Bowen does so well with her writing is create a fictional room of one’s own. Her books are so overpowering in atmosphere that they utterly succeed in taking you out of whatever real space you happen to be in and putting you inside this other space, which exists just for you and the characters of the book. Reading one of her books – even in the seediest of restaurants – one is safely transported to a private imaginary and immersive space. I, rather greedily, long for a whole fictional house made up of Bowen’s intensely atmospheric rooms. I can’t wait to read the next.

I Capture the Castle

October 26, 2011

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

When I read this last week – under a blanket on our sofa, just after the British Gas man had left us with a new boiler and no thermostat, so that our flat swiftly got blissfully hot – I felt ever so snug and reassured. It has got to be one of the most comforting first lines of all literature ever.

I first read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith when I was ten or eleven years old. I remember very clearly sitting on a bench in the playground of my primary school and telling a teacher that I was reading it. I had hoped she’d be impressed, as it was quite a grown up book, and I thought I was rather precocious to be reading it so young. But she just smiled and said, ‘Oh yes, by the lady who wrote 101 Dalmatians, how sweet.’

I was rather put out. For I Capture the Castle is nothing like 101 Dalmatians. Not that the latter isn’t a great story, but it is something a of a babyish one. This one is a quite different kettle of fish.

I’m not sure if my anxiety levels in the run up to my wedding quite came across in my last post. I was more than a little bit nervous. And stressed. And I found myself unable to concentrate on anything unweddingy. It occurred to me that it was not unlike an illness … which was when I had a Eureka moment.

Whenever I’m poorly – I mean really poorly with a temperature, rather than just a bit snuffly and sorry for myself (which happens at least every fortnight during the winter) – I find there’s nothing better than reading children’s books. When my tonsils were removed last year, I whizzed through loads of exciting books by Philip Reeve, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness and – thank you Julia for the best recommendation of all time – A Long Way from Verona, my first Jane Gardam. If I retreat back to my mother’s for extra-special TLC, I tend to read through several of my old favourites. The Narnia books, Swallows and Amazons, even Tintin if I’m feeling really peculiar.

I realised that the only thing I could possibly even hope to read in the few days before I got married, was a children’s book.

So I swiftly reread A Long Way From Verona, which I somehow got through in a single blissful night (perhaps as I’ve read it so many times already) and already felt much more human. The following day I popped along to the bookshop, where everyone was surprised to see me and thought I must be terribly excited. I said that actually I felt rather queasy and nervous, but that seemed to get dismissed as nonsense. Anyway, after much browsing of the children’s shelves and finding that nothing that I hadn’t already read looked quite right, I alighted on I Capture the Castle and realised it was perfect.

And I started to read it that very afternoon, in our warm flat, which felt even warmer after reading all the descriptions of the bitterly cold castle where Cassandra lives in very romantic poverty with her beautiful sister Rose, reclusive writer-with-writer’s-block father, and artistic stepmother Topaz. Incidentally, I soon realised – with a peculiar feeling of a penny dropping – that this is the book in which I originally came across the delightfully silly phrase ‘communing with nature’ (which Topaz does all the time).

But the next couple of days passed in such a whirlwind of activity that I was only on around page fifty by the time we went on our honeymoon! But this turned out to be rather fortuitous.

For the HUSBAND (no longer fiancé!), had caught a nasty vomiting bug, we were both absolutely zonked out and happened to be staying in the swankiest loveliest hotel in the world – in a suite that was larger than our flat!! – thanks to my brother’s very generous wedding present. So although we were to spend a great deal of time wandering around Paris feeling like it was terribly romantic and weren’t we happy and in love, we also spent rather a lot of time cocooned in our enormous suite in a comatose state eating chocolate. All of which was rather conducive to reading a gorgeous novel about a girl cocooned in a castle, wanting to be a writer and falling in love for the first time.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I shall say it again. I adore coming-of-age novels. And I personally find they are particularly good when the main character wants to be a writer. Yessssss, I hiss to myself in my head, I can relate to this …

Of course, our honeymoon was interesting enough for me not to read the entire thing! But yesterday evening, on the Eurostar back to London, while the husband was sleeping, I read so much of it, in such an intense sitting, that when I got home and saw there wasn’t much more to go, I felt I absolutely HAD to finish it before I could get on with real life again. I felt that I was so firmly ensconced in Cassandra’s world, that I couldn’t possibly get back into my own world until I’d left hers behind.

So I did my favourite trick of staying up very late wrapped up in blankets on the sofa, reading until there were only around twenty pages left. Then I went to sleep and woke up half an hour earlier than I would have done, so I had time to finish it off first thing.

Finishing a book has got to be the best possible way of starting a day. The thing is, normally when one finishes something, it is late and there is a sense of everything ending. Coming out of the cinema in the dark, turning off a DVD or closing a book and looking at the clock to see that it’s well past one’s bedtime, is a bit miserable. To sleep, perchance to dream … I don’t know, I think there’s something a bit depressing about it, especially if one’s very tired.

But finishing something in the morning. Now that is exciting. Then one can breathe deeply, indulge in a moment of reflection, and then look out of the window at a beautiful ice blue sky, spring out of bed for some toast and feel like it is the beginning of something, as well as the end.

And I suppose that today really is the day that I begin something very new indeed. Real life as a married woman begins now. Goodbye to a comforting blissful childhood read of falling in love and yearning and wistfulness, and hello to the very exciting new world!!