‘Women’ by Mihail Sebastian – Foolish Love Affairs

 

‘Women’ by Mihail Sebastian   (1933) – 186 pages                 Translated from the Romanian by Philip O Ceallaigh

‘Women’ relates the frivolous love affairs of Romanian medical student Stefan Valeriu. It is the frivolousness of these love affairs that makes them seem so modern. The affairs are not intense or fraught with feelings as we seem to associate with romance in the olden days. Instead they are light and playful.

‘There haven’t been very many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average unattractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests”.’

There are Renee, Odette, Maria, and Arabela among others.

I suppose an aspiring doctor would have no problem finding available gals at a vacation resort in the Alps even back in the olden days. A couple of these available gals happen to be married to tedious husbands.

What makes ‘Women’ stand out are the beautiful evocative sentences. I expect that the translator Philip O Ceallaigh had much to do in making ‘Women’ so readable for a modern audience.

‘In all this, the sound of Stefan Valeriu’s own breathing is one more detail, no more trivial or essential than a squirrel leaping or that grasshopper perched on the toe of his boot, believing it to be a stone. It’s good to be here, an animal, a creature, a nobody, sleeping and breathing on a two meter patch of grass under a common sun.’

My compliments to the writer and to the translator for these lines.

In the last chapter, Stefan meets Arabela who gets him to abandon his medical career to become part of a music act traveling throughout Europe.

‘I sat at the piano and looked at Arabela and told myself, as I did every evening, that she wasn’t beautiful and couldn’t sing, and then accompanied her earthy voice with the same astonishment and profound peace, and it made me so melancholy, like ten slim fingers combing through memory and forgetfulness.’

These are bright and sunny stories about intriguing and exasperating women, and I will be looking to read Mihail Sebastian’s other acclaimed novel ‘For Two Thousand Years’ soon.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘I’m Fine and Neither Are You’ by Camille Pagan

 

‘I’m Fine and Neither Are You’ by Camille Pagan (2019) – 254 pages

This is probably the first time I ever selected a book of fiction to read based solely on its clever title. This is not a wise strategy.

I would call ‘I’m Fine and Neither Are You’ an example of Mom Lit, the family version of Chick Lit.

Penny is a Mom who is trying to do it all, raise two kids while working a full time job while her husband Sanjay is a stay-at-home Dad supposedly writing a book and taking care of the house and family. Besides that, Penny does face a severe crisis in that her best friend Jenny, also a young wife and mother, dies of prescribed opioid poisoning.

We never do find out the city where all this takes place in because I suppose Penny is Every Mom, and place is not important to the story.

Sanjay is a rather hapless Dad as most Dads tend to be. While his wife Penny is working a fulltime professional job and doing most of the work taking care of the children, Sanjay contemplates writing his book and practices with the makeshift band he is part of.

Penny realizes that her marriage is terribly lopsided so she comes up with a fix-our-marriage project which involves each making a to-do list for the other.

I suppose part of my problem with this novel is my own attitude because I find this family situation rather trite and over-familiar, yet what could be more crucial and tremendously important than bringing up children? Perhaps I should not be writing this novel off as women’s fiction.

However, despite her best friend’s death, Penny in ‘I’m Fine and Neither Are You’ is so relentlessly upbeat that she shares all the tropes of Chick Lit.

By the end of ‘I’m Fine and Neither are You’, everyone – her husband, her female boss, her male co-worker, her deceased friend’s husband, her father, and herself – all behave perfectly. That is simplistic and unrealistic.

 

Grade:   C+

 

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney – Marianne and Connell

 

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney (2019) – 288 pages

 

There is no sophomore slump or sophomore jinx here. Sally Rooney’s first novel, ‘Conversations With Friends’ is very good; her second novel ‘Normal People’ is even better.

Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so its just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights.

Oh, hey, he says.

Come on in.

She turns and walks down the hall. He follows her, closing the door behind him.

These are the first lines of ‘Normal People’. In short declarative sentences, Sally Rooney gets the reader to care about these two high school seniors, Marianne and Connell.

Marianne lives in a white mansion in the small western Ireland town of Carricklea. Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at the mansion. Both Marianne and Connell are at the top of their class in schoolwork. It’s true that Marianne is the smartest person in the school, but she has no friends.

She exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtime alone reading novels. A lot of people hate her.

Connell is also one of the top students, but he is very popular. He is the star of the school football team. He also reads a lot during his spare time.

“Of course, he pretends not to know Marianne in school, but he didn’t mean to bring that up. That’s just the way it has to be. If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over.”

In the beginning, these two could almost be from your high school. While seniors, Marianne and Connell discover they have an almost natural attraction for each other. Later they both decide to go to Trinity College in Dublin.

Most of ‘Normal People’ takes place during their college years. In college, Marianne thrives on the academic life and is no longer the friendless soul but she still has trouble reconciling her traumatic early years.

There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love. In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality. It depressed her to think people were so predictable.”

Connell finds it difficult being away from all of his high school friends and his mother Lorraine. Connell and Marianne break up only to make up time and time again.

Sally Rooney has made the decision for this novel to not use quotation marks to denote spoken conversation lines. I believe that is a good strategy here, because quotation marks would have detracted from the naturalness of their interactions and would have given their spoken words an artificial stagy quality.

In short sentences, simply and directly, Sally Rooney captures the way things go for Marianne and Connell in the last year of high school and during those wild early years of college.

 

Grade:   A

 

William Trevor – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers

 

William Trevor

Born:  May 24, 1928        Died:  November 20, 2016

 

I first read William Trevor back in 1977. I started with one of his short story collections, ‘The Day We Got Drunk on Cake’ I believe it was. As that title implies, these were lively yet subtle sociable stories about men and women getting together or breaking up or just hanging around side by side. Immediately Trevor became one of my favorites, and I devoured his work in subsequent years. There were the short story collections including ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, ‘Angels at the Ritz’, ‘Lovers of Their Time’, and ‘Beyond the Pale’. Finally I got the courage to try one of his novels, ‘Elizabeth Alone’, and found that he excelled in that form also.

Trevor, in his writing, is comfortable telling the stories of both men and women. He captures the joy and pain in individual lives in a short number of pages. Here is Wuilliam Trevor on being a writer:

By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.”

Although William Trevor was born in Ireland as a Protestant, he set many of his early stories in England where he worked for many years.

I have continued to read William Trevor for a long time, decades. I have come to find that over the years his writing changed. His early stories are usually lively, happy, full of incident, sociable, and frequently take place in England. However beginning with the 1980s I found his work to become more sad, more sparse, more serious, more rural, and more likely to take place in Ireland. Whereas he wrote ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ in 1972 and he wrote ‘Death in Summer’ in 1998, these titles are indicative of the changes in his approach to fiction.

I’m very interested in the sadness of fate”. – William Trevor

I actually prefer the early William Trevor to the later William Trevor. I found this sad sparseness creeping into his work which used to be so vibrant and alive. The later William Trevor is still very good, but it is not at all like the early William Trevor.

If you have only read the later William Trevor, I strongly recommend that you pick up one of his early short story collections like ‘The Day We Got Drunk on Cake’ or ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ or ‘Angels on the Ritz’ or ‘Lovers of Their Time’, and if you can’t stand short stories then read the novel ‘Elizabeth Alone’. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised.

I get melancholy if I don’t write. I need the company of people who don’t exist.” – William Trevor

You really must read either early or later William Trevor.

 

 

‘A Perfect Hoax’ by Italo Svevo

 

‘A Perfect Hoax’ by Italo Svevo (1929) – 101 pages                         Translated from the Italian by J. G. Nichols

I read ‘Confessions of Zeno’ by Italo Svevo many years ago, and I was much impressed with that wonderful modernist psychological novel which James Joyce had praised. Since then I have looked for other works by Italo Svevo to read, and that is how I came upon ‘A Perfect Hoax’.

‘A Perfect Hoax’ is a pleasant little self-parody of Italo Svevo’s own writing career but not much more than that. It is not a major work.

The main character Mario Samigli from Trieste is a writer who has not had much of a career. His novels have sold only a few scattered copies in Italy. Now he is in his sixties and spends his time looking out the window watching the birds which he feeds.

Bread was of course offered to the two sparrows, because they exist so that human kindness can be offered on the cheap.”

The only writing that Mario does now are the short fables he pens about these birds which he reads to his ailing brother.

Then his so-called friend, traveling salesman Enrico Gaia, plays a cruel hoax on old Mario. Gaia tells Mario that a German publisher passing through read one of Mario’s early novels and was so impressed that he wants to translate the novel into German and sell it throughout the German-speaking countries.

Gaia’s words go straight to Mario’s head. At last he has been discovered! All those years he has struggled as a writer, and now at last he finds success!

When his book was published in German, the wonder throughout the city and the whole nation would be all the greater because it was unexpected.”

Mario is a victim of self-delusion, a malady to which would-be writers are particularly susceptible.

Italo Svevo’s career as a fiction writer parallels Mario’s except for one notable exception. While working as a bank clerk Svevo wrote a few novels which received little attention from Italian critics or readers. However Svevo did have one reader who made all the difference. That was James Joyce. When Svevo’s ‘Confessions of Zeno’ was first published in 1923, it received little fanfare, but later Joyce championed it and helped to have it translated into French and published in Paris where critics praised it extravagantly.

If you are going to read Italo Svevo, read ‘Confessions of Zeno’ which many including myself consider a masterpiece. ‘A Perfect Hoax’ has no such claims or pretensions. It is only a pleasant little read, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Grade:    B-

 

 

‘Spring’ by David Szalay – A Would-Be Romance

 

Spring’ by David Szalay (2011) – 259 pages

David Szalay has a new novel, ‘Turbulence’, coming out in June, but I was so impressed with his previous collection of stories, ‘All That Man Is’, that I couldn’t wait and decided to read his novel from 2011, ‘Spring’, right now.

All of the stories in ‘All That Man Is’ centered around young men making or not making their way in this modern world, and I found each story engaging, insightful, and eloquent.

There are writers of historical fiction, romance, science fiction, and mystery, but there are few writers who can articulate this maddening modern world we now live in. David Szalay is one who can take on modern life today, and I value him for that.

‘Spring’ is about a would-be romance between a young man and a young woman, James and Katherine, in London, but outside factors like Katherine’s ex-lover Fraser keep getting in the way. James had made a fortune in the dot.com boom of the late nineties but has lost it in the bust, and now he’s working on a shady horse racing scheme with his pals in order to recoup a little of the money. Katherine works in a reception desk in a hotel where she earlier had met her ex, Fraser, who makes a living as a photographer taking pictures of celebrities on the sly.

In ‘Spring’, Szalay captures nearly every nuance of the interaction between James and Katherine from a nice outing in Morroco to Katherine’s indifference when she starts things back up with her old boyfriend. One time James calls Katherine and he can hear noises that makes him suspect there’s a man in her room. Sadly that reminded me of an episode in my own past.

I suppose ‘Spring’ could be described as an anti-romcom as James presses forward to get closer to Katherine but is met by her seeming lack of enthusiasm. ‘Spring’ is more realistic than a romance by capturing every twist and turn of this harrowing relationship or non-relationship between these two.

We also get the spurious results of the whole horse racing scheme which adds some light humor to this entertainment. Szalay captures what it must be like for young guys and gals to live in London now and how they get together or don’t get together.

England is quite far along in recognizing David Szalay as a perceptive writer, but the United States has not really discovered him yet. I will be waiting for ‘Turbulence’ to arrive in June.

 

Grade:    A-

 

‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante – A Masterpiece Only a Female Could Have Written

 

‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante (1957) – 370 pages                    Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Once in a great while I stumble upon a unique masterpiece, and this time it is ‘Arturo’s Island’. It is a beautifully-written moving one-of-a-kind novel. Although there are clues that ‘Arturo’s Island’ takes place after World War II, the story seems to occur outside of time in a place of legend, of myth.

The story begins with the stark simplicity of a fairy tale. It takes place on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples near Italy. As you can see from the picture below, the actual Procida Island is built up with a multitude of structures. However in the novel you get the impression that it is nearly deserted. Arturo is born in the castle called Casa de Guagliano which for centuries had been a monastery but has recently been occupied by a woman-hating old man named the Amalfitano. Arturo’s mother died the night he was born. Arturo’s main caregiver as a baby is Silvestro, a male servant. There are no women living in the castle. Arturo grows up quite wild and free on the island, worshiping his father Wilhelm who goes off on his own on mysterious trips and comes back only occasionally. Arturo’s best friend is his dog Imacolatella.

When Arturo is fourteen, his father brings back a wife called Nunziata. Nunziata is only sixteen, and she acts more like a big sister to Arturo than a mother. Nunziata does her best to be a good mother, but Arturo resents her for intruding on his man’s world. He has had little or no interaction with females up until then.

It is in depicting this teenage girl Nunziata that the writer Elsa Morante really shines. Nunziata arrives like a breath of fresh air into Arturo’s all-male world, although he doesn’t appreciate her at the time. Nunziata is charming, beguiling, enchanting, appealing. ‘Arturo’s Island’ is special because it is written from a female’s point of view. Thus it captures the inherent qualities of a female and how a female views men.

Procida Island Marina

There are types of stories which women excel in because women are more observant of other people than men are. Whereas men are more action oriented and stay on the surface, women can go deeper and capture the nuances of human relationships.

But above all, I was impressed with the graceful elegance of Morante’s writing in ‘Arturo’s Island’. Elsa Morante has captured an isolated world on this remote island of Procida and she brings back meanings that apply to us all. I won’t forget this one.

‘Arturo’s Island’ is a must-read that only a female could have written

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

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