A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais – A Wild, Wicked, Woeful, Wonderful Novel

 

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ by Marie-Claire Blais (1966) – 145 pages         Translated from the French by Derek Coltman

I discovered Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais through a recent article in the New Yorker entitled “Will American Readers Ever Catch on to Marie-Claire Blais?”

‘A Season in the Life of Emmanuel’ is a wicked, wicked novel; it is diabolically outrageous and wonderful. I loved it. The way I look at it is that what Joseph Heller did to World War II in Catch-22, Marie-Claire Blais does to the Quebec farm family. Blais exagerates the prevailing attitudes on the farm to the point of ridiculousness. Perhaps it is my small poor farm background which caused me to love this novel.  Gallows humor and biting coruscating irony come to a farm in Quebec. There is not one iota of sentimentality in this novel, and that is just fine with me.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of new-born baby Emmanuel. He was born without fuss today, and his mother is already back outside working on their farm. There are 16 children in this Catholic family, about one a year. Old Grand-mere Antoinette watches over all the little children in the family who are too young to work yet. Grand-mere Antoinette is ancient but she runs the household and she expects to live forever. She is a stern and very religious taskmaster.

Most of the older children are outside working on the farm but Jean-Le Maigre stays inside because he is tubercular and the family knows he is going to die soon. Grand-mere is looking forward to his death because she knows he will be going to a better place then.

There had been so many funerals during the years that Grand-mere Antoinette had reigned in her house, so many little black corpses, in the wintertime, children always disappearing, babies who had only lived a few months, adolescents who had vanished mysteriously in the fall, or in the spring. Grand-mere Antoinette allowed herself to be rocked gently in the swell of all these deaths, suddenly submerged in a great and singular feeling of content.”

Jean-Le Maigre is in his usual spot under the kitchen table with his head in a book. That is the only place he can get some quiet time among all the squawking kids. Jean Le Maigre also does a lot of writing. However his farmer father thinks school and learning and reading and writing are a waste of time.

I had been leaving my Greek prose, my funeral orations, my fables, and my tragedies lying around all over the house for some time before I discovered that my father had consigned them to the latrine as fast as I could write them. What a disappointment!”

Also one of the daughters Heloise stays in her room while the others are all outside working. Heloise is a rabid religious zealot with a love of suffering. Grand-mere Antoinette sends her off to the church in order to prepare her for a life in the convent, but Heloise proves too fanatical even for the Mother Superior to handle.

There is a very different future in store for Heloise which Marie-Claire Blais hints at early on when she mentions that Heloise’s temptations turned more and more to something she didn’t recognize as desire. Let’s just say that Heloise winds up being the one economic success story in the family.

Jean Le Maigre also gets sent to the church school by Grand-mere for religious classes. At the church there is a Brother Theodule who “during the melancholy hours spends chasing little boys around the noviciat’s evil-smelling corridors”.

That man has chosen our sons to prey upon.”


Blais is prescient about the Catholic scandals to come.  Brother Theodule is kicked out of the church school but later reappears around town and is given the appropriate name Brother Theo Crapula.

I had not read a novel that so successfully used grim gallows humor in a long time, but Marie-Claire Blais also uses the humor to make some devastating points about life and religion.

Once in a while I will find an unknown older novel that beats everything that is written today. That is what happened here.

 

Grade:     A+

 

 

‘All This Could Be Yours’ by Jami Attenberg – The Dad Was Bad

 

‘All This Could Be Yours’ by Jami Attenberg    (2019) – 298 pages

The catchphrase for ‘All This Could be Yours’ is “family dysfunction at its finest”, and I am always up for some family dysfunction in my fiction reading.

At the center of this novel is Victor Tuchman. He is a miserable human being who sometimes beats his wife and has hurt every member of his family in one way or another.

Every so often he smacked her. The arguments were stupid, trivial, about nothing, about money which they had plenty of. Nothing was ever worth violence, but she grew used to it, and in a way, it was how she knew he was still paying attention to her, because most of the time, he wasn’t around.”

The family does live in a nice house in Connecticut and all, because Victor is not a criminal low life; he is a criminal high life. We live in a time when many of the richest people are outright criminals because white collar crime perpetrated by white people is rarely punished. Victor has made his living in some forms of organized criminal activity which he never discusses with his family. Later he is beset with several sexual harassment lawsuits from a few of his former mistresses.

Anyhow very early in the novel he has a severe heart attack, and for the rest of the novel he lays dying in a hospital in New Orleans where he and his wife have moved in old age. We then meet other members of his immediate family with their own awful memories and feelings about Victor.

This is a story of severe family dysfunction, and these are best told in an oppressive claustrophobic atmosphere. ‘All This Could Be Yours’ loses its intensity when it wanders too far from this immediate family situation. Sometimes it becomes as discursive as a New Orleans travelogue.

Things to do in New Orleans. Drink, eat, drink, eat, jazz. The Mississippi. Cemeteries and ghosts. Alligators. She crossed Canal Street and the threshold of the French Quarter. Drink, eat, jazz. Ghosts.”

The novel loses its way for me when about half way through it tells the life story of daughter-in-law Twyla. Ultimately Twyla is also very much a victim of Victor Tuchman as shown in one of the weirdest scenes I have ever encountered, but her back story probably could have been left out. It is only after she meets and marries the son Gary Tuchman that her story relates at all the Tuchman family. Now they are getting divorced. The novel becomes diffuse and wandering, lacking focus.

So for me the catchphrase for ‘All This Could Be Yours’ would be changed to “family dysfunction at its middling”.

 

Grade:    B-

 

 

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout – She’s Back

 

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout (2019) – 289 pages

Olive Kitteridge of the small town of Crosby, Maine is getting old, but she still is a lively strong character who gets around the streets of the town.

In one story the husband of younger housewife Candy calls Olive Kitteridge an “old bag”. However Olive is one of only two people in town who will still stop by to visit with Candy. Candy’s other old friends are too scared. Candy is receiving radiation treatments for cancer, has lost all her hair, and is unsure if the current treatments will be successful.

Olive, you’re the kind of person people want to talk to.”

I don’t know about that,” Olive said.

Several shocking surprising goings on play against readers’ expectations of what goes on in a small town. Murder, arrests, several would-be suicides, family sexual abuse. These things do happen in small towns, but they get swept under the living room carpet. In the fictional works of Strout, the terrible events in the small town of Crosby, Maine, are brought out in the open. I would call her attitude small-town fatalism.

Elizabeth Strout gets to the crux of things, of life and death, which gives these linked stories more depth than you would expect. The stories are about the events, both good and bad, that make up each person’s life. The reader identifies with these not always admirable characters. Along the way, Strout achieves these moments of real near-wordless profundity.

These were openings into the darkness of a relationship one saw by mistake, as if inside a dark barn, the door had momentarily been blown off and one saw things not meant to be seen.”

Also we get glimpses of Olive’s own family life. At the beginning of ‘Olive, Again’, Olive remarries at age 70. Olive is not close to her own only son and his family who live in New York, but finally they come to visit her.

So there was this: Her son had married his mother, as all men – in some form or other – eventually do.”

Having an old person, Olive Kitteridge, near the center of your stories means you can deal with both life and death in them. Elizabeth Strout takes full advantage of this.

She was going to die. It seemed extraordinary to her, amazing. She had never really believed it before.”

The last two stories are about the hard truths we all must eventually contend with. Actually all the stories deal with hard truths of one sort or another. Elizabeth Strout’s fiction is the opposite of escapism.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

The Other Elizabeth Taylor – One of my Favorite Writers of the 20th Century

 

Elizabeth Taylor

Born:    July 3, 1912         

Died:   November 19, 1975

 

I was a bit unusual for a grown-up farm boy from Wisconsin. For years and years one of my foremost pleasures was reading one of the novels or collections of stories by English author Elizabeth Taylor, not the actress Elizabeth Taylor who was of little interest to me, but the fiction writer.

I have had a rather uneventful life, thank God,” the other Elizabeth Taylor told the London Times in 1971. But, she added, “another, more eventful world intrudes from time to time in the form of fan letters to the other Elizabeth Taylor. Men write to me and ask for a picture of me in my bikini. My husband thinks I should send one and shake them up, but I have not got a bikini.”

The author Elizabeth Taylor is still known as the Other Elizabeth Taylor. But that may change.

As a writer of domestic fiction, Elizabeth Taylor was the best of her time, a latter-day Jane Austen. There have been at least a dozen “rediscoveries” of author Elizabeth Taylor in various publications, but today she still is under-recognized as an outstanding fiction writer.

What makes her writing so special?

Taylor’s prose is so understated and at times lightly witty yet ultimately scathing, you hardly notice that it is there. That is the definition of fine writing to me. Like Graham Greene, Elizabeth Taylor makes good writing seem effortless.

Taylor’s novel ‘Angel’ is about a really bad writer of romance novels, Angelica Deverell, who becomes famous and wealthy due to sales of her atrocious novels. A lot of authors would look upon this situation as an opportunity for very cruel comedy; however Taylor always has a deep empathy for even her most forlorn characters.

This article by Phillip Hensher is the best appreciation of the writing of the other Elizabeth Taylor that I have come across.

I wish I could write as lucidly and as straightforward as the other Elizabeth Taylor, but I do try.

Where to start with the author Elizabeth Taylor?

Elizabeth Taylor was consistent as well as excellent, so just about any of her books would be a good place to start. Of her novels, I can remember being particularly impressed with ‘A Game of Hide-and-Seek’, ‘Angel’, ‘In a Summer Season’, and ‘The Soul of Kindness’. Taylor was one of the very best short story writers also, so those of you who lean toward short stories might want to read ‘You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There – The Selected Stories of Elizabeth Taylor’ by NYRB.

Quotes about her

Elizabeth Jane Howard once said of Elizabeth Taylor: “How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time.”

For years, the New Yorker published nearly every story she finished, 35 of them between 1948 and 1969. William Maxwell claimed that job applicants were given her stories to edit as a test, ‘and if they touched a hair of its head, by God, they were no editors’. There wasn’t much to tinker with: her style was spare, usually shorn of adverbs and adjectives, and her plots were similarly unencumbered.” – Deborah Friedell, London Review of Books

“Sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.” Rosamond Lehmann

Ruthlessness was also one of her great strengths as a writer. Far from being “charming”, her novels and stories often go straight to the rotten heart of things, fearlessly confronting betrayal, loneliness, despair and, above all, self-deception. Her prose is unshowy but wickedly subversive, quietly undermining her characters’ pretensions and wittily exposing the evasions people practise as they negotiate life.” – Peter Parker

What did not help was that Elizabeth’s perceptions, her interests, her awareness were essentially feminine; then there is her reticence, the domestic subject matter, the lending library aura that surrounds her work, the Thames Valley settings, the being married to a sweet manufacturer….the assumption that her work is predictable…one could go on. And as for her style, too many reviewers found it too feminine, missed the humour, missed the bleakness, could only see the subject material was domestic and then condemned the entire oeuvre as minor, certainly incapable of greatness.” – Nicola Beauman

Quotes from Elizabeth Taylor herself

I’ve no imagination and can only write of what I know.”

I never wanted to be a Madame Bovary. That way for ever—literature teaches us as much, if life doesn’t—lies disillusion and destruction. I would rather be a good mother, a fairly good wife, and at peace.” – Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide-and-Seek

The secret of your power over people is that you communicate with yourself, not your readers.” – Elizabeth Taylor, Angel

The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn’t. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.”

 

 

‘Welcome to America’ by Linda Boström Knausgård – Unspeakable Family Life

 

‘Welcome to America’ by Linda Boström Knausgård (2016) – 124 pages              Translated from the Swedish by Martin Aitkin

In ‘Welcome to America’, eleven year-old narrator Ellen has stopped talking. Her father has recently died, and Ellen is living with her stage actress mother and Ellen’s older brother.

Ellen believes she killed her father because she wished him dead, and then he died. Her father had severe mental problems, and he was a danger to people around him, especially his wife, so he was locked up in an institution.

The ambulance that pulled up slowly outside, and me trying not to draw his attention to it, so he wouldn’t run away. I’d dreamt about them coming to get him. Men in white coats who took him away and locked him up for good.”

Now the father has died, and daughter Ellen lives in nearly unrelieved misery and has stopped talking.

The backstory is that the father was relatively stable up in northern rural Sweden. Then he married his wife who soon became an acclaimed stage actress and in order to advance her career the family had to move to the city. The father couldn’t stand complicated city life and went bonkers, and died in the asylum.

A broken man. Mom had chewed him up and spit him out. She’d lived their life as if it were the most natural thing in the world, only then to shut him out.”

This entire novel is overwrought, and the young girl Ellen is a case study in severe depression. It has the cold sad disquiet of one of Ingmar Bergman’s darker movies, but even Bergman would have put in a few lighter scenes for contrast. ‘Welcome to America’ would have been more convincing if there had been a couple of happy moments for variation from all of the despair.

I also don’t like the proposition that the mother’s stage success and vivacity naturally led to the father’s craziness, but that is probably just the kid’s projection anyway.

The novel is written in short staccato sentences and in many cases mere short phrases. Despite the short sentences, I wasn’t entirely convinced this was a young girl speaking. It is difficult for me to believe that an eleven year old girl could be this clinically depressed. In any case I’m not sure the story should have been told entirely from a depressive’s point of view, even if she is only eleven.

Also the title is misleading, because ‘Welcome to America’ has absolutely nothing to do with the story, except that Ellen is in a play at school about the Statue of Liberty. This play is barely mentioned.

 

Grade:   C+

 

 

‘Castle Gripsholm’ by Kurt Tucholsky – An Idyllic Summer Vacation in Sweden

 

‘Castle Gripsholm’ by Kurt Tucholsky   (1931) – 127 pages         Translated from the German by Michael Hoffman

The New York Review Books Classics series has done a remarkable job of rescuing neglected wonderful fiction from the past. Whenever I get fed up with the over-hyped novels of today, I read one of these classics in order to restore my faith in fiction. ‘Castle Gripsholm’ is another fine novel by a writer I had never heard of before.

I probably should have heard of Kurt Tucholsky before. There are two literary prizes, one in Sweden and one in Germany, named after him. He was perhaps Germany’s finest journalist in the 1920s but his work was banned, declared un-German, and burned in bonfires when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He left for Sweden then. ‘Castle Gripsholm’ was his only novel.

‘Castle Gripsholm’ is a fictional playful, lighthearted account of a five-week vacation trip to Sweden.

Our narrator Kurt travels by train with his girlfriend Lydia (called the Princess) from Berlin to Copenhagen, then up to Sweden by ship. They stay in the Swedish countryside near a lake at an annex to the Castle Gripsholm. There the two have a restful vacation.

Swimming in the lake; lying naked on the shore, in a sheltered spot; soaking in the sun so you rolled home at noon, wonderfully dozy, and drunk on the light, the air and the water; quiet; eating; drinking; sleeping; resting – holiday.”

Later Kurt’s good friend Karlchen arrives and stays a few days. The Princess and Karlchen immediately hit it off well, and Kurt is happy to have his two great friends there.

To have someone to trust! To be with someone for a change who doesn’t eye you suspiciously when you use a phrase that might perhaps offend his vanity, someone who isn’t prepared at any moment to lower his visor and do battle to you to the death…Friendship is like one’s homeland. We never talked about it, and whenever there was any slight surge of emotion unless it happened in a serious late-night talk – it would be quenched in a bucketful of colorful abuse. It was marvelous.”

After Karlchen leaves, a friend of the Princess, Billie, arrives for a few days, and the idyll continues.

Much of the fun of ‘Castle Gripsholm’ is in the playful witty repartee between these friends. However there are also the quiet times.

How wonderful it is to be silent with someone.”

Of course even a charming novel must have some dramatic tension to sustain interest, so there is a side story about a young girl Ada who they discover is being terribly abused by the cruel headmistress of a children’s home, Frau Adriani.

I have always tried to maintain certain balances in my reading between male and female writers, between authors from various parts of the world, and between new novels and the classic old novels. The New York Review Books Classics series helps me maintain all these balances. The one constant is that I look for novels that are meaningful and that I will enjoy.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Klotsvog’ by Margarita Khemlin – A Vivacious Self-Justifying Russian Woman

 

‘Klotsvog’ by Margarita Khemlin (2009) – 245 pages                         Translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden

‘Klotsvog’ is by far the liveliest Russian novel I have read that takes place during Communist times. This is thanks to our vivacious first-person narrator Maya. People find a way to live their lives as they want to in almost any circumstances.

‘Klotsvog’ takes the form of a fictional memoir of Maya who was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1930 to a Jewish family. She was on a trip with her mother out of town when her village was destroyed and the rest of her family as well as the rest of the community were murdered by the Nazis.

However Maya’s memoir begins in 1950. Jewish people then still had to worry, because Stalin still had a scheme to murder all the survivors of the Holocaust. Fortunately Stalin died in 1953 which was a great burden removed from the surviving Jewish people in Russia. Maya shares this insight into Communism:

The house is burning but the clock still keeps time.”

In 1950, Maya is a beautiful young woman, and she enters into an affair with her older instructor who is married. Another man named Fima is also interested in her. When she finds out she is pregnant by her instructor, she agrees to marry Fima and attempts to have sex with him so he will believe the baby will be his. She is only partially successful. This sets the pattern for the entire rest of the memoir. By the end Maya has had three husbands, two children, and four other intimate boyfriends, occasionally while she was still married. Of course in one case the husband was fooling around too. When she finds out that her husband is having an affair with his mother’s live-in nurse, she reacts thus:

Of course there could be no talk of love here. This was the usual male impermanence. Romance based on a fresh outward appearance and a young woman’s affected good-naturedness.”

Throughout I admired the honesty and insight of Maya.

Maya is honest in her memoir throughout, but the memoir is an exercise in self-justification as most memoirs are. Maya comes from a Ukrainian Yiddish background, but she does not want her children to speak Yiddish under any circumstances. Her mother and the few other family survivors criticize her mothering of her kids. The boy who is the older child spends much time with the grandmother in Kiev while Maya and one of her husbands move to Moscow. The grandmother instills the boy with some of the old family values, and Maya becomes estranged from the boy. Maya criticizes her daughter severely for being overweight, and the daughter becomes a severe behavior problem. Neither child likes their mother Maya much. In this memoir, Maya attempts to justify her parenting throughout, but is only partially successful.

I liked ‘Klotsvog’ a lot because Maya is an astute woman. But towards the end it does get somewhat discursive or repetitive or ambiguous. But as Maya would say:

But that’s not my point.”

Life is ambiguous.

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

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