‘The Beauties’ – Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov

 

‘The Beauties’ Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov (1880-1904) – 218 pages     Translated from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

 

I am pretty sure that I had read all or nearly all of these stories before, but as someone who loves good fiction I like to return to the stories of Anton Chekhov from time to time. Besides these are all new translations of the stories by Nicolas Pasternak Slater.

Slater does a fine job of capturing the poignancy in each of these stories. All of these stories are beautiful and affecting; they are from Anton Chekhov after all.

I would like to concentrate on one story, ‘About Love’, in particular which moved me greatly. It is about a guy who is ‘adopted’ by a husband and wife to be their very good friend. It is this guy who has been adopted who is telling the story.

First there is a sentence which frames the story.

There is only one indisputable truth that has been told about love, and that’s ‘This is a great mystery.”

So the husband and wife invite this guy into their house as a good friend to both of them, but soon the wife realizes there is a strong bond and attraction between her and this male friend, and the male friend realizes it too. But neither wants to hurt her husband.

When I came to town, I could always tell from her eyes that she’d been expecting me; and she herself would confess that right from early morning she’d had sort of a special feeling, and guessed that I would come. We spent a long time talking or saying nothing, but we didn’t admit that we loved one another – timidly, jealously, we kept that secret. We were afraid of anything that might reveal that secret to ourselves.”

Circumstances bring them together frequently, and they both realize that they were meant for each other. That over the years they never go beyond just being great platonic friends makes the story even more moving. Finally the husband and wife move away.

Some might claim that not much happens in this story, but that they restrain themselves for the sake of not hurting the husband despite their strong feelings for each other only makes the story more intense.

Chekhov frequently uses a device that seems almost a natural one for telling a story. Two friends are discussing a mutual acquaintance. This seems like the perfect way to get introduced to the traits, peculiarities, and foibles of a character. We all have strong opinions about our friends.

This is a strong starter collection because the stories for which Chekhov is famous are here. Chekhov captures the essence of each of his characters, and the stories are always true to his characters.

The stories are compassionate, warm, understanding, and kindly. In other words they are just the opposite of the writing of Georges Simenon except for the understanding part.

I want to end with two quotes about Chekhov and his art.

Chekhov is a hero to many writers. He was so immensely skilled at revealing character – and describing life – without sentiment, without judgmental-ism, and ostensibly without the least show of self. It’s his sense of the ridiculousness of human life that intrigues, because we aren’t sure what to take from it. Maybe we are tragic because we are ridiculous. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.” – Lynne Truss, author

He saw the world and the human condition with absolute clarity and no sentimentality. He did not believe in any god (and was baffled by intelligent people who did). He refused to judge. He changed the way we wrote and thought. He was a very complex, flawed, kind man.” – William Boyd, author

 

Grade : A+

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‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson – Listening in on the Fascists

 

‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson (2018) – 329 pages

England faced a severe Fascist threat in 1940 just like it does today. At that time the threat was from Germany instead of Russia. ‘Transcription’ is a novel about spying on fifth column British Fascists who were secretly trying to help Hitler and Germany during World War II.

Do not equate Nationalism with Patriotism. Nationalism is the first step on the Road to Fascism.”

So much depends on an intelligent personable voice to carry a novel. Juliet Armstrong is that vivacious voice in ‘Transcription’. She was only eighteen when she started with the British spy organization M15 as a typist and soon she is recruited for a special mission transcribing conversations taking place in an adjacent bugged hotel room between M15 agent Godfrey Toby and assorted British Fascists. Later she becomes even more heavily involved in the dangerous spy work.

It must be awfully handy to have a scapegoat for the world’s ills. Women and the Jews tend to be first in line, unfortunately.”

Most of the first half of ‘Transcription’ is taken up with Juliet Armstrong’s work with these operations for M15 and the various people she works with and also some of the British Fascists. I found this part of the novel entirely fascinating and high energy. We get a captivating picture and insight into the various individuals who make up this operation as well as those who are being spied on. Certainly the equipment used to bug the hotel room was primitive by today’s standards, but that’s part of the fun.

In her M15 work Juliet ultimately gets involved in some dangerous grisly situations.

Later we jump forward to 1950, and the war is over. Juliet is now working for the BBC as a radio producer. Somehow the characters and situation at the BBC don’t have quite the impact of those in M15. For one thing Juliet naturally has somewhat of a condescending attitude toward her BBC work which is of course nowhere near as exciting as her time at M15. Later her M15 connection comes back to haunt her even during peacetime.

‘Transcription’ is a compelling read, perhaps not quite at the level of Atkinson’s amazing ‘Life After Life’ or ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’, but still gripping and engaging.

Intelligent fun. That is why I read Cervantes. That’s why I read Chekhov. That’s why I read Shakespeare. That’s why I read Kate Atkinson.

 

Grade :   A-

 

‘The Third Hotel’ by Laura Van Den Berg – My Husband, The Zombie

I do not read zombie novels…except this one accidentally. I have never read a zombie novel before and I probably will never read another zombie novel again. I do not find the concept of zombies at all compelling. However this zombie novel ‘The Third Hotel’ has an enticing locale in Havana, Cuba, and an interesting backstory.

To call ‘The Third Hotel’ a zombie novel is perhaps too harsh. It is not at all uncommon for a person who has lost someone close to them recently to imagine that dead person to still be there with them occasionally. Author Van Den Berg ties the events of this story close enough to reality so that I did not lose interest.

Claire has just arrived in Havana, Cuba to attend the New Latin American Cinema Film Festival. Her film critic husband Richard had gotten tickets for both of them to attend but he has been killed by a passing car while walking a few weeks ago. The grieving Claire decides to attend the festival alone. Soon after she watches the movie her husband was particularly interested in, ‘Revolution Zombi’ by director Yuniel Mata, Claire while wandering in Havana spots her dead husband Richard walking away from her.

The museum cast an enormous shadow and her husband was standing within that shadow. She recognized him first from behind, from several hundred feet away, and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk because she was dizzy and her mouth was packed with rocks. She ordered herself to stop recognizing him, because what she was recognizing was plainly impossible, but then she crept closer and saw just how possible it was.”

During the next few days she spots him several times.

You are dead. How could you have forgotten?”

We get the story of the marriage of Richard and Clare. Clare works in elevator sales traveling to towns and cities throughout the United States. Of course the hotel she stays at in Havana has an elevator of interest.

The tone of ‘The Third Hotel’ is overwrought, dreamlike, trancelike, surreal. There is a deliberate confusing of what is real and what is unreal that left me … confused. This is a fever dream of a novel.

‘The Third Hotel’ does capture the exotic atmosphere of the now booming tourist destination Havana nicely. This setting of a horror film festival in Havana is original, colorful, and interesting.

 

Grade:   B

 

Ten World Class Fiction Writers I Have Discovered Since I have been Blogging

 

I have been blogging for a little over nine years now, but I have been an avid reader of world fiction for over forty years. I had read most of the world’s great authors before I started blogging, so they are not included here. However I have discovered many new authors and some existing ones I hadn’t read before then. Some have been featured on other sites. Here are ten I consider the best of the new finds.

Note: I discovered Irene Nemirovsky and Hans Fallada just before I started blogging, so they are not included.

Here goes.

Elena Ferrante – Elena Ferrante has pretty much taken over the world. Her 4-volume Neapolitan Novels will stand as one of the landmarks of Italian literature, and I’ve also read some of her excellent previous work now too. I expect the Neapolitan Novels are quite autobiographical, but she definitely captures what it must have been like growing up in Naples, Italy.

Yan Lianke – I’m only two novels in to Yan Lianke’s work, but I can tell his work will last. I see him as the great political novelist of our time. His ‘The Four Books’ captures the dislocation and devastating results on the Chinese people of the Great Leap Forward started by Chairman Mao Zedong. Lianke is now in my ‘Must Read’ category.

Amor Towles – Amor Towles is the last thing you would expect from the United States today, a smart, stylish elegant charming writer. Both of his novels ‘Rules of Civility’ and ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ are winners.

Georges Simenon – I never read Georges Simenon in the past because I thought he was a detective genre novelist. Then I discovered his romans durs, and now I am hooked. This French writer deals with the gritty side of life, tacky nasty people, and terrible acts. I find that Georges Simenon has more insight into the way men and women misbehave than just about any other writer.

Aminatta Forna – Forna’s Croatian novel ‘The Hired Man’ is written in the style of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ where the sins and conflicts of the past come back to subtly haunt the people of today. Forna’s newest novel ‘Happiness’ about urban foxes in modern-day London captures more than just what is happening on the surface and achieves a depth missing from many novels.

Sofi Oksanen – Finland and Estonia are pretty much twin countries, and Sofi Oksanen has roots in both of them. Both of the novels I have read of Oksanen’s, ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ and ‘Purge’, have taken place in Estonia. Both of these novels have characters and an intensity that makes them superior reads.

Luis Alberto Urrea – I have only read the one novel, ‘The House of Broken Angels’, but it is one of the most affectionate humorous family portraits I have ever read. Old man Big Angel gathers the family for his one last big birthday party before he dies. Like any occasion when we have not seen many of our relatives for a long time, we think back on these people and what they were like when they and we were young.

Viet Thanh Nguyen – Watch for this guy, because he has written two thoroughly wonderful works of fiction. ‘The Sympathizer’ tells the story of the Vietnam War from the victors’ point of view which we in the losing US rarely get to see or hear. ‘The Refugees’ is a fine collection of stories about the Vietnam refugees’ experience in the United States.

Tove Jansson – Tove Jansson was another Finnish writer who wrote both children’s books and adult novels and stories. The wonderful NYBR Classics series has brought back many great authors, and Tove Jansson is one of them. The simple language and dramatic events, especially in ‘The True Deceiver’, make her work outstanding.

Karen Russell – On no other novel have I lavished such paroxysms of delight as I have on Karen Russell’s ‘Swamplandia’. Afterwards I read a collection of Russell’s stories that was somewhat a disappointment, so now I’m wondering was ‘Swamplandia’ really that good? Sometimes a novel will just sweep you off your feet.

 

I could also have mentioned Jon McGregor, Lauren Groff, Lawrence Osborne, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Anthony Doerr, etc. etc.

 

‘The Winter Soldier’ by Daniel Mason – Romance in a Makeshift Hospital During World War I

 

‘The Winter Soldier’ by Daniel Mason (2018) – 318 pages

Most of the novels we get here in the United States which take place during World War I involve the Western Front. ‘The Winter Soldier’ is only the second novel I’ve read which takes place on the Eastern Front in the battles between the Austrian Empire and Russia. The first Eastern Front novel I read was the uproarious anti-war masterpiece by Czech writer Juroslav Hasek, ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’. When the Russian government collapsed with the February Revolution of 1917, Russia left the war so there was no longer an Eastern Front.

‘The Winter Soldier’ is about a young Austrian medical student named Lucius. The fighting during World War I was particularly gruesome for the soldiers, and a lot of doctors were needed to treat the soldiers’ horrific injuries. Thus Lucius becomes an army doctor even before he has had any practical experience whatsoever. He is assigned to a makeshift army hospital in a church in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains which I believe is somewhere in Poland.

When he arrives, the nurses are happy to see him because there hasn’t been a doctor there for three months. One of the young nurses Margarete who is also a nun has been doing all the necessary amputations and other severe surgeries herself. Lucius tries unsuccessfully to hide his inexperience and all-around incompetence from Margarete.

Margarete is such a strong and likable figure that the reader misses her when she is not in the story. ‘The Winter Soldier’ develops into a romance between Lucius and Margarete.

I found this to be a somewhat unusual subject for a United States novelist to tackle. ‘The Winter Soldier’ is very moving and well done. You will laugh, you will cry. This is substantial real literature that will last.

World War I was probably the most horrific war for the soldiers not only due to the trench fighting but also due to the close combat in other situations. Reading about these soldiers with these dreadful battle injuries, one can’t help but wonder why humans do such terrible things to each other periodically in the name of war. Not only were these war wounds severe, but also the treatment for infections was still primitive then, so there were many amputations due to infected wounds.

Not all of the injuries that the soldiers get are physical. Some are suffering from severe shell shock which can result in catatonia or uncontrollable tremors. However the army sends patrols around to the hospitals, and when they see someone with no obvious injuries, they roust these soldiers up and make them return to battle.

The scenes that take place at this makeshift hospital are definitely the strongest in the novel. Later the war ends and Lucius loses track of Margarete, so the story becomes a search for her. As I said before, the reader longs for Margarete when she is not in the story.

 

Grade :    A-

 

 

‘The Story of a Marriage’ by Geir Gulliksen – The Break-Up

 

‘The Story of a Marriage’ by Geir Gulliksen (2015) – 152 pages Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin

‘The Story of a Marriage’ is a novel about the breaking up of a marriage. It is told by Jon who haplessly watches and listens as his second wife Timmy is attracted to and gradually falls in love with another guy named Gunnar.

As a little inside knowledge about the writing of ‘The Story of a Marriage’ it must be noted that the former real wife of the author Geir Gulliksen complained that during their bitter breakup Gulliksen threatened that he was going to write a novel about the breakup and then he did. So this is reality fiction with a vengeance.

Jon in the novel ditched his first wife when he became attracted to Timmy, and then his first wife prophetically announced ‘Wait until this happens to you’. Twenty years and two kids later…

In the early stages of Timmy’s attraction to Gunnar, Jon is so confident of his good relationship with his wife that he actually encourages her to meet up with Gunnar and perhaps even do more than that. Later he rues that strategy.

I understand that this guy Jon is hurting because his wife left him for another man, but ‘The Story of a Marriage’ could have used a bit of humor. Without any lightness or sense of fun the many extended sex scenes in the novel veer into sappiness. I really can’t blame the girl Timmy for ditching this guy Jon who has no sense of humor for someone else.

Although I’ve got to hand it to the Scandinavians. They can discuss rationally at length what goes on between two people in bed. That’s more than what the rest of the world can do. That’s more than I can do.

The lengthy sober detailed descriptions of the mechanics of the various sex acts between Jon and Timmy in bed are about the only things I found laughable in this entire novel, and I’m sure that was unintentional.

This novel did remind me of ‘Scenes From a Marriage’, a movie directed by Ingmar Bergman which is also about the dissolution of a marriage and which I do consider a much stronger work. In the movie, the husband and wife are on an equal basis and thus each can present his or her side of the story. In ‘The Story of a Marriage’, Jon is the sole narrator, and even though he tries real hard to get inside of his wife Timmy’s thoughts and feelings we don’t really get her views of things.

By the way, I went through several years of watching great Ingmar Bergman films and my favorite of his work is ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

My bottom line on ‘The Story of a Marriage’ is that it is not a bad novel if you can get by the sappiness of its extended sex scenes.

 

Grade :    C

 

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata – An Unsung Hero

 

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata (2016) – 163 pages     Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

In every successful endeavor whether it be a family, a business, a clinic, or even a convenience store, there are people who keep it running smoothly and efficiently while at the same time keeping things pleasant and clean. These people are often not the bosses, but they are still totally dedicated to the success of the enterprise. Often these unsung heroes are women. At the same time if there is someone messing up the works with a hateful spiteful attitude, it is often a man who may or may not be the boss.

I read this Japanese novella because convenience stores are something I can relate to, having several of these little stores in our vicinity, usually combined with a gas station. Convenience stores are one thing Japan and Minnesota have in common.

Keiko Furakura has worked part-time at her neighborhood Smile Mart for 18 years. She is not the boss. She greets each customer with a friendly “Irasshaimase, Good Morning”. She makes sure the store keeps the items which customers want in stock, and she arranges her displays to make them attractive. She is dedicated to her store, and her managers think well of her.

Keiko has never had a boyfriend even though she is 38. Her family and her few friends are worried about her because she has no life outside of her job.

Her convenience store hires a young man named Shiraha. It soon becomes apparent that he doesn’t measure up as an employee since he does not do the tasks assigned to him and is insolent and not friendly with the customers. Shiraha is fired from the Smile Mart.

Later Shiraha hangs around Keiko, and Keiko puts up with him because her family feels bad for her for never having a boyfriend. Shiraha moves in with her, does no work, and sponges money off of her. He convinces Keiko to quit the Smile Mart and look for a real job. Keiko’s family and friends are happy for her that she has finally found a male someone.

That is the setup. I won’t tell you what happens next.

Much of what has been written about ‘Convenience Store Woman’ discusses the rigidity and homogenizing pressures of Japanese society. I prefer to concentrate on the similarities between the little stores in Japan and the little stores in Minnesota. Stories like this one about a convenience store woman in Japan could well happen here in Minnesota too. In both places there is a wide variety of types of people that makes it difficult to generalize. I don’t see this situation as at all strange or unusual for any place in the world.

‘Convenience Store Woman’ is a well-done enjoyable novella that celebrates someone who normally doesn’t get the credit she deserves.

 

Grade :   A

 

 

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