Mary Hocking: Letters From Constance (1991)

Letters From Constance

I think it speaks for the quality of a book when you feel like discussing it. Mary Hocking’s Letters From Constance is such a book. There’s so much to discuss. Characters, themes, and even the structure of the book. As the title indicates, Letters From Constance is an epistolary novel. A genre I’m particularly fond of and so it’s not surprising that I liked this novel very much.

Constance and Sheila met when they were only kids, in 1933. They were inseparable during their school years and confident they would stay close in the future. While they stayed close emotionally, they were often separeted. Sometimes for many months, even years. During those times of physical absence, they wrote letters. The novel renders one part of that correspondence that lasted from 1939 to 1984– the letters from Constance to Sheila. Those from Sheila to Constance had to be destroyed. In lesser hands this one-sided correspondence would have felt lacking, but the richness of the letters, the depth of Constance’s analysis and feelings, and her love for her friend, make sure Sheila’s just as present as the writer of the letters.

Constance and Sheila are very different and so are their life choices. While Constance marries an Irishman, Fergus, whom she met while she was posted to Ireland in the WRNS, Sheila marries the musician Miles. Constance has seven children, Sheila has two. Ever since they were teenagers, Sheila wrote poems and Constance was sure she would become a famous poet. It takes decades and a lot of heartache before Sheila finally follows her calling. One could say, she needed a detour to land on her path, while Constance follows her own calling intuitively. There are three things that define Constance – her friendship with Sheila, her children, and her religion.

I was surprised by this book because it’s very different from the first Mary Hocking (The Very Dead of Winter) I read. I must say I loved the first one more – it was richer in atmosphere and descriptions -, but it didn’t make me want to discuss it while this one did. There are so many themes explored it’s hard to name them all. I’ll just pick a few.

Motherhood. Maybe this is the main topic and the way it’s treated is arresting because there are so many elements attached to it. We are introduced to a multitude of mothers. First the mothers of the main protagonists, then the two friends, and finally their friends and daughters. Each woman stands for another type of mother/mothering but – and that’s what’s so great – not one of them is one-dimensional or clichéd.

Love for the children. More interesting than different types of motherhood is how Constance describes herself as a mother. She’s not one mother, but seven different mothers, depending on which child she’s talking about. All the parents of more than one child I know pretend they love all of their children the same. It’s something I’ve a hard time believing and sometimes you just have to listen to them and you know it’s not true. I’m sure they try to treat all of their children the same way, love them all, but there will always be one that’s closer to their heart. Funny enough, when you ask people with siblings, they will tell you that they experienced this, that one was the mother’s favourite, while another one was preferred by the father . . . In the novel Constance, openly names a favourite child. She also says which one she thinks is the most intelligent, the best looking . . .  nonetheless she’s just and does love them all. I found that very refreshing, because it’s the way we are. Be it friends, colleagues, siblings, kids, even animals, there’s always one we feel more connected to. I suspect that a lot of heartache comes from our trying to deny this.

The role of women. The novel spans far over half a century and captures the changes in the lives of women, their changing roles, and status. There’s a lot that’s worth discussing here as well.

Religion. While Sheila’s an agnostic, Constance converts to Catholicism. Not because she’s married an Irishman, but because she discovers some writings that help her cope, understand life, and approach it in a more philosophical way. One author who is mentioned is Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), a French Jesuit priest. I looked him up and what I read sounds very interesting and reminded me a bit of Greek philosopher Epictetus.

The perception of others. For a long time Constance envies Sheila. Her life, her home, her marriage. It sounds freer, more creative. For her, seeing Sheila and her family together, making music, equals a vision of  paradise. Over the years we learn that things were very different. I think Mary Hocking touches upon something that happens very often— we haven an idea of people and, eventually, we don’t even see the real people anymore and, through comparison, we don’t even see ourselves.

Structure. This is another of the things I would have loved to discuss. Why did Mary Hocking choose to include only one part of the correspondence? And why did she choose Constance’s? Maybe it’s unfair, but I often thought that Sheila sounded like the more interesting woman.

As I said, I didn’t love this as much as The Very Dead of Winter, even so it is a wonderfully rich novel. One that would make a particularly great choice for a book group. I’m pretty sure it would lead to fascinating discussions.

Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about Mary Hocking. I wonder whether she was more like Constance or more like Sheila – I guess the latter.

This review is part of Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Week. She read and reviewed Letters From Constance last year. Here’s the review.

Antonio Tabucchi Week 17 – 23 September 2012 – The Giveaway Winner

Random org has decided who has won

Pereira Maintains

In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Dr Pereira. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion. This is Pereira’s testimony.

The book goes to Bettina (Liburuak).

I hope you will like it.

Please send me your address via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

For those who want to know more about Tabucchi Week and want to join, here are the details.

Antonio Tabucchi Week September 17 – 23 2012 and Giveaway

Ever since Stu’s Henry Green Week I wanted to host something similar for an Italian author and my first choice was always Antonio Tabucchi. He is one of the finest Italian writers and one I admire a lot.

Sadly what should have been a tribute to a living author has now turned into a commemoration as Tabucchi died earlier this year.

Tabucchi was a novelist, short story writer and academic. One striking feature was his love for Portugal, the Portuguese language and Fernando Pessoa. He didn’t only teach Portuguese literature at the university but he lived in Portugal (as a reaction among other things to Italian politics), wrote a novel in Portuguese and translated Pessoa.

He is one of the rare authors not writing in English who has been extensively translated. While I will read him in Italian, all those who would like to join can choose from a variety of other languages. He is available in English, French and German and most probably also in Spanish and Portuguese.

Tabucchi’s Indian Nocturne is one of my all-time favourite books. It has been made into a movie. I just read and reviewed Sogni di Sogni – Dreams of Dreams – a collection of imagined dreams attributed to famous writers, musicians and artists. But there are others that I want to re-read or discover for the first time like Tristano muore. Una vita.

If you have never read anything by this author I would suggest you start with one of his more famous novels like Pereira Maintains (Sostiene Pereira) or Indian Nocturne (Notturno Indiano). If you like short stories you may enjoy the beautiful collection of fictitious letters It’s Getting Later All the Time. If you go for quirky and inspiring, Dreams of Dreams may be the thing. But there are more.

Requiem: A Hallucination

Little Misunderstandings of No Importance

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

And in Italian (and other translations) only

Tristano muore. Una vita

Il tempo invecchia infretta

Il filo dell’orizzonte

In order to motivate you to join I’m giving away one copy of one of his most famous novels which has also been made into a movie with Marcello Mastroianni.

Pereira Maintains

In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Dr Pereira. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion. This is Pereira’s testimony.

The giveaway is open internationally. If you would like to win this book, just leave a comment. The only condition is that you take part in Tabucchi Week. What you will read is up to you, it doesn’t have to be the book you won.

The winner will be announced on Friday August 17 2012.

Tatiana de Rosnay: The House I Loved (2012)

Her newest novel, Rose, is already an early spring hit in France. Again written initially in English, this historical work evokes Paris under the Second Empire and the grand urban redesign ordered by Baron Haussmann: Rose, an aging widow living in her family home in a small street near the church of Saint Germain des Prés, receives a letter announcing that her home is slated for destruction to make way for the new Boulevard Saint Germain.

I haven’t read any of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novels before. Knowing she is one of the most successful French writers made me a bit suspicious but when I saw a copy of Rose in our local bookshop I felt drawn to it immediately as the novel is about Paris. It’s only after browsing the book that I found out, the original, The House I Loved, was written in English and Rose is a translation. I wasn’t even aware that Tatiana de Rosnay has written most of her latest novels in English and – less surprisingly – that this contributed to her international success.

The House I Loved is written in  the form of a long letter from Rose to her deceased husband. She tells him that she has, after all, been informed that she has to move. Her house is among those which will be destroyed to make way for the large boulevards which are part of the redesign of Paris ordered by the Prefect, Baron Haussman. The idea to lose the house breaks Rose’s heart. She loves this house, loves it for its history and because it is the family home of her husband. For her, whose mother was cold and distant, the house has become her home just like his family has become her family.

In this long letter she looks back on her past, how she grew up, how they met, speaks to him about her children, their life together, the sadness about the death of her son, about her husband’s illness, his confusion and his death. The memories and remembrances are often interrupted by the present. The people who will tear down the house will arrive soon but she has still not left. She speaks of the destruction, how the city changes.

I had a bit of a problem with the way this was told. The tone is very sentimental, at times corny, the voice too modern for the time depicted. I think it would have been much better as a third or a simple first person narrative instead of this epistolary confession. Still I’m very glad I have read this. It captured a particular moment in the history of the city of Paris very well. I love Paris for its big Boulevards and Avenues, the Paris of the Baron Haussmann. They represent Paris for me. When those big Boulevards were designed, the old medieval streets had to go, the houses were torn down. I tend to forget at what cost the remodeling of the city was achieved. It is so hard to imagine what it would have meant to own a family house, full of memories and histories and to be informed that it will be torn down and destroyed for the sake of modernisation and sanitation. Tatiana de Rosnay captures the enormity of such a loss very well.

In oder to achieve authenticity, Tatiana de Rosnay said in an interview, she wrote most of the novel with a pen, by candlelight. “I had the idea for this novel 15 years ago, after seeing pictures of streets now forgotten,” she explains. “It contains my two obsessions: memories embedded in the walls and family secrets.”

If anything The House I Loved made me want to pick up a few non-fiction books on this topic or Zola’s novel La CuréeThe Kill, which Emma reviewed recently here.

If you don’t mind a sentimental tone and are fond of historical novels and books set in Paris you might enjoy this entertaining novel.

I have attached a video about an exhibition of photos taken during the time. Although it is in French, you see many amazing photos. The person interviewed speaks about the numbers – how many houses were destroyed and why and about the photographer and why there were no people on the photos (at that time they couldn’t capture movement – so the streets had to be empty).

This review is a contribution to Karen’s and Tamaras‘s event Paris in July

Some Thoughts on Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1983)

To be frank, this is a difficult post as I really struggled to finish this book. A few years ago I have read some books by Alice Walker. One of them was Possessing the Secret of Joy. The book tells Tashi’s story. Tashi is an Olinka woman – a people invented by Alice Walker – who has to undergo circumcision. I remember that I thought it was well done and a very important book. I didn’t know that Tashi already plays a role in The Color Purple. I think The Color Purple also contains a lot of topics that are still important today but it is a book I should have read as a teenager. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the first books my mother read to me when I was a child, it made a big impression. If there wasn’t such a lot of violence and some explicit sex in The Color Purple it would be great for children as well. I’m too familiar with the topics by now to care much for the educational intention behind the story and the narrative voice – a childlike voice narrating the story in form of letters addressed to God and later letters addressed to a distant sister – annoyed me a lot. After a hundred pages I could hardly bear to go on reading. Still, as I said, the topics are important and some elements were interesting.

The most important topics are sexism and racism. Cultural heritage and religion. Slavery and freedom. Self-esteem and lack of confidence. Each character embodies one or more topics but with the exception of one of the central characters Shug Avery, the Blues singer and lover of Celie and Celie’s husband, all the characters undergo a journey from a fractured self to a complete self. Only Shug is fully herself from the beginning of the novel until the end and as such functions like a catalyst. She is also the only one who has the “true religion” or rather spirituality. A religion free of false patriarchal images, a religion which celebrates life and God in everything and everyone. This aspect of the novel is interesting and was glad to finally find out what the title of the novel means.

Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You sayin God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from) Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.

Towards the middle of the novel, Celie discovers that her long-lost sister Nettie has been writing to her ever since she left. Her letters form an important part and if they hadn’t been so wordy they would have been a relief as they are not written in spoken language. Nettie’s letters give another dimension and add the topic of Africa to the novel. I’m surprised that there haven’t been a lot of critical voices mentioning the depiction of Africa in the book. Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary and describes in great detail the poverty and illnesses, the illiteracy, the patriarchal society which forces girls to undergo the painful and dangerous circumcision. What I found amazing is that Nettie sees a direct link between the fact that many African people have sold other Africans to whites as slaves and their poverty and illnesses.

Although Africans once had a better civilization than the European (though of course even the English do not say this: I get this from reading a man named J. A. Rogers) for several centuries they have fallen on hard times. “Hard times “is a phrase the English love to use, when speaking of Africa. And it is easy to forget that Africa’s “hard times” were made harder by them. Millions and millions of Africans were captured or sold into slavery- you and me, Celie! And whole cities were destroyed by slave catching wars. Today the people of Africa-having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks-are riddled by disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion. They believe in the devil and worship the dead. Nor can they read or write.

I can’t help it but this passage shocks me. Africa has no homogenous population. It hasn’t and has never had. Africa has always consisted of extremely diverse peoples, with different cultural backgrounds, social systems, governments, religions, etc. From the highly elaborate kingdoms to the hunter gatherer societies there was everything before the white people even arrived. The way this is treated in the book or in this passage makes it sound as if there was such a thing as THE African while there were and are so many different people. While, yes, certain African people were actively selling other Africans – mostly the coastal people sold those from inside the country, the lesser developed people – and without the assistance of Africans slavery wouldn’t have been possible, not everyone has partaken in this. This is simplifying and distorting history. The end of the big cities was brought upon them by the whites. As developed as Africa was, in art and culture, they had no pistols or guns or any such weapons and were brought down relatively easily by a small number of white traders and explorers.

All in all, as I mentioned before, the narrative voice annoyed me. It was very repetitive. I also thought there was much too much in this book. Celie’s and Shug’s story would have been sufficient. There was no need to add a sister who travels to Africa as a missionary. It’s as if she had wanted to touch upon each and every subject related to or important in the life and history of Afro-American women. It may be mean to say so but I don’t think this would received a Pulitzer if it had been published now and not 30 years ago.

As I wanted to read more African – American authors this year, I’m glad I’ve read it but I’m sure, I’ll pick Zora Neale Hurston or one of the novels by Toni Morrison I haven’t read yet, next.

I have read The Color Purple for the readalong hosted by Bettina (Liburuak). If you’d like to read other’s impressions here are the links.

Let me end this post on a provocative note and add a question for the readalong participants or anyone who has read the book.

After having read The Color Purple, do you really consider this to be a classic or is it not rather just a very famous book?

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Poor People/Poor Folk – Бедные люди [Bednye lyudi] (1846)

Presented as a series of letters between the humble copying-clerk Devushkin and a distant relative of his, the young Varenka, Poor People brings to the fore the underclass of St Petersburg, who live at the margins of society in the most appalling conditions and abject poverty. As Devushkin tries to help Varenka improve her plight by selling anything he can, he is reduced to even more desperate circumstances and seeks refuge in alcohol, looking on helplessly as the object of his impossible love is taken away from him.

Poor People – or Poor Folk, depending on the translation – was Dostoevsky’s first novel. Published in 1846 it was highly acclaimed by fellow writers and critics alike. At only 24 Dostoevsky became a literary celebrity. It is generally not considered to be his best book, his masterpieces were still to come, but it already contains many of the elements that made Dostoevsky famous.

I must admit this was not an easy read. The style is simple and descriptive but the story was unsettling and depressing and it did ring unbearably true.

Poor People is an epistolary novel set in St.Petersburg among the very poor. The letters are exchanged between a young orphaned woman, Varenka,  and an elderly distant relative, the copy-clerk Devushkin, who loves her very much.

Those two poor people live very close to each other but have to hide their friendship as it could be misunderstood. The descriptions of Varenka’s past, how her parents died and mean people pretended to take care of her while in reality there was only abuse, are paired with Devushkin’s descriptions of the way he is living. Although he is very poor himself he tries to help the fragile young woman and sends her what little money he has. In order to save money he left his old apartment after his landlady died and moved into another place. In this apartment he lives with a great number of equally poor people together in close quarters. He really only occupies a little corner of the kitchen that is separated from the rest by a piece of fabric.

He doesn’t even mind living like this at first as he can see Varenka’s windows from his room but after a while it gets harder for him. In their letters they try to comfort each other and describe in great detail how they live. The tone is very emotional, there isn’t much they hold back. On some days they are cheerful and will write about nice things they have seen or experienced but on most other days they are in despair and very sad. Varenka is often ill and can’t work while Devushkin has a hard time to hide his poverty at work. His clothes are shabby and would need mending, he loses his buttons, his shoes have holes and the soles are coming off. The poorer they get, the worse they are treated by others, also from those who are as poor as they are.

As if matters were not bad enough, Devushkin spends what little money he has on alcohol. He invariably pays his escapades with fear and shame. One misfortune follows another as they have little or no means to prevent them.

Varenka is a very intelligent young woman. Unlike Devushkin she is educated and likes to read. She loves Pushkin and Gogol. In some of the letters and a little notebook that she sends to Devushkin, she describes her childhood. These are wonderful passages that capture the life in the country, the changing of the seasons. She describes with great detail how golden the autumn was in the country, how wonderful winter could be because they would sit around a fire and tell stories. These passages show how masterful a writer Dostoevsky is.

Devushkin on the other hand tells her what he sees when he goes out in Petersburg. It makes him sad to see beautiful rich women and to know how arbitrary it is to be either born poor or rich.

One of the themes of the novel is the arbitrariness of poverty and how prejudiced the rich are. They treat the poor as if they were contagious. On the other hand they like to see them because it makes them feel superior. For that very same reason they  like to give them alms. The lack of privacy makes matters worse. Living with so many or being stuffed into a tiny office space with many other clerks exposes you constantly to the prying of others.

It seems as if one should never undergo a certain level of poverty, once you fall below there is no getting up anymore. There are numerous little stories of other poor people who fall ill and of children who die because no medicine is available.

Devushkin and Varenka are amazing characters. Despite their destitution they always think of each other first and if they receive just a little bit of money from somewhere they will give to those who have even less.

Reading this in winter, when the days are getting shorter and it is getting colder was really not easy. It’s depressing and sad. I thought of a documentary that I watched not long ago about Russian pensioners and some of those people lived in the same dirty, shabby and unhealthy tiny apartments. I remember one old woman, sitting in a box-like room, crying all through the interview. She had hardly any food, no heating, her clothes were rags. And this in Europe in 2011.

I didn’t enjoy reading this but on the other hand I felt very bad for thinking like this. Those who live under such conditions cannot just decide to walk away from them. Who am I to want to shelter myself from reading about such things?

I accidentally landed in a slum once, in Fort-de-France, Martinique. I felt really miserable, not because I thought it was dangerous, (maybe it was, no clue) but because it felt like prying. By walking between the shacks I could see into the homes of these people, they had no windows or doors and I felt like a voyeur. I was then asked angrily what the heck I thought I was doing but they understood, that I had lost my way and once they realized it wasn’t curiosity, they were very helpful.

It is really in bad taste but apparently it is part of many a guided tour in Brazil to pay a visit to the favelas.

I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s books, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, with the exception of the last, they didn’t seem this depressing and I liked them very much.

I still got White Nights, Notes From Underground and The Brothers Karamazov to read. But not just yet.

I didn’t include any quotes as I’ve read this in a German translation. I like the German cover a lot.

Daniel Glattauer: Every Seventh Wave (2011) aka Alle sieben Wellen (2009) The Sequel of Love Virtually

Every Seventh Wave

A while back I wrote about Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually which has been released meanwhile. I just saw that the sequel, Every Seventh Wave,  will be published this year as well. Usually I include the amazon blurb at the beginning of my posts but this one  contains too many spoilers of the first book.

Like its predecessor, I have read Alle sieben Wellen when it came out in Germany. For all those who like Love Virtually, they can look forward to a sequel that is very close to the first book. The story of Leo and Emmi, their e-mail exchange goes on. More passionate and more intense than before. And still they ask the same questions. Should they meet or should they not? To the somewhat playful tone of the first book Glattauer adds a bit of a darker undertone. I cannot say too much or it would be a spoiler.

Even though I didn’t like the idea of a sequel at all and if I had had something to say, it wouldn’t have been written but since it was and I liked the tone of the first book, I had to read this one as well. And it isn’t disappointing. It is as witty, charming, thought-provoking and enjoyable as the first.

All those who thought that Emmi and Leo’s story shouldn’t finish like it did in Love Virtually will enjoy this book. All those who loved the style of Glattauer the first time, will enjoy this as well. Although Love Virtually can be read on its own, this one can not. If you want to read Glattauer, you should start with the first one.

I have no problem with the translation of the title this time, it is pretty literal but I still like the German cover better.

The Austrian author Daniel Glattauer has written quite a few books that have been successful in Germany and other German speaking countries. Like so very often none of them has been translated. Should you read German you can find more information on his website.