Daisy Miller by Henry James

The novella Daisy Miller was published in 1878, the same year James published his novel The Europeans and two years before the publication of Washington SquarePortrait of a Lady came a little later, in 1881. It’s a pure coincidence that those are exactly the books by Henry James that I’ve read so far. Plus, the novella Madame de Mauves, which is from 1874. Madame de Mauves is the only one I’ve read while blogging. You can find the review here.

Henry James was very fond of novellas and as soon as you look at his extensive bibliography, you can see just how fond of them he was. Maybe I’m wrong, but I got the impression that Daisy Miller might be his most famous novella. That’s not surprising as it’s James at his most readable. People often complain that he’s not accessible, that his sentences are difficult. None of this is the case here. The writing is fluid and elegant, never clunky, never overcomplicated. And the story is engaging too.

Winterbourne is a young American who lives in Geneva most of the time. At the beginning of the story, he’s visiting his aunt in Vevey. While out on a walk, he meets a peculiar boy who is followed by his older sister. Winterbourne can’t take his eyes off the young woman. She’s so beautiful and elegant. But very different from the other young American women he met in Switzerland. She walks around without her mother or another chaperone, openly flirts with Winterbourne, teases him and is very capricious. Flirting is something young American girls, unlike the Europeans, do a lot. But not exactly with as much liberty as Daisy.

Certainly she was very charming, but how deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State? Were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent. Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not. He was inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt. He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category

His aunt tells Winterbourne right away, that she’s beneath him, even though it’s obvious she’s extremely rich.

But don’t they all do these things–the young girls in America?” Winterbourne inquired.

Mrs. Costello stared a moment. “I should like to see my granddaughters do them!” she declared grimly. This seemed to throw some light upon the matter, for Winterbourne remembered to have heard that his pretty cousins in New York were “tremendous flirts

After a trip to Château de Chillon, Winterbourne returns to Geneva and Daisy and her mother and brother travel to Rome.

The following winter, Winterbourne meets Daisy again in Rome. She’s the talk of the town. People gossip because she’s always seen alone with men, most of the time with one very good looking Italian.

The news that Daisy Miller was surrounded by half a dozen wonderful mustaches checked Winterbourne’s impulse to go straightway to see her. He had, perhaps, not definitely flattered himself that he had made an ineffaceable impression upon her heart, but he was annoyed at hearing of a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his own meditations; the image of a very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr. Winterbourne would arrive.

While Winterbourne found many excuses for her when he first met her, surprising her, in the middle of the night, in the Colosseum alone with the Italian, disgusts him.

Since Daisy Miller is a novella, writing more would give away the ending. Let’s just say – it’s tragic.

Daisy Miller is such a strong creation. She’s free, she’s witty, she doesn’t care about what people say. But Winterbourne and the reader wonder why. Is it because she is so innocent or is it because she’s without morals? The ending reveals which of the impressions is right.

James is always interested in the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans and how these change through travel and living abroad. It seems that Daisy Miller puzzles them all. She’s entirely her own person. The little brother is very unusual too and so is the mother who doesn’t seem to be able to guide her two children. I would have loved to be introduced to the dad, but we never get to see him as he stayed in the US.

The society James describes in this novella, is very cruel. They have their rules and if you don’t play by them you get shunned or ostracized. No matter how rich you are.

Because the book is called Daisy Miller, one could assume its eponymous heroine is the main character, which in a way she is. But Winterbourne is just as important because we see the story filtered through his eyes. This filtering, and the way he interprets everything, tells us a lot about him and the society he lives in.

As I said, Daisy Miller is highly readable and very accessible. Even though the end is tragic, it’s neither sombre nor depressing as so many of James’ other books.

The Dog – Hunden by Kerstin Ekman – Swedish Novella – A Post a Day in May

Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman is something like the grande dame of Swedish literature. She’s considered one of the most important, if not the most important living Swedish writer. She has written numerous novels, many of which received prizes and were made into movies. She’s also been extensively translated. Ekman began her career as a crime author but subsequently moved away from the genre. The novella The DogHunden was published in 1986. I read the German translation, Hundeherz (by far the most poetic title) as I always feel it’s closer to the Scandinavian languages than English.

Before I start the review, I have to spoil the book. The blurb does so too and with good reason. The beginning of the book is quite sad, and, for most animal lovers, it would be too heart-breaking to read on not knowing whether there would be a happy ending. Luckily, there is. So, now you know it – Sad beginning, happy ending.

The Dog is set in the countryside of Northern Sweden. It’s winter and a man drives to a lake to go fishing. He has no intention to take his dog, but she sees him and runs after his scooter. Her little puppy follows her. In the snow and the cold, the puppy gets lost. Upon his return home, the man notices the dog’s absence and searches for him. To no avail. What follows is a dramatic tale of survival during a harsh winter, in a wild landscape. The puppy almost freezes and starves. At first, he just crouches under the low branches of fir trees, shivering, his heart beating wildly. Then he finds a dead elk and the meat of the massive animal helps him over many weeks.

During the long winter months, he learns to recognize the noises and traits of the landscape. Eventually, he explores farther and farther away from his hiding place. He learns to hunt and to avoid being hunted.

The story is told from the point of view of the dog, but Ekman doesn’t try to humanize the dog. She tells the story in a way that makes it very plausible, just describing what the puppy can see, smell, taste, hear. The result is brilliant. In lesser hands this might have become mawkish, but it isn’t. She is an astounding writer, with a huge vocabulary and intimate knowledge of the Swedish landscape, the flora, the fauna. The animals and plants are all named. It’s never just “a tree” or “a bird” or “a plant”. She’ll let you know exactly what it is. All the many wild birds and animals are differentiated through the noises their wings or paws make. The wind sounds different, depending on which grasses and plants it rustles. And the many scents are described in so much detail too. It’s true that every plant smells different when it is crushed.

The story isn’t sentimental and therefore, at times, a bit hard to read. After all, it’s a tale of survival and that includes hunting. The dog must hunt to survive. And there’s also an elk hunt later in the novella that leads him back to the man who lost him.

This is a tale about survival, about enduring cold, hunger, and loneliness. But ultimately it’s also a tale about the strong bond between man and dog.

I did expect this to be good, but I didn’t expect the writing to be this extraordinary. I’m already looking forward to reading more of her work.

 

Am Südhang – On Southern Slopes by Eduard von Keyserling – A Post a Day in May

I wrote about one of Eduard von Keyserling’s novellas during GLM 2013 –here. Back then, not one of his books had been translated into English and that was such an incredible shame. Meanwhile, his masterpiece Die Wellen  Waves has been translated and published by Dedalus European Classics. As I wrote in that post, von Keyserling is often compared to Fontane because they are from the North and both set their novels in the Northern parts of Germany. It’s a very unfortunate comparison because the era and writing style are so different. Both are elegant writers, but von Keyserling is much more like Schnitzler than Fontane. He’s a typical impressionist writer. He has something very Austrian and when one knows a few things about his life, that’s no coincidence. He was born at Castle Tels-Paddern (now in  Latvia), Courland Governorate, then part of the Russian Empire, but then moved to Vienna and later to Munich.

Maybe Waves wasn’t a success – I never saw it reviewed on any blogs – because that remained the only official translation. There’s good news though, as Tony from Tony’s Reading List actually went and translated first the book I reviewed in 2013 – Schwüle Tage  Sultry Days and then two other short works, which you can all find here.

Sadly, Am Südhang – On Southern Slopes, the novella I read on my beautiful rainy reading day last week, hasn’t been translated. As with everything I’ve ever read by von Keyserling – it’s a shame. He’s such a brilliant writer.

Am Südhang opens with Karl Erdmann von West-Wallbaum in a carriage on his way to his parent’s estate where he will spend his summer. He has just been made Lieutenant and thinks that this rise will mean people will take him more seriously. He can hardly wait to arrive as the summers on his parent’s estate are always so beautiful. And he is always in love. Always with the same woman, Daniela, a friend of his mother, who is much younger and divorced. Every summer she’s the centre of all the men’s attention as she’s beautiful, intelligent, and likes to charm. It’s both painful and delicious to be in love with her, as Karl Erdmann muses, and he’s looking forward to lying in the grass and dream of her all day long.

But that isn’t the only thing he’s looking forward to. On the estate, with his family, his parents and siblings, he lives a life of sheltered ease and luxury which makes him languorous and lazy. While he can be hard and cynical in the outer world, during summer he’s like sensitive, thin-skinned fruit that grows on southern slopes.

It wouldn’t be a von Keyserling novel if things stayed light and harmonious. There’s always a dark undercurrent and tragedy and this story is no exception. Even though he doesn’t take it very seriously, the duel that awaits Karl Erdmann casts a dark shadow. And there’s also the deep sadness of the private tutor who, like everyone else, is in love with Daniela.

It’s a beautiful novella. Rich in emotions and descriptions. Nature and the weather always play important parts, mirroring the feelings of the protagonists. In this story, the garden descriptions are so very lush. Von Keyserling paints with words. He captures scents and sound, colours and forms. We sit next to Karl Erdmann in his carriage and feel the cool shade under the trees, hear the soft rustling of the dew in the leaves. We can see the family waiting for Karl Erdmann’s arrival, the women in their white summer dresses standing on the stairs.

The only thing that was hard to read was the duck hunting. It’s always part of these novels set among the upper classes. And it’s always terrible. It was over quickly, but still made me sad.

There is some criticism of the way of life described, but mostly von Keyserling just captures a moment in time. It’s a dying society but when he wrote this novella, in 1916, it was still very much alive.

I hope this will be translated because it’s so amazing. I’m sure most of us can relate to the magic of summer holidays when you’re still a child or very young. Those hot, languorous, carefree days, mostly spent outdoors unless summer rains kept you in.

If you haven’t read von Keyserling yet, do yourself a favour and read Waves or some of Tony’s translations. I’m adding the link to them here again.

Most of his novellas were translated into French – here’s a link to the collected works.

The cover of the German edition shows a painting of Max Liebermann, Landhaus in Hilversum (1901). It’s the perfect choice for this book.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy – Classic Russian Literature – A Post a Day in May

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, roughly thirty years after War and Peace and twenty years after Anna Karenina.

I have read this before but felt it was time to reread it. I didn’t realize when starting it, what an excellent companion piece to Flaubert’s A Simple Heart this is. Both novellas tell the story of a life. One the story of a simple, uneducated woman, the other the story of a highly educated, successful man. Both stories are tragic.

The Death of Ivan Ilych starts with the discussion of a few lawyers, one of which just read their colleague, Ivan Ilych, has died. This intro chapter sets the tone. The reaction of the men tells us everything about them, their way of life, and Ivan Ilych’s life. Not one of them is saddened. They are only upset because it briefly reminds them of death. They soon console themselves though.

The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died, and they hadn’t.

Only one of the men feels he should pay the widow a visit. Seeing the dead man makes him feel uncomfortable. He’s glad when he can escape again and go back to his life, his “friends” and playing bridge, a game Ivan Ilych had enjoyed and been very good at.

After this intro chapter follows the story of Ilych’s life. This is how it begins:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

This is so short and cruel and tells us in one sentence everything that we need to know about Ivan Ilych. It condenses what we will read in the next chapters in more detail.

Ivan Ilych was a successful lawyer. He made a stunning career, even though he wasn’t always happy with the developments, especially not after he got married. What at first looked like a good idea, settling down with someone who had a bit of money and was nice to look at, soon proved to have been a mistake. She was jealous and never happy with what they had, always pushing him to make more and more money. He did so, not only for her and domestic peace, but because he, too, measured success in terms of financial and professional success. And he also liked power.

In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.

After living in provincial towns for many years, he finally gets offered a very good position in St Petersburg. He buys a house and furnishes it the way he always wanted. In his eyes it is perfection. But the author tells us otherwise.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

Ivan Ilych, who has never done any manual thing in his life, enjoys decorating his new home but then something happens. He has a minor accident and feels some pain in his side.

Soon after this, he notices that the pain won’t go and that he has other symptoms. He knows he’s seriously ill, even fears he might die.

Over the next months, Ivan Ilych deteriorates more and more, is misdiagnosed and misunderstood and dies a lonely painful death.

Ilych’s illness and death are slow and agonizing and give him time to think about his life. He realizes that something had been missing, that he had measured success in the wrong way.

‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

The tragedy is that the doctors who are incapable of empathy, are just like he was with the criminals— pompous and condescending. His entire world, he discovers is full of falsehood.

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only needs keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is an upsetting story. It’s dreadful to see how much he suffers and how nobody cares. I think one can also feel that Tolstoy didn’t like his character and that might be the biggest difference to Flaubert’s story. Flaubert didn’t judge Felicité. He felt compassion. Tolstoy doesnt feel compassion for Ilych as he seems to stand for everything Tolstoy abhors – bureaucracy, nepotism and arrivistes.

As I mentioned before, I read this twice and it feels like I’ve been reading two different stories just because my own life has changed so much. The first time, I’ve read it right after my dad’s death. This time around the sections on illness got to me more because the doctor’s reminded me so much of some of the doctor’s I’ve seen in the last couple of months. They just didn’t listen and had their idea about why I was in pain but very clearly they were wrong.

A lot has been speculated about Ivan Ilych’s illness. It’s never said what he has and might not be important. There are also many theories about the meaning of this story. To me, it is the story of a man who wanted only pleasant things in life, who hated change, and let himself drift until he hit a major obstacle, which he was incapable of overcoming. In that, and verything else, he is indeed mediocre.

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst – Belgian Novella – A Post a Day in May

Dimitri Verhulst is a Belgian writer who writes in Flemish. He has written poetry, short stories, and novels. His novella Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill – Mevrouw Verona daalt de heuvel af was first published in Belgium in 2006. The translation is from 2009. In the book it says it was translated from the Dutch but that is inaccurate as he writes Flemish. The two languages are similar but not interchangeable.

Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill is a love story, or, to be more precise, a story about a love that goes on long after the beloved has died.

Mme Verona and her composer husband Monsieur Potter moved to a small village in Belgium. Their house is high up on a hill far away from other people, surrounded by a vast forest. Sadly, Mme Verona’s husband gets very ill and dies. Most reviews go into more details about his death, but I will refrain from that as it is a major spoiler.

Mme Verona is very beautiful and since there are almost only men in the village, they all hope she might come down and possibly choose a new mate. But she never does. She continues her life pretty much as if her husband were still alive. Of course, she misses him. But he is everywhere.

When she looked out the window at the valley, she looked with him. That was partly why she never urged visitors to stay for dinner, preferring the intimacy of the idea and feeling of dining alone with her husband. Just the two of them, and a bottle that proceeded towards its original emptiness half as fast as before.

Monsieur Potter knew he was dying and, as a last act of love, he cut down enough trees to assure his wife had enough firewood until she would eventually die as well.

In memory of her husband Madame has a tree cut down. She wants a cello made from its wood. The man who cuts down the tree, isn’t the one who will make the instrument as it takes twenty years for the wood to be ready for use.

At the beginning of the book, Mme Verona and her dog get ready to go down to the village. She knows that it will be the last time she goes there. Before she leaves, she muses that if she was asked at the gates of heaven what her one striking characteristic was, she would say that dogs always sought out her company. Just like they always sought out her husband’s company. That’s why they always had dogs or were followed by dogs. If it had been possible, they would have adopted every stray they encountered.

I liked the beginning of the novella very much. The writing is very distinct, very unusual. A mix between sarcasm, wit, empathy, and even lyricism. I expected a story about Mme Verona, but after the initial pages, the story moves away from her and we are introduced to the village and its eccentric inhabitants. We’re told funny anecdotes like the one where a cow becomes mayor for one year or those involving the vet who is also the GP for the village. As amusing as this was, I had to finish the book to fully understand its structure. It’s one of those circular stories that end where they start and only become a whole once you’ve finished it.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes that illustrate Verhulst’s style and humour.

But even when he wasn’t working, Monsieur Potter enjoyed being here, seeing the aureoles force their way down through the foliage and listening to the rustling wind, either alone or with Madame Verona, and sliding downhill with her on a sled, the winters telling him that lovers were children, trying to reach back into the past to seize the time they hadn’t spent together. Wanting to have shared their entire lives with each other, because love refused to settle for less.

About the dog looking forward to a walk:

The prospect of finally being able to empty his shrunken bladder on posts, letterboxes and car wheels elicited his most charming bark and would have him ramming his mistress’s legs with joy except that he realised she was too old for that kind of doggery, and that it would most likely lead to his having the implantation of a plastic hip on his conscience.

Madame Verona is a charming story of love that survives death. It’s ideal for those readers who like sophisticated, quirky writing and long, complex sentences.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín – An Irish Novella – A Post a Day in May

I remember how intrigued I was when Colm Toíbín’s novella The Testament of Mary, based on his own play, came out in 2012. I love it when authors give historical, fictional or mythical characters a voice. Even though, I was so keen on reading it, it languished on my piles for so many years. Finally, thanks to my project A Post a Day in May, I’ve read it and loved it. It’s beautiful and daring. Engaging and thought-provoking.

The book is set many years, decades even after the crucifixion. Mary lives alone, in isolation in a house in Ephesus. She has two guardians who visit frequently. They ask her many questions about the past, about Jesus. She doesn’t talk. She keeps her memories, of which she has many, to herself.

I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.

She has reason not to talk to these men because they have an agenda. They want to make sure that her memories and what she says about them corresponds to their truth. They are about to write the history of Jesus and their view, their interpretation of what happened differ completely from Mary’s.

It’s never said who these two men are, but as Toíbín mentions in an article, it could be St. Paul and St. John. It’s not important. What is important is what they wrote and that is the story we are familiar with.

Mary’s story is completely different. It’s a story of loss and grief for a son, who had lost his way. A son who attracted misfits, criminals, and fanatics and had to pay a terrible prize for the turmoil he and his followers created. She speaks about several of the most famous elements of the story of Jesus. Lazarus, the wedding at Cana, the walking on water. All these things she hasn’t witnessed and doubts. What she saw is a man who barely recognizes her, who has become a stranger, but a stranger she still loves deeply. While she hasn’t seen his “miracles”, she’s seen the crucifixion and has been traumatized by it. And then she tells us something very surprising – she wasn’t there when they took him off the cross. She didn’t witness his resurrection. She fled because she knew they would come after her and after other members of the family, friends, and followers.

In Ephesus, she also remembers the days when she was a practicing Jew. The Sabbaths she liked so much. Nowadays, she prays to the goddess Artemis.

I lived mostly in silence, but somehow the wildness that was in the very air, the air in which the dead had been brought back to life and water changed into wine and the very waves of the sea made calm by a man walking on water, this great disturbance in the world made its way like creeping mist or dampness into the two or three rooms I inhabited.

I loved this book. Loved the tone and mood. Mary’s sorrow, grief, and trauma are beautifully described. I was surprised to read her interpretation of things. It’s against everything that we know from the testaments. Jesus is described like a rebel but not exactly like a rebel with a cause. More like an outlaw. I like that Toíbín gave Mary her humanity back, looked at what happened through the eyes of a mother who had to witness her son being crucified. The crucifixion is described in detail. No gratuitous violence but still explicit.

I wonder what practicing Christians, especially Catholics, think about this book. I haven’t found a lot online. I was raised a Catholic but since I’m anti-clerical, I left the church a long time ago. I was surprised that I found some elements disturbing. The story of Lazarus, for example, reads like a creepy zombie story. I even found this book sacrilegious in places. Even if he might not have been the son of God, I always think of Jesus as supremely good. In the end, it looks like Toíbín wants to say the religion only exists because of the interpretation of the facts by those who wrote it down.

This is a short book and, still, one could write pages and pages about it. I hope I could do this complex book justice. It’s so beautiful and engaging.

Devotion – Die Widmung by Botho Strauss – A 1977 Club Review

I’m notoriously bad these days when it comes to participating in blogging events, but I always try to read at least one book for Karen and Simon’s “Club” – no matter what year they choose. This week was dedicated to 1977. It was a particularly good year and I could have chosen many books from my piles. I picked Botho Strauss’ novella DevotionDie Widmung because I’ve had it for ages and because it was said to be a stellar piece of writing.

Botho Strauss was first known as a playwright before he started to write fiction. DevotionDie Widmung is considered one of his best works. It tells the story of Richard Schroubek who has been abandoned by his girlfriend Hannah and can just not get over it. It’s 1976, a brutally hot summer in Berlin. In an attempt to fully immerse himself in his feelings of loss and abandonment, he takes leave from his work as a bookseller and stays at home where he spends endless days exploring every facet of his grief and writes it down. The bookseller has turned writer. While writing and tormenting himself, he hopes Hannah will return eventually. Latest, when he gives her his writing.

This is a stunning short novel. It’s neither plot- nor character- but mostly language-driven. It might be the best piece of writing, style-wise, I’ve read in quite some time. The book is in many ways a rant. The rant of a man who has been left and doesn’t understand why. But also of  man who is very different from most people and very isolated. This may sound a bit like Goethe’s Leiden des jungen Werther but it’s not like that at all. Here, the tragedy always veers towards the satirical and the book is often funny. Especially during the rare moments when Richard interacts with someone else. Richard is an astute, sharp observer. He dissects people’s behaviour, their opinions, things he reads or watches on TV and his feelings of loss and grief. While not as lyrical as Swann in Proust’s work, he’s just as analytical.

The longer the story progresses, the more his feelings vanish and that is a new source of sorrow. Celebrating his despair filled the void that the loss of dialogue and companionship left.

Richard is a character-type that I’ve come across several times in literature. He is one of those, like Melville’s Bartleby, who refuse to take part. Naysayers who don’t want to participate in our society. In Richard’s case it’s the loss that catapults him out of his normal life and makes him look at the world around him and at himself with critical eyes. Only Hannah is perfect. In his memory that is.

Because this is so language-driven and because I’ve read it in German, it’s hard to convey how brilliant it is. I can only say, I don’t envy the translator. This must have been extremely difficult to translate.

I’m not sure why this book is called Devotion in English. The German title means “Dedication” and I don’t see why it wasn’t kept. There’s an instance, in which Richard writes about his devotion, but I don’t think it justifies the change of title.

I found a lot to admire in this book and the observations, expressions, figures of speech, are all brilliant, but it was not an entirely accessible book. Not because of the lack of plot or because it’s language-driven but because it very often changes from first to third person and it’s not always clear why and who is the narrator. I should have read it more closely to avoid this type of confusion. I mention this, so future readers know, this needs very attentive, close reading.

Here’s a photo of Botho Strauss and Cate Blanchett. She played Lotte in his play Big and Small.