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The Ultimate Sacrifice – Virago Author of the Month

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Following on from the LibraryThing Virago group’s choice of Vita Sackville-West for January, our author of the month for February was the great Rebecca West. I struggled to get onto reading one of her books last month, finally picking it up right near the end; so a little belatedly, here is my review of her first  (and probably most well-known) work of fiction, “The Return of the Soldier”. Billed as a novel, at 160 pages with big type it’s a book you can read quickly; however, it gives much food for thought and I can see why it’s so highly regarded.

return-of-the-soldier

West is an author I’ve only read a little of (my review of her “The Harsh Voice” is here) but I have a large number of her books on the shelves. Had time been on my side I would have liked to spend time with one of her more substantial works – but then, this book has more substance to it than you might expect. “The Return of the Soldier” was written while the Great War was still taking place and published in 1918; narrated by a woman called Jenny, it tells the story of the return of her cousin Chris Baldry from the Front, back to his beautiful home on ‘the crest of Harrow-weald’ and the welcoming arms of his beautiful wife Kitty and of course Jenny (who appears to live with them).

As the book opens, the women are living in their gilded cage, relatively untouched by the War but surrounded by absence. As well as the fact that Chris is away fighting, they are also haunted by the loss of Chris and Kitty’s young son; the nursery has been left untouched and Kitty is often to be found in the room as if seeking comfort. The women have prepared an immaculate nest for their man and themselves, one that he was apparently sad to leave; it seems perfect, idyllic and slightly unreal, given what is happening in other parts of the world.

Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time.

Crashing into this glittering facade comes a woman from the nearby town of Wealdstone; the place is described in stark terms as something of a blot on the picturesque local landscape, and Mrs. Grey is set forth in a cruel and patronising way. In fact, the reaction of Jenny and Kitty quite shocked me until I realised I was seeing her through the filter of their eyes; the descriptions of a working woman are harsh, representing her as a stereotype with cheap clothes and accessories, and worn face and hands, and I found their reaction hard to take.

Mrs. Grey has, somewhat surprisingly, come with news that Chris is ill. Why she should know and not his wife and cousin is not revealed at first, but as we read on we find that Margaret Grey, when she was a young innkeeper’s daughter, knew Chris Baldry very well. In fact, unlikely as it seems to Kitty and Jenny now, she was his first love and as he’s suffering from shell-shock and has blotted out the past 15 years, he’s pining to return to Margaret and the affection of his youth.

So Chris is brought home and despite the evidence before his eyes is unable to accept the reality of where and who he is. He cannot remember Kitty; Jenny is a childhood playmate; and to the astonishment of these sophisticated women, he has an instant bond with Margaret despite the coarsening effects upon her of age and a hard life. Chris is happy with Margaret and his life in the past; but can he be allowed to stay there or will the doctors brought in to treat him be able to bring him back to the present and the prospect of the return to battle?

For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life, the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.

“The Return of the Soldier” is a powerful first novel, and surprisingly complex for such a short work. West brilliantly builds up the initial setting, painting a picture of the lovely world created (mainly by Kitty) for Chris and initially as I read I accepted (with Jenny) that the house and location was wonderful and that all three were happy there. However, as I read on, the appalling snobbery of the women made it clear that this was a shallow, stale and worthless environment to live in, and the contrast of the superficial falsity of the controlled life Kitty had created, cold and barren, was made with the real, deep emotional life of Margaret. Jenny finds out the back-story from Margaret, and the relationship between her and Chris is touchingly revealed. The latter only seems to come properly alive when he’s with his first love, his attitude to Kitty (and all other beautiful women) seeming more as that of a man being very careful with a piece of fragile china. Little details, such as the fact that Chris had not even given his home address to the authorities when he enlisted, reveal how little attachment he had to his wife and home, and it’s clear that his life with them was meaningless.

The young Rebecca West

The young Rebecca West

Kitty herself is a clever and unpleasant creation; self-absorbed, controlling and ultimately selfish, she would rather Chris was made well to return to the battlefield and possible death, than stay in his happy world of 15 years ago with Margaret. As for the latter, she’s a fascinating creation; Jenny manages to recognise her worth, despite her prejudices, and she’s obviously a person of much more substance than the rich women. Her lot in life shows the difference that circumstances can make to a person because had she had the money and comforts Kitty and Jenny had, they would not have been able to make such harsh and hideous judgements about her.

Surely she must see that this was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers…

The title of the book obviously has a double meaning; initially there is the physical return of Chris to his home, but there is also the eventual mental return from his place of safety to normality so he can tragically return to the fighting. Although the women are somewhat cut off from the War, they have their own kind of battle for Chris and it’s painful to watch. All of this is conveyed in beautiful, evocative prose and West’s writing is magnificent. To get so much into such a short book is a remarkable achievement, and reading “The Return of the Soldier” has really convinced me that I need to pick up more of those West books languishing on Mount TBR.

Bohemian Fables – and more!

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The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil
Translated from the German by David Burnett

The second of the lovely Pushkin Collection volumes which was released on 2nd March is a fascinating collection of long short stories by German Bohemian author Johannes Urzidil, and it’s just as good as “The Hideout” was. Urzidil is another somewhat under-translated author; born in Prague before it was part of Czechoslovakia, he was part of the Prague Circle and a friend of Kafka and Max Brod. Urzidil fled the country in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and was initially helped to Britain by the author Bryher, before eventually settling in the USA. He continued to write and earned many awards for his writing.

last-bell

Translator David Burnett (who also provides an informative introduction) has chosen to collect a group of stories from Urzidil’s oeuvre which were published in the 1950s and 1960s, and the first (the title one, The Last Bell) is stunning. It’s narrated by Marska, maidservant to the Mister and Missus, and as the story opens her employers have fled overnight, leaving Marska with their flat and all their money. Marska is afraid and excited by the situation in equal measure, but decides to enjoy the sudden windfall. However, she makes the mistake of inviting her wild half-sister Joska to stay with her, mainly so she can lord it over her; but this begins to misfire when the girls make the acquaintance of some of the occupying Germans. With a Nazi boyfriend, Joska starts to take control of the situation; Marska, by contrast, retains much of her humanity and attempts to warn some neighbours of the danger they’re in. As things go out of control, Marska is forced into dramatic action…

The second story in the volume, The Duchess of Albanera, is a very different piece of work. Set in pre-Czechoslovakian times, it tells the story of a lonely bank clerk who falls in love with a painting. Living alone and set in his ways, a chance encounter with the portrait of the Duchess leads to him grabbing and stealing it in a sudden act of madness. Chance favours him and he isn’t spotted; and back at his flat he has conversations with Duchess in the painting who, it transpires, is a bit of a Lucrezia Borgia. It’s a fascinating story, which ruminates on love and loneliness, how people really are, and the effect our actions can have on others.

Next up is Spiegelmann’s Journey, a story of a travel agent who’s never travelled; yet the stories of journeys he constructs are more real than any trip he plans for others. Unfortunately his tall tales captivate a lonely woman, but when they travel on the only journey he ever takes, to his home town, the truth will out. Is it significant, in a story published in 1962, that the only trip he has ever made is between the city and his home town of Birkenau? Probably it is, although the dream-like, allusive nature of Urzidil’s writing often defies simple classification and it could be coincidence. Certainly, the rural, idyllic Birkenau presented here is not what you would normally associate with the name.

The old clerk was the true soul of the office. He knew the porous boundaries of the law, he was familiar with the injustices of the justice system as well as the justice of injustice. Tiny paragraphs pulsed in his veins instead of blood corpuscles. He constructed his boss’s pleas in such a way that the state prosecutors, no matter how sound their arguments, feared for their reputation if Dr. Umtausch took on the defence.

The final two stories in the collection, Borderland and Where the Valley Ends take place in rural settings, beautifully evoked by the author. The former tells the story of Otti, a child of nature living with her father near the woods; she seems to have an almost mystical link to the elements around her, able to tame plants and animals, as well as predict events and divine emotions. However, her passage into adulthood will destroy this, and it is a change in her life with which she’s unable to cope. And “Valley” is a quirky look at a feud that breaks out between two halves of a settlement divided by a river, which is triggered by the theft of a cheesecake; the disagreement leads to outright conflict and murder and shows how small happenings can lead to cataclysmic events. In both of these works, Urzidil references the great Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, whom he’d already written about earlier in his career.

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The stories make fantastic reading in more ways that one; unreal elements creep into most of them, and they often have the dreamlike quality of a fairytale or fable. The later works in the collection might seem on the surface quite different to the earlier ones (particularly the title story) but they all share a common theme in that they focus on the misfit or the outsider. In “The Last Bell”, Marska is not part of the society being created by the invaders; she is an outsider because of her upbringing (where she and Joska suffered early abuse from an ‘uncle’) and unlike her half-sister, she sets herself apart from the Nazis in her attempts to help others. Schaschek the bank clerk is a loner – let’s face it, not many of us sit down and have reciprocated conversations with characters in paintings! – and his lack of interpersonal skills makes him happier with that relationship than a real one. Similarly, Spiegelmann is a fantasist, painting pictures of impossible journeys; it’s only when he’s faced with the reality that his journeys cannot exist that his world breaks down. Otti likewise is unable to deal with growing up and losing her ‘powers’; living a normal life in the normal world is beyond her. And Alois, the ‘village idiot’ in the final story, is the cause of the conflict that eventually wipes out a rural way of life. These latter stories in particular paint a world before the hell of WW2 overtook Urzidil’s part of Europe and there is an underlying threat in all of them from barbarian invaders.

So another powerful book from Pushkin Press and another wonderful new author that I’ve discovered. Apparently Urzidil only wrote one novel, preferring the shorter form (of which he was obviously a master); he also wrote essays and monographs, as well as translating works from Czech and English into German (including works by H.D., companion of his rescuer Bryher). Hopefully more of his work will make it into the English language because on the strength of the stories here, it will certainly be worth reading!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Going Underground

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The Hideout by Egon Hostovsky
Translated by Fern Long

The trouble with reading and loving European literature is the realisation that there are stacks of books which have never been translated. However, fortunately for readers like me, there are wonderful publishers battling to bring us more of these works rendered for the Anglophone reader. The book I’m writing about today is one of two excellent works issued by Pushkin Press today (my review of the second will follow soon), and it really is a remarkable piece of writing.

hideout

The author, Egon Hostovsky, is new to me, but the little biography on the book flap tells me that he was “one of the foremost Czech writers of the twentieth century”. He was apparently related to Stefan Zweig and like the latter (and so many others of his countryfolk) he fled the Nazis and the Communists; unlike Zweig, he managed to make a home in New York, working for Radio Free Europe and continuing to write. From a quick look at his Wikipedia page, it seems that little of his work has made it into English and so more kudos to Pushkin for publishing this book.

“The Hideout”, first published in 1945, is narrated by an unnamed Czech engineer and is set in 1942. As the book opens, he begins a letter to his wife, Hanna, which he’s been promised will be conveyed to her after he’s carried out some unspecified action. He’s left his wife and family, and also his country, and as he begins to tell his tale we find out that he is in hiding, has killed a man and is wanted by the Nazis. As the story unfolds that we learn the facts about what happened, and initially it seems a case of a typical mid-life crisis. The engineer’s daughters are growing up and this is unsettling; he feels a certain distance from his wife Hanna, and is attracted by Madame Olga, a beautiful Jewish woman. However, things are not quite as straightforward as this; the engineer has invented a gun sight which could be useful to his country; but when Hitler signed the Munich Agreement,allowing the annexation parts of Czechoslovakia, he destroyed them, an act which infuriates his boss (who obviously has some kind of interest in passing the engineer’s plans on to the Germans).

So the engineer runs off – to Paris, ostensibly on business, but also to follow Madame Olga and because rumour reaches him that the Germans have a warrant for his arrest. But things do not go well with Madame Olga; she is prepared to become his kept woman, which he considers, until he hears of the fall of Czechoslovakia. From that point onward, he hits a downward spiral; unable to return to his home and homeland, he lives on the money he has and attempts to rework his invention to offer it to the French Government. Alas, they are uninterested and things become worse as the money runs out and the Germans invade France. The engineer has no choice but to run to another friend who can hide him in the French countryside. But the hideout he finds is a dark, damp cellar where he must exist in silence and with no light, in constant fear of discovery. Whether there can be any escape for this hunted man remains to be seen…

And the pavements thundered and thundered in augury of the tribunal with the trumpeters of death. Remnants of ruined homes, piled on the roofs of cars, slithered down blind alleys. And from mouth to mouth flew the story that armed monsters were dropping from the clouds. A terrified whisper became the new rhythm of Paris. No one recognised the countless costumes of betrayal, whose breath you felt from the mouths of strangers and of friends.

(The engineer’s reaction to the invasion of Paris by the Nazis)

“The Hideout” is a fine piece of writing, brilliantly conveying the engineer’s confused state of mind, in excellent translation by Fern Long. As I was reading I initially accepted the engineer’s story on face value until I realised that I had encountered the classic unreliable narrator. His tale is plausibly told, but gradually suspicion and paranoia creep in; we hear of the lack of food and human contact, of his teeth beginning to fall out, until it becomes clear that the man is suffering from a kind of sensory deprivation. When we see his limited encounters with others, their responses reveal quite how far away from a stable, sane mind-set he’s moved.

egon-hostovsky

The book also paints a chilling picture of fragmented nations during WW2. Czechoslovakia was a nation which had a short life, from its formation in 1918 (when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire) until its absorption into the Soviet Bloc in 1948. It was a multi-ethnic state where different nationalities did not always rub along together particularly well, and the engineer’s story reflects the fragile friendships and alliances that would be torn apart by the war. In particular, his encounter with an old school colleague shows how divided they are by ideology and ethnicity.

A thread of symbolism runs through the book, as the pursued engineer has gone to ground literally underground in the earth of the cellar, and it is here that he finally encounters the French underground resistance. They will have a decisive effect on his future, although the ending is ambiguous, as ambiguous perhaps as the whole book has been, with only the engineer’s version of things to rely on; a version often revealed as erroneous by the reactions of others to him. Whether he will be able to carry out his task, whether his letter will ever reach his wife – well, we don’t know. But the book gives an unsettling vision of the effect of the Nazi aggression on individuals, the dehumanising effects of war, and how you can run but there’s one person you can’t escape:

A person can’t escape himself, people, God and the world all at once. No matter how he hides himself, he’s still in the play. Every move he makes is measured and weighed somewhere.

On the strength of “The Hideout”, I can understand why Egon Hostovsky is so highly regarded. This short work conveys so much in its pages and acts as a stark reminder of the dangers of extreme readers and totalitarian regimes – a warning we need to bear in mind in times when intolerance is increasing and we run the risk of failing to learn the lessons of history. Another excellent and timely publication from Pushkin Press.

… in which I make the acquaintance of James Thurber – on Shiny! :)

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Author James Thurber

Author James Thurber

Just a quick heads up that I have another review over on Shiny New Books today! This time I’ve been making the acquaintance of the great American humorist, James Thurber.

Poster for the Danny Kaye film

Poster for the Danny Kaye film

Thurber is probably best known for his story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, which was a hugely successful film with Danny Kaye (I *love* Danny Kaye!).

walter-mitty-book

However, the book, which has been released in a shiny new edition with a striking cover by Penguin Modern Classics, turns out to be quite a different kettle of fish – pop over to Shiny, and have a look at my review, which is here!

A life fully lived

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to newly written novels coming out, preferring mostly to check out reprints or fresh translations of lost gems. However, one title which kept slipping into my line of vision and demanded attention was “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. I was a little uncertain about this, wondering if it would be a case of emperor’s new clothes and whether the author could capture properly the setting of Soviet Russia. However, I read so many good things about the book that I finally succumbed; and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

The UK dustjacket - isn't it gorgeous??

The UK dustjacket – isn’t it gorgeous??

The book opens with the gentleman of the title, one Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, appearing before a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922. Normally, an ex-member of the aristocracy would be up against the wall and shot before you could say Lenin, but in this case Rostov’s life is spared, owing to a pre-revolutionary poem he wrote in support of the cause. Instead, the Count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel where he’d been staying until summoned. Escorted back to the building, he finds that instead of returning to his luxurious suite, he’s instead moved to a tiny garret room with as many of his belongings as he can squeeze in. Thus begins the new life of Sasha Rostov.

The Count tends to treat everything that comes at him with equanimity, and so he initially attempts to make the best of things by reading his father’s volume of Montaigne essays and settling into his new dwellings. And he finds a novel way to extend his room to give a little more space and comfort, as well as continuing with many of his routines – as he has a secret stash of gold to enable him to send out for whatever he wants, he can continue to dine in the restaurant, visit the bar and have his hair seen to at the barbers. It is the shaving off of his moustache after an encounter with a worker waiting at the barbers which in turn causes a pivotal meeting in his life – with Nina, a 9-year-old also confined to the hotel while her parents are in Moscow. Nina opens up the secrets of the hotel to the Count, showing him the below-stairs view, and his life will never be the same again.

   … we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance … until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.
    But, of course, a thing is just a thing.

The book spans several decades from the time that Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, becoming a Former Person, and cleverly Towles doesn’t attempt to cover each and every part of that period in one continuous narrative. Instead, he drops us into the Count’s life at strategic points where we can find out how his life has changed and developed, as well as observing what has been happening in the wider world and how it impinges on life in the Metropol. Each section of the book brilliantly captures the flavour of the times whilst never losing sight of the fact that the main focus is on Rostov’s story. I don’t want to give away specifics, but suffice to say that the Count manages to have a love life, a kind of family life, friends and a career, all within the confines of the Metropol Hotel. Rostov may be confined, but the hotel is a microcosm of the world, and life comes to him.

If it sounds like the plot has the potential to be a little restricted be assured it isn’t, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Towles’ writing is elegant and absorbing, drawing you into the story and keeping you firmly involved from the start. Secondly, the Count himself is a wonderfully realised character about whom you can’t help but care. Then there’s the constant changes taking place around him – despite his confinement he has numerous experiences and adventures proving that you can lead a rich and full life even if you are stuck in a hotel forever. He encounters during his life two small female children and, interestingly, his response is different in both cases owing to the circumstances in which he finds himself and the changes in the world around him. He also develops strong friendships with fellow hotel workers, as well as an unexpected romantic attachment, all of which are a joy to behold.

As the story develops, the Count’s past is gradually revealed, most often through encounters with his old pre-revolutionary friend Mishka; the latter is also a poet and has embraced the revolution with fervour, worshipping the quartet of Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Bulgakov. There is also the story of Sasha’s beloved lost sister Helena, and her story shows that the aristocracy had plenty to feel guilty about.

Yes, those were Elysian days, thought Mishka. But like Elysium they belonged to the past. They belonged with waistcoats and corsets, with quadrilles and bezique, with the ownership of souls, the payment of tribute, and the stacking of icons in the corner. They belonged in an age of elaborate artifice and base superstition – when a lucky few dined on cutlets of veal and the majority endured in ignorance.

Of course there is an undercurrent of threat at all times – despite the apparent flippancy of the Count and the seemingly lightness of the story, Towles never lets us forget that there is a totalitarian regime in control and that life hangs by a slender thread. KGB agents stalk the city, Communist leaders attend banquets in private rooms, one functionary relies on Rostov to educate him on the ways of other countries, people are shipped off to Siberia (or worse) and when a particular dramatic event occurs it becomes clear how closely the Count is being watched. The story builds to an exciting and perhaps unexpected climax, with the author and the Count saving plenty of twists until the end.

amor-towles

“A Gentleman in Moscow” turned out to be a wonderfully rich and involving novel; Towles’ writing is just excellent, full of clever touches and metafictional aspects. He often breaks the fourth wall with digressions and footnotes and occasional direct dialogue with the reader, all of which is entertaining and adds to the joy of the book. I found myself constantly appreciating the skill of the author with such little details as the fact that each chapter title consists of a word, or a number of words, that start with the letter A. And his description of the Count trying to read the worthy Montaigne and being unable to stay focused on it struck many chords with me! Towles also very convincingly stirs into the mix real historical figures, from the Communist leaders through to legendary American foreign correspondent Harrison Salisbury, which adds further to the authenticity of the narrative.

However, there *is* much more to the book than just high jinks and adventures in a hotel. There is a regular dialogue on the pros and cons of the revolution, the role of the aristocracy and whether the revolution was a good thing. Although many of the new people in power are seen to be insensitive and unintelligent, so are many of the aristocracy. The book is surprisingly even-handed and the Count is not condemnatory or judgemental of the regime; much like Yuri Zhivago, he accepts that the change is for the best and although he rues his lost way of life, he’s clear-eyed enough to see its flaws, and Towles allows one character to give an interesting viewpoint on the changes the revolution brought:

The Bolsheviks are not Visigoths, Alexander. We are not the barbarian hordes descending upon Rome and destroying all that is fine out of ignorance and envy. It is the opposite. In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate state in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden ploughs, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons. That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?

In fact, Rostov goes through a series of symbolic transformations, most significantly the shedding of his moustache early in the book, and the radical shift from aristocrat to worker halfway through. A late statement in the book that he has not had to access his gold hoard for some time is significant, and it seems that the Count has found life, work and fulfilment all within the confines of a hotel, which is obviously intended as a metaphor for the wider world. No doubt Towles intends that we should reflect on the adaptability of human beings, and certainly we can learn to survive in most situations.

It is a well-known face that of all the species on earth Homo sapiens is among the most adaptable. Settle a tribe of them in a desert and they will wrap themselves in cotton, sleep in tents, and travel on the backs of camels; settle them in the Arctic and they will wrap themselves in sealskin, sleep in igloos, and travel by dog-drawn sled. And if you settle them in a Soviet climate? They will learn to make friendly conversation with strangers while waiting in line; they will learn to neatly stack their clothing in their half of the bureau drawer; and they will learn to draw imaginary buildings in their sketchbooks. That is, they will adapt.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved this book. Ideal for reading in the anniversary year of the 1917 revolution, it’s a winning combination of good writing, clever plotting, wonderful characterisation and a fascinating subtext – would that more modern novels aspired to such quality. The blurb on the dustjacket states “He can’t leave. You won’t want to”, and while I try to resist most advertising, I have to say that I didn’t want this book to end and I was really sad to leave the company of the Count and his friends!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Clashing ideologies and emotions

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The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Translated by Jamie Bulloch

In the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve developed a real passion for smaller, independent presses. So many of my favourite books in recent years have been published by people like Pushkin and Alma; but a more recently discovery, and a publisher bringing out some real gems, is Peirene Press. As I mentioned in my review of “Sea of Ink” (my first Peirene) the books are designed to be read in one sitting, which is a great idea. Also, each year’s releases are themed and those for 2017 have the title “East and West”. The first release of the year is one that could have been chosen for me, as it was published in 1910, and deals with the lives of Russians during the early part of the 20th century; so I was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers!

9781908670342Ricarda Huch is an author new to me, but it seems that she was a bit of a trail blazer. A historian, novelist and philosopher, she was one of the first women to study at the University of Zürich and was the first female writer to become a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Apparently there’s even an asteroid named after her.

“TLS” is a purely epistolary novel, telling its story entirely in letter form. These missives are written by various members of the family involved and gradually tell the tale brilliantly. It is summer; the family of Yegor von Rasimkara are in the country, having left St. Petersburg for the summer. Yegor is the Governor of Petersburg and has caused controversy by closing the city’s university and putting some revolutionary students on trial. His wife Lusinya fears for his life, and a bodyguard has been hired in the form of a young man, Lyu. However, as we learn from the very start, Lyu is on the side of the students and has been planted on the family to carry out an assassination.

Yegor and Lyu bond over new technology, in the form of a typewriter...

Yegor and Lyu bond over new technology, in the form of a typewriter…

Things are complicated by the presence of the two daughters of the family, Katya and Jessika, as well as the son of the house, Velya. Correspondence takes place between Lyu and his outside contact, as well as the children and their cousin Peter, and Peter’s mother Tatyana. Gradually a picture builds up of the people concerned and the events taking place and it is clear that Lyu is not going to find it easy to carry out the killing; despite disagreeing with Yegor’s views, he likes the man, and indeed the whole family. Things get more difficult as both daughters are attracted to Lyu, and Velya likes him as well. As the summer wears on, time is running out before the students are brought to trial and Lyu will have to act soon if he is going to act at all…

The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot as the tension as the story develops is palpable! Huch’s writing is superb and she gradually builds up a picture of all the main protagonists from the letters; whether their own, where they reveal themselves, or seeing them from the viewpoint of their family members in other letters. Each personality is fully realised and believable and this has to be one of the most effective uses of this format I’ve ever read.

One of the most chilling elements is seeing how ideology can divide people; Lyu and the family all like each other very much, but all of their viewpoints are very different. The children of the family actually disagree with their father and sympathise with the students, so much so that the adults consider sending them abroad to study and travel and widen their outlook, and also to avoid familial conflict. Lyu gets on well with both Yegor and his wife, yet his belief in, and commitment to, revolution and assassination is more important than a human connection. In some ways, the book reminded me a little of Conrad’s “Secret Agent” in that not all of the characters allowed ideology to completely get in the way of their humanity, although the ones that do are completely committed. And although initially it might seem that this is just a minor matter of student dissent, later on in the book it becomes clear that those protesting students will be executed; the contrast between Yegor the family man, and Yegor the unquestioning functionary is quite startling.

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The book builds to a tense and shocking climax, and it left me a little breathless. Certainly a book dealing with the terrorist impulse is a timely one, and it just goes to show that not much has changed. People will still do anything for a cause they believe in, humanity goes out of the window when belief becomes more important that real life humans, and we all need to stand back and remember we are all people, all living together on this little planet and we need to have more tolerance and learn to get on. “The Last Summer” is a gripping and chilling work, an excellent addition to the Peirene stable and very highly recommended.

(“The Last Summer” is published today. Review copy kindly provided by Peirene Press, for which many thanks)

Trial by Inquest: The Charles Bravo poisoning case

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How Charles Bravo Died by Yseult Bridges

There’s been a recent bookish trend for popular volumes covering real life crimes; “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” is the most obvious one, and that title could be regarded as having kick-started the whole fashion. However, it’s interesting to find that this *isn’t* in fact something modern, as a chance find in a charity shop revealed. I picked up “How Charles Bravo Died”, published in 1956, on a whim some time back in one of the local charity shops; I knew that the Bravo case was a famous one from the past, but apart from that I wasn’t familiar with anything about it, so I came to this with no preconceptions – and what a great read it turned out to be!

Alas, my book club edition does not have this pretty dustjacket

Alas, my book club edition does not have this pretty dustjacket

The case was a notorious one, also known as the Balham Poisoning, and one that was never solved. Charles Bravo was a young barrister; he met and married Florence Ricardo, a beautiful widow, in 1875 and the two settled in The Priory, Balham. Both partners had something of a chequered past: Charles had a long-term liaison with another woman by whom he had a child. As for Florence, her first marriage had been an unhappy one as Captain Ricardo was a drinker; she had taken the unusual (in those days) step of seeking a legal separation before he drank himself to death. She then had an off-on relationship with an older man, Dr. Gully, which resulted in at one point the latter having to undertake an abortion for Florence. However, she craved respectability and allowed herself to be rushed into marriage with Bravo, a mistake she would come to regret.

Charles Bravo

Charles Bravo

Charles Bravo was a queer fish; doted upon obsessively by his mother, and controlled through the purse strings of his stepfather, it’s hard not to conclude that he married Florence for her money. However, Florence was no pushover, keeping control of her funds, and this caused clashes within the marriage. And despite the fact that she’d been open about her relationship with Gully before the marriage, and Charles had promised never to mention it, he in fact constantly berated her about Gully, causing further tensions.

In April 1876, Charles Bravo suddenly became ill. He called for his wife but instead her companion/housekeeper Jane Cox initially attended. Numerous doctors were called; various treatments were tried; but owing to a combination of stupidity and the drug taking hold too quickly, Charles Bravo died three days later from antimony poisoning. He was lucid enough to know he was dying but he declared on several occasions that he’d only taken laudanum for pain, nothing else, and no-one was able to find out how the antimony got into his system.

What followed was a farce: two inquests, both badly run and badly controlled by the coroner, which concluded little and simply served to throw suspicion on Florence and Mrs. Cox. Their lives and their reputations were dragged through the mud in the most appalling way (especially bearing in mind these were only inquests and not court proceedings) and Florence in particular was judged and condemned by the public for her relationship with Gully (and how hypocritical that Charles Bravo’s affair and illegitimate child were brushed over).

florence-bravo

Florence Bravo

Yseult Bridges’ book is a fascinating investigation of the case, complete with illustrations and maps of the house. She covers the background to the family; both inquests in depth; and draws conclusions at the end, presenting a very plausible solution of her own. Because fascinatingly, the case was never solved; despite the second inquest jury finding that Charles Bravo was murdered, they stated that there was not enough evidence to say by whom, and although the implication was that either Florence or Mrs. Cox or both were guilty, neither woman was ever prosecuted. However, the reputation of Florence was in tatters and she did not survive her husband long.

Bridges is systematic and thorough with her presentation of the case, drawing on a number of sources, and it’s clear that she thinks Florence was unjustly maligned and unfairly treated by the inquest. The marriage had not been easy for Florence; Charles was demanding, unreasonable and unsympathetic when she was unwell. In the short marriage they had, Florence suffered two miscarriages, one not long before the poisoning, and Bravo’s attitude was not always kind.

As for the solution – well, I’m not going to reveal what it is but Bridges makes a good case for her hypothesis. I looked up the case online after I’d finished the book and her resolution is still given credence. I don’t suppose the truth will ever be known but I’d like to believe that Bridges’ deduction is the right one as it means there’s a certain poetic justice involved. The book is a gripping read; a little old-fashioned in the writing occasionally, but still just as exciting as a crime fiction novel. I was going to say that it’s a good thing that the Victorian hypocrisy of judging women’s sexual behaviour differently to that of men has gone, but I’m not actually convinced it has. I wonder if a modern-day Florence Bravo would meet with the same judgemental attitudes – I rather fear she would…

(As an aside, I’ve been able to find out nothing about Yseult Bridges, which is a shame. She seems to have specialised in writing about real life crimes and on the evidence of this book she certainly had a talent for such things!)

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