Sunday, October 29, 2017

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann

Pantheon, 2017
originally published as Du hättest gehen sollen , 2016
translated by Ross Benjamin
111 p


Everywhere I turn when reading about this book I find comparisons to Stephen King's The Shining.  In one sense, I get it, because it is about a man who has taken his family off to a remote location to work on a screenplay and weird stuff starts happening around him.   In another sense, in my most humble of casual-reader opinions, to liken it to The Shining sort of cheapens this book in a big way. It also makes for a number of readers having dashed or unfulfilled expectations -- after all, if you're expecting something along the lines of a Stephen King horror novel and you don't quite get it, well, that makes for an unhappy reading experience.   On the other hand, I had zero expectations before reading this book and had quite a happy reading experience.  In fact, I was downright chilled to my bones before it was all over, and not because of any kind of supernatural element, but because of the psychological aspects of this book.

The entire book is a set of journal entries kept in a notebook, and right off the bat we learn that the narrator is "up here" with "new surroundings, new ideas," and "a new beginning."  We also learn that there had been "constant arguing" with his wife -- and that while it at least has stopped in relation to taking care of their daughter,  all is not quite right, since her bad driving caused him to say something, resulting in the two yelling at each other up the mountain road to their vacation home. He can't even work when his wife and daughter are in the room, but he pretends anyway, because he knows she'll just start complaining.  If she's not complaining about him not working, then she complains about him not spending enough time with them.  And as the arguments continue, we sort of get a picture of a not-so-blissful married life which evidently isn't being helped by the change in scene to this lovely home in the mountains of Germany.   Our nameless narrator is working on a screenplay for a sequel to a film which for which he'd also written the screenplay, and is evidently under quite a bit of pressure moneywise, what with the new town house they'd bought, carrying a mortgage which is "far from paid off."  And there's more -- he's also under pressure from the powers that be in charge of the film.  He's been told by the producer that if doesn't deliver, the production company, "which owns the rights," will have to find another writer if he doesn't deliver.   What he produces when he writes is crap, and he knows it. 

  It isn't long before he begins to have disturbing dreams, and then a trip for provisions to the small village at the foot of the mountain takes a somewhat ominous turn in a conversation about the house with the shopkeeper; it gets worse when a fellow customer tells him to "Get away quickly."  The remainder of the journal entries begins to reveal even more unsettling episodes he has in this isolated  house that will lead to some pretty bizarre behavior on the part of the narrator, especially after he makes a particularly disturbing discovery.

While reading this book, eventually I got to the point where I felt like I watching a series of nightmares unfold, but I had the even stronger feeling that I was caught inside of an MC Escher drawing.  It's a story where you really have to decide if what's going on here is due to any sort of supernatural influence or whether there's something else at play here.  I was sort of on the fence until I came across a particular journal entry on p. 89 that struck me and made me go back,  reread the book,  and re-evaluate what I thought might be happening here based on those few lines, and it all started with the discussion of a "creature drawn on paper" who "if it could live, would live entirely on paper, on its surface"  faced with "a mountain on the paper."  Think shifting of geographical contours on an existential level, and that's where this book took me, and it was downright unsettling.

You Should Have Left was billed somewhere as a haunted house novel (sorry, I can't remember where I'd read that), and that was the reason I picked it up. I discovered two things: one, it actually reminded more of the work of Oliver Onions, who wrote several tales that link creativity (or the lack of) with insanity, and two,  I was also reminded me somewhat of the style of the work of author Jac Jemc in her book The Grip  of It, read earlier this summer, where she used various tropes associated with haunted houses to get to the root of what was haunting her two characters.  And despite some low reader ratings, I thought You Should Have Left turned out to be original, definitely frightening, and frankly, up there with the most disturbing books I've read this year.   I don't know about anyone else, but reading a record of and therefore becoming a witness to someone's complete mental deterioration is far more frightening than anything a supernatural tale could possibly conjure up in my head.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Nona's Room, by Cristina Fernández Cubas

Peter Owen Publishers, 2017
originally published as La habitación de Nona, 2015
translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts
159 pp


"It’s as if she’s not seeing the same thing as everyone else”
                    --- "Interior With Figure" 

First, let me say thank you to the publishers who sent me this book, and especially to Maya, who had to put up with my loss of the e-copy she sent and then sent another one.   Actually, I lost it a second time because I forgot to save it before turning off my ipad, but as I was too humiliated to ask her for a third download, I bought a print copy. 

On now to Nona's Room, which is part of the "Spanish Spring" offerings of a collection called the Peter Owen World Series.  The blurb about these books reads as follows:
"Journey with us to explore outstanding contemporary literature translated into English for the first time. Read a single book in each season -- which will focus on a different country or region every time ...Read the world -- three books at a time ... 3 works of literature in 2 seasons each year from 1 country each season." 
I'm in, as it looks like this is going to be a great series; there is more info about these books here at Peter Owen's website.

Nona's Room puts together six short stories narrated by women, and it isn't long into the first story that I realized I had something unique in my hands.  The publisher's description of this collection labels these tales as "Gothic and uncanny stories," but I think a better way to describe them is to say that they're off-kilter, taking the reader right away into a strange sort of universe where he/she will have no idea what to expect at any moment.  That impression was cemented  in the first story, "Nona's Room," a tale of two sisters that is utterly mind blowing once the author turns a certain corner in the telling.  Then another surprise, with "Chatting With Old Ladies," which starts out with a woman trapped in a desperate situation who, as it turns out,  hasn't even begun to understand the meaning of either "trapped" or "desperate." This one reads like a mix of horror story and fairy tale, and I heard myself actually gasp at the ending of this one. By this time on  full alert, I moved on to what I consider to be the best story in this book, "Interior With Figure," in which a writer visiting an art museum stops to listen to a group of children giving their own interpretations of a particular painting, finding one little girl's thoughts beyond disturbing. However, it's this child, not the painting itself, that captures the writer's imagination...

by Adriano Cecioni, Interior With A Figure

"The End of Barbro" brings three sisters together to reflect on their past, while "A Fresh Start" finds a woman wanting to start all over discovering that "the present has slipped into her past;"  "A Few Days with the "Wahyes-Wahno" follows two children as they visit their aunt and uncle while their father is ill; the idyllic retreat will become something they will remember for the rest of their lives. "..a sad happiness or a happy sadness," only the reader can judge. 

The quotation with which I began this post really says it all -- "It’s as if she’s not seeing the same thing as everyone else," since it seems to me that Ms. Cubas has this rather eerie way of looking at things through a set of lenses that focus on the spaces between reflections and illusion, past and present; but most of all between borders and boundaries that we as readers don't get to see very often. It's not an easy read, and it does take a lot of active thought, but the patient reader will be highly rewarded.  And I have to say that as I turned the last page, I had to go sit and focus on more mundane things to shake off my sense of being left totally off balance.  When a book can provoke a reaction like that, it's one well worth reading. 

fiction from Spain

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn

Hogarth, 2017
244 p


Dunbar is another book in Hogarth's Shakespeare series, and as in King Lear, the play on which this novel is based, there is nothing happy about this story whatsoever.  I mean, come on -- it's one of Shakespeare's tragedies, so we all know things are bound to turn out badly.

In this case, the original is  best, so let's get that out of the way right now.  But St. Aubyn doesn't exactly go scene by scene and rewrite King Lear -- here he's crafted a timely tale, one that works especially well these days when it comes down to the lust for unchallenged power and wealth.  But it's also, like the play,  a book that focuses on one family, here headed by Henry Dunbar, a man entirely used to wielding the reins of absolute power and control.

 Henry is a "Canadian media mogul," one of "the world's richest, and arguably the world's most powerful man."    It all starts when Dunbar decides that it's time to "lay down the burden of running the Trust from day to day."  As he says to his attorney, he's getting old (he is in fact 80), and that his daughters would be happy to look after him, since "there's nothing they love more than fussing over their old father."  He's referring to two of his three girls, Abigail and Megan; the third, Florence, he'd turned against when she told him that she wanted nothing to do with "the family business," and they've been estranged for a long time.  He's wrong about the two daughters though  -- there is definitely no love lost between them and their father, and as soon as they possibly can they get him out of the way, getting a psychiatrist to certify him so they could stick him in an out-of-the-way care home in rural Manchester, leaving the way open for them to acquire the Trust.  The fun begins when a fellow patient named Peter decides that he and Dunbar need to escape;  while they're on the run, Abigail and Megan make plans to track down their father and get him more securely out of the way. They never counted on Florence, however, who's decided that it's time to make peace with her father and is on her way to find him.

Dunbar is a delightful read, really. Betrayals abound, plots within plots arise, and it's a sort of eye-opener as to how cutthroat people can be when they're intent on getting what they want.   And although it's not a true modern conversion from Shakespeare, many of the same elements are found in both the play and the novel. As just one example, the scenes where Dunbar is out wandering through the snow reminded me of Lear's time out on the heath, not just in terms of the backdrop of the natural world,  but also because his time there, as in the play, speaks to his understanding of his own vulnerability, his grief, and his guilt. He's only got himself to deal with and it's a major awakening.  Very nicely done; it's my favorite part of the entire novel.

Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear, from RaaD Movies, News and Technology

After the first time through this book, I was kind of put off by his portrayal of Abigail and Megan as being so over-the-top villainous, but the second time through it made much more sense.  The people in their orbit who do their bidding (and hatch nefarious side plots) are the same as well, but it hit me that the daughters are not so much villainous as completely soulless, which, I suppose, explains how people like this obtain and stay in their positions of power.  I was sort of unhappy with the ending, which came quickly and was just sort of there, but again, in the long run it just didn't matter because really, if you know what happens in the play, you know what's coming down the pike here.  And ultimately, the story in both the book and the play hinges on the central character's slowly-building self awareness, and that's what makes really this novel worth reading.